Karen Silkwood was a young mother of three children when she began working at the Kerr-McGee chemical plant in Oklahoma, where she manufactured plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. When Silkwood became active in the plant’s union, she found that her employer wasn’t providing adequate safety measures to prevent contamination for workers. Silkwood testified in front of the Atomic Energy Commission, and she made plans to go to the press with the story of the plant’s lax safety precautions. On November 13, 1974, Karen Silkwood died after her car hit a culvert. Police believed she fell asleep at the wheel, but the circumstances of her death were mysterious, and led many believe it had to do with her activism. Silkwood’s legacy continued after her death, however, and Meryl Streep portrayed Karen Silkwood in the 1983 film, Silkwood.
Crystal Lee Sutton
In the early 1970s, Crystal Lee Sutton worked in a textile mill in North Carolina. She was paid only $2.65 an hour for folding towels, under poor working conditions. Sutton became involved in a push to unionize the textile workers. She was fired from her job for her efforts—but not before she initiated a work stoppage at the plant. Thanks to Sutton’s stand, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union won the right to represent the workers at her factory, and Sutton took a job as a union organizer. Her courageous work was the basis for the 1979 film Norma Rae, starring Sally Field.
Erin Brockovich is one of the most well-known whistleblowers of her generation. As a law clerk without any real legal training, Brokovich uncovered a series of mysterious illnesses in the town of Hinckley, California. While conducting research, she discovered that these health issues were linked to the presence of hexavalent chromium in waste water from a nearby Pacific Gas & Electric plant. PG&E had denied the chemical could be toxic, but Brockovich’s findings showed that it was linked to many cases of cancer. In 1996, PG&E settled for $333 million, the largest settlement in U.S. history at the time. In 2006, PG&E paid another $295 million to people affected by the toxic chemical. Julia Roberts starred in the eponymous 2000 film about Brockovich’s fight.
Making it in corporate America is challenging enough for women, but Cynthia Cooper wasn’t daunted. As the vice president for internal audits at WorldCom, the nation’s second largest phone company, Cooper uncovered one of the biggest frauds in history. The trouble for Cooper began when she started looking into unusual accounting practices she came across at work. She was chided by the chief financial officer, but she continued her investigation. Cooper eventually unearthed $3.8 billion in fraud at WorldCom, and went public with her story. Cooper published a book about her work, and in 2002 she was named one of Time magazine’s “People of the Year.”
Sherron Watkins is another fearless corporate whistleblower. Watkins was Vice President of Corporate Development at Enron, the energy company whose scandalous downfall made history in 2001. Months before the scandal was exposed, Watkins wrote an internal memo to Enron CEO Kenneth Lay about accounting irregularities. Though she was named, along with Cooper, as one of Time‘s People of the Year, experts disagree about her role in uncovering the Enron scandal, mostly because she didn’t immediately alert authorities. But because her email helped prove that Enron executives were aware of the illegal activities going on in their midst, and also because she testified before U.S. House of Representatives and Senate investigative committes, she is considered key in facilitating Enron’s downfall.