Daughters of the Mountain
Women Coal Miners in Central Appalachia
Suzanne E. Tallichet
Daughters of the Mountain
Women Coal Miners in Central Appalachia
Suzanne E. Tallichet
“This new book contains a wealth of information about work experiences and work relations of several women who entered coal mining as an occupation.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Tallichet's work goes beyond anecdotal evidence to provide complex and penetrating analyses of qualitative data. Based on in-depth interviews with female miners, Tallichet explores several key topics, including social relations among men and women, professional advancement, and union participation. She also explores the ways in which women adapt to mining culture, developing strategies for both resistance and accommodation to an overwhelmingly male-dominated world.
“This new book contains a wealth of information about work experiences and work relations of several women who entered coal mining as an occupation.”
“Her writing is elegant and compassionate. . . . Tallichet’s study will be a valuable addition to the literature exploring the nature of our socially constructed world, the ways in which we are assigned our place and the small acts of resistance, which cause the ‘normal’ to be adjusted to the complexity of human life.”
“The book is very well written, and Tallichet is careful to substantiate her claims with the rich data she collected over fifteen years. She treats her subjects with respect and recognizes the tensions, contradictions and fault lines in their collective accounts of working in the mines. This is the work of a seasoned social researcher.”
“The well-written and interesting stories provide a picture of women who have struggled to succeed in a very patriarchal workplace.”
Suzanne E. Tallichet is Professor in the Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Criminology at Morehead State University in Kentucky. She has authored or co-authored more than a dozen articles and book chapters, including "Barriers to Women's Advancement in Underground Coal Mining" (Rural Sociology, 2000) and "Gendered Relations in the Mines and the Division of Labor Underground" (Gender and Society, 1995), which was reprinted in the textbook A Psychology of Women Reader (1999).
1. Digging In: Coping with Sexualized Work Relations
2. From Red Cap to Coal Miner: Adaptation and Advancement Underground
3. Ours in Solidarity: Women Miners and the UMWA
4. Over the Long Haul: Accommodation and Resistance to the Culture of Coal Mining
Appendix: Fieldwork and Profiles of the Study
When you ask her why she wanted to be a coal miner, her eyes glisten like the shiny pinpoints of light that dance off a coal seam when caught in the penetrating beam of a miner’s cap light. Mining is in her blood now, she says in a low voice, gazing down at her calloused, worn hands, thick from almost two decades of what miners call “brute work.” She explains how she barely finished high school, married young, had several children, and, after a bitter divorce from an abusive husband, was left nearly destitute. At first she worked at a hot dog stand at a drive-in theater, a bakery, a restaurant, a grocery store, but none of these jobs paid a living wage or provided health insurance. Even her nursing job, a job that required training, paid only $3.35 an hour, and she had to draw food stamps to survive. She recalls growing up with a single mother, wearing hand-me-downs, being on welfare, and enduring her classmates’ taunts about being poor. She vows that her children will never know the humiliation she felt at such a young age.
But growing up in a large family also primed her for a life of hard work. Back in 1975 she heard that a few older married women in a neighboring town had gotten jobs in the mines. These were the best-paying jobs to be had. So she went to night classes to become a mining trainee and, like the men in her class, put in her application at a large local coal mine. They were hired; she was not. Then, a year or so later, things changed. A lawsuit against the coal companies, settled between 1978 and 1979, opened up mining jobs for women throughout the Appalachian coalfields. That fall the company called her in, paid her thousands of dollars in back wages as part of the settlement, and gave her a job. By that time, she was more than ready to go to work at a mine already known as “a woman’s mine” because almost a hundred of the eight hundred miners working there were women.
Her grandfather said she’d never make it. But he had been a miner before mechanization, during the hand-loading days when mules brought out the coal. Her brothers were opposed to her new job. Couldn’t she find something cleaner? But, as the years passed, their attitudes gradually softened, and sometimes they bragged about their coal-mining sister. Weeks after she went into the mines, her live-in boyfriend left her. He’d had enough of his buddies’ teasing about not being able to take care of “his woman.” A year later he was back, telling his friends that “she had a mind of her own.” Her mother begged her for years to get out of mining, saying it was unsafe for women to be working underground. It’s not safe for any of us, man or woman, she told her mother. Besides, we’ve got to make a living, don’t we? When one of her daughters declared that women didn’t belong in the mines, she reminded her of the clothes on her back growing up. Only her father understood, and he told her to go into the mines while there were still some jobs left. He knew what her struggle was all about and that being financially independent would be a source of pride that she had never really known before.
Like any “red cap” trainee, she knew that she would have to prove herself. Her advice to any new miner is to “take the toughest job underground and go at it.” She knew that without a reputation for hard work other miners wouldn’t want her on their crew and the union wouldn’t back her, regardless of her complaint. She began her career as a general inside laborer or “GI.” Getting her “mining papers” and donning a black cap was harder than she anticipated. The work of lifting forty-pound bags of rock dust, oversized blocks, water lines, and heavy-duty power cables, hanging “rag” (ventilation curtain), setting timbers, and shoveling belt lines was rough on her body. But while her physical adaptation was inevitable, she knew that the social adjustment would be even more challenging. The mine and its dangers didn’t really scare her. She was much more apprehensive about working with the men. “There was some ornery people there, you know. There really was,” she says.
At first, some of the miners were hostile, remarking, “You’re a woman and you’re taking a man’s job.” She had retorted, “Listen here, buddy, it was a man that put me here! You know, where I had to work and raise my kids.” That was something the men understood, and they never said those things to her again. Most of the time she tried to understand the men’s point of view. “I knew it was a man’s world when I went in it,” she admitted, but she had just as much right to work there as they did. “It’s my job and I’m keeping it,” she would tell them. Otherwise, the men were usually fun-loving and helpful, but from time to time a few had propositioned her. “They’d tell you how many inches they had and say, ‘I bet I can satisfy you.’” So she reminded them of their wives to get them to leave her alone, because aboveground things were different. If you ran into them in the store, she explained, “they would go plumb to the other aisle to avoid you because their wives were with them. The wives were so jealous that the husbands would actually go home and tell them that they didn’t work with women.” To many miners’ wives, the women who worked with their husbands underground in the dark simply had to be “whores.” A few of the “bosses chased the women, too,” she says. Once, a boss pressured her to have an affair with him. Some women would have affairs to get the easy jobs, “so I had to work like a brute because there wasn’t nothing there I would have an affair with.” Still, she believed she was fortunate, because other women who had turned down a boss “got the dirty jobs.” If that’s what it took to get an easier job, she vowed, “I’ll take the dirty job every time.” Over the years she established herself each and every day as a hard worker, telling the men with whom she worked that she was there “for finance, not romance.”
During most of her two decades underground she had been a GI, but off and on she had held several different and sometimes higher-paying jobs. “I was a mason. I run a buggy. Then I went to the plow. Then I cribbed the tail entry. I’ve run coal. I’ve run a scoop. I’ve pinned top. I have done everything that there is to be done except run a miner,” she says. If there was “down time,” some men were willing to show the women on their crews how to run equipment. One time, one of them did say, “If I teach you my job, you’ll end up taking it someday.” Her experiences had taught her that some men, the “smart alecks,” resented women who could outdo them. This “same bunch” had always told her that there were certain jobs a woman could do, but that running machinery was not for her or any other woman. They’d say, “Send the hens or the girls” to set timbers or to shovel the belts. “It’s like they’re doing the women a favor, they don’t need to be on the equipment.” But she always thought that “the equipment is safer than what the men sent the women to do.” When some of the bosses made the job assignments, they must have had the same attitudes about women running machinery. She knew that the only way to get ahead was to push, to become a “fighter.” Even though over time there were fewer better-paying jobs available, she was willing to bid on a coal-running job. But not all the women were like her. Some were intimidated by the prospect of trying something new and failing. These women preferred to stay on their shift as GIs, where they did not risk making a mistake that “you could never live down.”
Every few years the company realigned the miners, assigning them to new jobs as it moved its mining operations from one section to another. When that happened, some men and most of the women were demoted to lower-paying jobs requiring more brute work. But, because management had the contractual right to do so, there was very little the union could do about it. In fact, as the union officials told the miners, most of the grievances they could file had already been litigated and precedents had already been set. As most miners would tell you, the union had operated from a position of weakness for years, and few of them felt completely supported. Out of several hundred of them, only about thirty ever attended the monthly meetings. Those who refused to go anymore were disillusioned and turned off by all the “fussing and fighting over stupid old things. It wouldn’t be over no grievances,” she says, and besides, company and union officials seemed to be pretty “buddy-buddy.” Men and women alike felt that union officials had been bought off by management. Even so, her loyalty, like that of most miners, would always be with the union. None of us should ever forget, she says, shaking her head, that “being union means you have more rights than if you’re nonunion.”
Today she is proud of what she has accomplished and reflective about how mining has changed her. “Mining was a whole new world,” she declares. “They’ve worked everybody [both women and men] pretty hard, and the work is still hard. We’ve adapted.” She believes that when women first went into the mine, they were scrutinized more than the new men because their capability was, and has remained, in question. But, beyond proving themselves to the men, she thinks that “each of us has proved to ourselves that we can do our jobs.” It has given her the confidence to speak up. “I was never like I am now. When I first came in there I was totally, no joke, nothing, and it was hard. I had some hard feelings, but I loosened up after three or four years. Now, I’m a joker and a prankster,” she admits with a pirate smile. “I didn’t cuss when I started working in the mines, but [later] I cussed them. When they made it hard on me, I gave it right back.” She learned that among miners, “you’ve got to be able to take it in if you dish it out. You can’t be dishing it all the time.” Looking back, she says, things have settled down a lot since those first few years. She smiles contentedly when saying that she and her crew are “just like a family, one big family, really. Everybody’s working to help each other,” she says, adding, “the men I work with got a lot of respect [for me].” Then, shifting her weight in her chair as if to signal her final thought, she says in the same low voice she used earlier, her eyes twinkling once again, “We’ve grown on each other, we’ve been in there so long. I guess they kind of got used to us.”
<1> Women in Coal Mining
The foregoing account is an amalgamation of the stories taken from my interviews with fourteen coal-mining women working in southern West Virginia during the early to mid-1990s. To begin to understand why their employment is so momentous, we need only consider a brief history of women in underground mining. In preindustrial times, American women toiled alongside their fathers, brothers, and husbands to extract coal for household consumption. Documents from the early seventeenth century show that female slaves were put to work in a Virginia coal mine (Lewis 1987). With the dawning of industrialization, superstitions about women in the mines bringing disaster and death were well known, and seventeen states passed laws barring women from working underground (Moore 1996b). Challenges to these laws were few and violations were numerous, as women continued to work underground in family-run mines, particularly in the Appalachia region. However, despite vigorous opposition from the miners’ union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), women were allowed into the mines during the Depression and World War II thanks to the shortage of male labor (President’s Commission on Coal 1980). But it was not until July 1973 that the first woman miner crossed a West Virginia coal mine’s portal without breaking any federal or state law.
During the mid-1970s coal companies hired only a few women at a time, and usually only when pressured by state enforcement agencies. That changed dramatically in 1978, when a Tennessee-based women’s advocacy group, the Coal Employment Project (CEP), won a massive class-action suit filed through the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) against 157 coal companies over sex discrimination in hiring. As part of the settlement, these companies paid back wages to the women they had failed to hire. Not surprisingly, 830 women were hired to work underground in 1978, compared to 19,036 men (Moore 1996b). By the early 1980s, 3,871 women were working underground, about one-third of them in West Virginia mines (Hall 1990). At that time they represented slightly less than 3 percent of all underground miners nationwide (U.S. DOE 1987). In the following decade the coal industry went into decline, and many of the women with “mining in their blood” were laid off with little hope of ever returning to the mines. Notably, most of the women I interviewed for this study were hired as a result of the suit, and several of them were paid back wages. All were a part of the largest and most sustained cohort of women ever to work in the nation’s underground coal mines (Moore 1996b).
It is relatively easy for anyone to appreciate, intuitively, the uniqueness of women working underground. But what makes them worthy of study? After all, their numbers are small and their employment spans only a little more than three decades. It has been suggested that their success in breaking legal barriers and old taboos has been more symbolic than anything else (Tickamyer and Henderson 2003). I contend, however, that the full cultural impact of women in mining remains to be seen because their working lives exemplify the direction and ongoing nature of social change. This study highlights the individual setbacks they suffered and the social price they paid for having the temerity to instigate that change. It also identifies these women’s successful accommodations and resistance to male and capitalist domination. Understanding their experiences and their challenge to male privilege is both instructive and inspiring to women currently working in any male-dominated industry. More specifically, this study also contributes to our knowledge of rural women’s employment in Appalachia. One need only review the work on rural Appalachian women to see that they have routinely been left out of studies of the region (Beaver 1999; Seitz 1995; Smith 1999). For example, Beaver (1999, xvii) has written that women “receive short shrift in Appalachian history, as silent or invisible bystanders to, or even nonexistent in, the acts and events of white men.” Smith (1999, 4–5) notes that “the chief protagonist in the history of Appalachia, at least as it’s been written in the past 30 years, is a valiant working-class (or small-land holding) man, who struggles against planters, land speculators, coal operators, condescending missionaries, local colorists, and disparaging academics to assert his dignity and power.” Similarly, Seitz (1995, 5) has declared that even though “feminist discourse has opened to other voices, it has not yet listened to Appalachian women.”
While some recent studies have examined rural Appalachian women’s working lives in the informal economy or in service industries, or both (Maggard 1994, 1999; Oberhauser and Turnage 1999; Seitz 1995), rural Appalachian women’s experiences working in nontraditional or blue-collar industries continue to be relatively understudied. Although the social and economic changes associated with the creation of an industrial labor force in Appalachia have received considerable attention from scholars, gender relations have often been neglected (Oberhauser and Turnage 1999, 113), including those occurring between women and men working underground. While the more recent work on rural Appalachian women examines their lives as mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters of coal miners (Couto 1993; Gibson-Graham 1996; Giesen 1995; Maggard 1998; Seitz 1995; Scott 1995), there have been virtually no recent studies of Appalachian women as coal miners.
All told, I spent two months in the field interviewing fourteen coal-mining women and conducting both formal and informal interviews with additional women and with male miners and the mine superintendent. Seven of the interviews with the women were repeated between the 1990 and the 1995–96 data collection periods, allowing for some comparisons. I was able to glean additional information about miners’ employment histories from company documents posted in the lamphouse at the mine. My almost daily visits to the mine, particularly the women’s bathhouse, an eight-hour underground tour of the mine, and my forays into the local community yielded copious field notes about the relationships between women and men miners and their supervisors at the mine, and about members of the local community in general. Virtually all of the miners I interviewed were lifelong residents of southern West Virginia who were born into coal-mining families. Twelve of the women were white; two were black. Most were in their thirties or forties and had at least a high school diploma. Like the jobs they performed underground, their experiences with men and mining also varied. (See the Appendix for a discussion of the techniques used, the job ladder, and a detailed profile of the sample.)
Because these women miners were affected by the interdependent forces of patriarchy and capitalism, I used a socialist-feminist interpretation. Their dual subjugation gave them particular ways of viewing their world and their status in it. I expanded this interpretation to include race and the colonization process whereby working-class residents of the Appalachian region were further exploited and subordinated by outside capitalist interests, both economically and culturally. While Appalachian women miners’ situated knowledge is predominantly a function of the intersection of gender and class, it is also shaped by the interrelated social constructions of race and region. Thus the gendered interests of women in the sample were occasionally splintered by racism but were much more often exacerbated by conditions confronting them as working-class residents of colonized rural Appalachia.
Other researchers who have focused on the lives of rural women also recognize “the diversity that exists spatially and culturally, in the intersections with other social locations, and in the choices and constraints available to women in their allocation to various roles” (Tickamyer and Henderson 2003, 109). We need to explore and evaluate these intersections. Collins (1990, 225–27) conceptualizes these intersections as “interlocking systems of oppression” in the “matrix of domination” consisting of gendered, racial, and class-based power and privilege in a multiplicative rather than an additive way. Because individuals are simultaneously members of multiple dominant and subordinate groups, at any given time or place they can be either oppressors or oppressed. There are three overlapping sites or levels of domination and subordination—the personal or biographical; the group, created and experienced culturally in terms of gender, race, and class; and social institutions. These systems of oppression reinforce one another in terms of ideologies and practices. They are also the locations where resistance and acquiescence can occur simultaneously (Gaventa 1980; Sachs 1996; Seitz 1995). Let us turn now to a more contextualized version of this conceptual framework and how it applies to our understanding of the women’s experiences underground.
<1> Gender, Race, and Class in the Coalfields of Colonized Appalachia
Mainstream American society sees Appalachia as part of the “other America.” Its material poverty and symbolic “backwardness” are juxtaposed to a more affluent and presumably more progressive culture. Geographically, although it consists of northern, central, and southern subregions, central Appalachia has epitomized these stereotypes and therefore has been studied by numerous scholars (see Billings and Tickamyer 1993).
According to many of them, central Appalachia’s problems are the result of “its integration into the national economy for a narrow set of purposes: the extraction of low cost materials, power, and labor, and the provisions of a profitable market for consumer goods and services” (Whisnant 1980, 129). The unfortunate combination of the region’s relative economic isolation and underdevelopment when the northern United States was industrializing made it vulnerable to rapid and uneven capitalist development. As a result, Appalachians lost control over the region’s natural resources and local institutions. Having suffered both economic and cultural exploitation at the hands of external elites, generations of central Appalachians bear the scars of real poverty and the stigma of perceived inferiority. As Cable (1993, 69) aptly points out, “what is significant about Appalachians is their history of systematic, routine oppression.”
In his classic work Night Comes to the Cumberlands (1962), Harry Caudill described the Appalachian region, in its economic development by gas, oil, timber, and coal interests, as “the last unchallenged stronghold of Western colonialism.” He argued that “the nation siphoned off . . . its resources while returning little of lasting value” (325). Later, Lewis and Knipe (1978) made a compelling case for considering central Appalachia an internal colony exploited for its coal reserves. The “exploitation model,” as it is also known, is characterized by the acquisition of natural resources and the exploitation of labor to benefit absentee corporate owners, as well as the destruction of local culture and outside institutional and administrative control of the region’s indigenous populace.
Lewis and Knipe (1978, 24) assert that “it cannot be disputed that the coal interests came into the region ‘uninvited,’ that cultural patterns changed as a result of this intrusion, and that the area is controlled by representatives of the industry.” Although they agree that fatalism and passivity are cultural traits of Appalachians, they argue that these traits are the result of Appalachians’ adaptation to their own sense of powerlessness. In addition to quiescence, however, central Appalachians are also capable of resistance to these outside forces (Gaventa 1980). These scholars further argue that a “condition of racism” is evidenced by the stereotyping of Appalachians as lazy and backward, even by the small, independent coal operators who constitute a separate class of local elites. Thus two basic social classes and their mutually antagonistic relationship evolved from the oppressive practices of the coal industry in colonizing the region.
For more than a century the region’s coal operators have employed institutional and cultural strategies to tighten their control over the miners. In his monumental work Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers (1982), Eller shows that life in the coal camps from the late 1800s to the 1930s stood in sharp contrast to life and work on subsistence family farms. Capitalists’ rapid industrialization of central Appalachia relative to the northern and southern subregions allowed for the development of coal camp enclaves. Coal companies provided and controlled the most important “stabilizing” institutions in these enclaves, such as churches, schools, stores, and local law enforcement. Miners were paid in credit or in company scrip, not cash, which could only be used at the company store. Most of the time, lawmen were little more than security guards employed by the company. Company housing, which ranged from shanties to slightly sturdier structures, was used to supervise miners off the job and discipline them when they “stepped out of line.” The coal operators also provided theaters, clubs, and various recreational facilities. In this way they were able to foster competition between coal-mining communities through sports such as baseball. These paternalistic forms of control prevented miners from having a voice in community affairs and guaranteed virtually no interference from outside social welfare agencies.
Beyond the establishment of isolated company towns, coal operators hired diverse racial and ethnic groups meant to divide the labor force, prevent unionization, and provide a stable supply of mining labor (Ayers 1992; Caudill 1962; Eller 1982; Lewis 1987; Maggard 1999; Trotter 1990; Turner and Cabbell 1985; Shifflett 1991). Like white Appalachian men who were drawn into mining, African Americans from the South and immigrants from eastern and central Europe were also recruited into mining by coal company agents with promises of transportation, company housing, and a relatively high wage during the early 1900s. Generally, race was more divisive than ethnicity (Maggard 1999). Although the highest level of racial mistrust existed between African American and immigrant miners owing to the cultural divide between them, racist attitudes toward African American miners, particularly among members of management, resulted in strict segregation in the coal camps (Eller 1982; Maggard 1999; Shifflett 1991). African American miners were also given the most arduous jobs and those with the least amount of authority underground (Lewis 1987; Trotter 1990). Given this racial segregation, Maggard (1999, 187) has referred to these African Americans as a “marginalized subclass within Appalachia’s working class.” Coal operators played black and white miners against each other in order to forestall unionization, and often brought blacks in as strikebreakers, which elevated racial tension in company towns. At the same time, white miners demonstrated racial prejudice, and lynchings were not uncommon (Eller 1982). In sum, the coal operators created a culturally divided, institutionally captive labor force that was dependent on, and to some degree powerless against, their domination.
The colonization of central Appalachia not only created two distinct economic classes further divided by race and ethnicity, it also established a division of labor within the family and sex segregation in the workplace (Maggard 1994, 1999). Although family life on the subsistence farm was patriarchal, women and children were integrally involved in all phases of household and farm production (Eller 1982; Pudup 1990). During the industrialization of central Appalachia, women played a more indirect role in the region’s economy via their “‘auxiliary’ work of managing households and caring for dependents and the disabled” (Maggard 1994, 15). Many still tended gardens and livestock, but on a smaller scale than before (Lewis 1989; Pudup 1990; Trotter 1990). Some scholars contend that as the coal industry’s domination of the region increased in the 1900s, women became more subordinate and dependent on men (Eller 1982; Maggard 1994). Just as men lost control over the economic means of production in the coal camps, women lost a measure of control over the means of household production, which increased their dependence on their husbands’ mining wages. Many women began to participate in the “informal economy” by taking in boarders and doing others’ laundry. The only other paid employment available to them was in nursing or as domestic servants and seamstresses (Maggard 1994; Oberhauser and Turnage 1999). Coal-mining families thus became more patriarchal than before; they became the “little white man’s colony” in which working-class men could dominate their unpaid laboring wives and children (Mies 1986, 110; Seitz 1995, 93).
Along with the shift in women’s work roles during the region’s industrialization, Maggard (1994, 16) points out, a corresponding “two-pronged, gendered ideology emerged to justify this division and unequal valuing of labor.” Breadwinning men did “men’s work” in underground coal mines, while women’s legitimate place was defined by their less valued, unpaid domestic labor at home doing “women’s work,” a condition Mies (1986) refers to as “housewifization.” Not only did this set of beliefs about women and men correspond to the principles of patriarchal dominance, but this emergent gender ideology also served the interests of capitalists (Barry 2001; Eviota 1992; Gibson-Graham 1996; Woods 1995). Capitalists need women’s unpaid labor in the home and reproduction of laborers in order to minimize their own costs. Keeping their costs low allows them to expand their operations and continue to accumulate capital. As Eviota (1992, 15) explains, women’s work in the home “takes place outside the market sphere but is integrated into it: no worker, male or female, would be able to sell labour power to a capitalist unless basic needs were first met. In reality then, the household and maintenance work of women is the material base for the reproduction of living labour without which capital cannot appropriate surplus.”
Because the housewifization of women supports both patriarchy and capitalism, it has at least two debilitating effects on women relevant to my discussion of women miners. First, when women engage in paid employment outside the home among men, they are subjected to both informal and formal pressures to perform the same duties expected of them as housewives at home. The result is a gendered division of labor that puts women at a disadvantage in the workplace. Second, as Seitz (1995, 28) has pointed out, this housewifization deters either “material or ideological connections across the borders of class, race, and political geography” between women that would serve their collective interests. As a result of these divisions, women are hampered in attempting to develop solidarity.
Historically, women’s roles have been sharply circumscribed by rural Appalachians’ traditional gender ideology (Maggard 1994, 1999; Pudup 1990). Even today, rural women’s roles and corresponding beliefs about “a woman’s place” are notoriously resilient (Tickamyer and Henderson 2003). Traditional notions about men’s and women’s work are strictly defined and ultimately reinforced by the interests of capitalist economic forces in the region. According to Ollenberger and Moore (1998), gender roles are particularly rigid in rural areas owing to the colonization process, whereby the expropriation of material resources and human labor more severely affects the status of minorities. “Under the colonization model, the control of value and of symbols is attached to race and cultural dominance through capitalism or other forms of economic oppression. The ethnocentrism of this system is developed and maintained through educational, political, and economic systems controlled by the dominant group” (Ollenberger and Moore 1998, 43). Specifically, women and blacks are symbolically represented as less skilled and inferior workers, and their corresponding exchange value as workers is set by men relative to male workers based on the “bureaucratic administration of labor.” Thus, under the circumstances of colonial industrialization, the ideologies of both sexism and racism receive institutional support.
Within most industrialized nations, socialist feminists have focused on the generally mutually reinforcing (though occasionally conflicting) relationship between capitalism and patriarchy as institutionally manifested. Hartmann (1976, 138), has defined patriarchy as “a set of social relations which has a material base and in which there are hierarchical relations between men, and solidarity among them, which enable them to control women.” Under the system of patriarchy, male privilege is preserved via the oppression of women, just as under the system of capitalism, capitalists’ privilege is preserved via the oppression of workers. With the state’s alliance with the capitalist economic system, however, the accompanying loosening of private-public boundaries threatened working-class men with the erosion of their privilege within the family. That is, by employing women outside the home, the capitalist system weakened men’s patriarchal authority over women’s labor power within the household. Using the hierarchal organization and control they had mastered under the patriarchal system, men maintained their privilege by reproducing their control over women both at home and in the workplace. A domestic division of labor emerged whereby male miners controlled and benefited from their wives’ unpaid labor at home, while women in the workplace were relegated to lower-paying jobs within male-dominated occupations. Either way, women are kept dependent on men as men’s patriarchal control over them tightens under the patriarchal capitalist system.
Hartmann adds that “patriarchy is not simply hierarchical organization, but hierarchical organization in which particular people fill particular places” (1984, 180). Since patriarchal relations are reproduced in the workplace, socialist feminists emphasize “the role of men as capitalists in creating hierarchies in the production process in order to maintain their power. Capitalists do this by segmenting the labor market (along race, sex, and ethnic lines among others) and playing workers off against one another” (Hartmann 1976, 139). Under these circumstances, men are united by their common interests in maintaining the status quo and are therefore dependent upon one another to make these hierarchies work. Men at higher levels in the hierarchy “buy off” those at lower levels by offering them power over individuals who are even lower in rank. This is how women become exploited by capitalists as workers, but also by other men, resulting in their “super-exploitation.” This is also why Hartmann argues that male workers and their unions, in addition to male supervisors, help maintain the sexual divisions found in the workplace. Segregation of work by sex is thus the primary mechanism by which men preserve their superiority over women.
As women began working in underground coal mines, they faced men who attempted to label and control them both as women and as workers. As women, they frequently faced men’s hostility and sexual harassment. As workers, they were victims of supervisors’ selective use of promotion policies and other forms of sex discrimination. Even though the company complied with the state’s mandate to hire women, male managers swiftly realigned their interests with male miners by making job assignments based on sex. In this way they allowed male miners to “choose” their jobs so that they could continue to maximize their economic advantages in the workplace (Strober 1984). As in other male-dominated occupations, once a sex-based division of labor has been established, it is extremely difficult to change (Milkman 1987). The message was clear: if women were going to work underground, they would support and serve men. In short, the women were expected to do jobs that benefited men underground just as they were expected to do as wives aboveground. Their gender-based assignments to lower-wage, less skilled jobs also held them back from effectively competing with men for more skilled, better-paying ones (Sokoloff 1988, 128). Nonetheless, as we shall see, despite what sometimes felt like overwhelming odds, these women persevered by resisting either individually or, on a few occasions, collectively men’s attempts to “keep them in their place.”
<1> The Book
My main aim in this book is to give the reader an in-depth view of the working lives of central Appalachian women miners by listening to the women’s voices. As you might expect, coal mines are dark, damp, and often eerie places where miners usually work side by side in cramped areas. Their work is extremely dangerous and they must depend heavily on each other. Coal mining also continues to be an occupation with a strong masculine-identified subculture, and women miners face formidable barriers to their full integration into the workforce. Before I began my study, I talked informally with women miners from across the nation about their work experiences with men. I also read reports in which women miners confirmed that the buddy system underground extends beyond work relations (Dawson 1990; White, Angle, and Moore 1981). Although one might expect supervisors to use women employees to undermine the “brotherhood” engendered by union solidarity, male miners and supervisors frequently became partners in patriarchal control underground (Yarrow 1985). As a result, many women experienced sexual harassment and more subtle forms of “sexualized work relations” at the hands of some male miners and supervisors or “bosses.” (For further discussion of the sexualization of work relations, see Enarson 1984.) They had difficulty advancing to highly skilled jobs. I also learned that union leaders reacted negatively to women joining the rank and file. But women had slowly begun to make themselves known by attending meetings locally and internationally and by serving on mine and safety committees.
Women’s on-the-job experiences with male miners and bosses, their attempts to advance, and their relationship with their union at a large coal mine in southern West Virginia constitute the major focal points of this book. I found that the women’s accounts were as empowering for them to tell as they were for me to hear. Because they had entered the male-dominated and masculine-identified world of underground coal mining years before, they had developed particular points of view toward themselves, the male miners and bosses with whom they work, family members, and members of their own mining communities. What could these women tell me about those who subjugated them? How did they negotiate their identities as women while working in a masculine-identified occupation and, more tangentially, while living with their families and in their communities? What were their modes of accommodation and strategies for resistance? What threatened their solidarity with one another? What common knowledge brought them together as miners and as women?
To answer these questions, I examined the work experiences of a single cohort of white and black Appalachian women working underground over an extended period of time. What I learned from my interviews and conversations with women, men, some managerial personnel, and members of the local community is contained in the following four chapters and the epilogue. Chapter 1 focuses primarily on their early years of employment and the men’s attempts to sexualize work relations, while examining the women’s strategies for accommodation and resistance. Chapter 2 covers the women’s ways of adapting to their work and their advancement experiences in light of the established sexual division of labor underground. Here I emphasize how informal social relations between women and men inform the use of the formal practices that govern promotion. In Chapter 3 I discuss the women’s participation in and experiences with their union, the UMWA, mainly at the local level, while examining the gendered elements of women’s and men’s class consciousness. Chapter 4 describes the women’s socialization as miners and examines the bonds and divisions that developed between them over the years. The epilogue discusses the extent to which these women changed men’s attitudes about them and the general outlook on an industry in decline.
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