Sisters in Coal: A History of Women in the West Virginia Mines
By Anna Sale
Nancy Dorset badgered the human resources office for a year and a half, and in 1978, she was finally hired at a Consolidation Coal mine outside Morgantown. It was time to break for dinner during one of her first shifts, and she'd worked up a hunger.
"I don't know if it was monkey business, being new, or being female, but I went up on a section sometime in the first two weeks," she says, "and when it came lunchtime, my bucket was nowhere to be found in the dinner hole."
She asked her male coworkers about her bucket, and they told her to look for it. "We only had 30 minutes for dinner, so I just decided I wasn't going to look for it. So I ate the boss' dinner," she says. Later on, when the boss found his empty bucket, word quickly got to him that the new woman miner had eaten his dinner. He confronted her, but Nancy took it in stride. "Well, I says, 'If you can find my bucket, you can have everything in it, but you've got to make those guys tell you where it was.'" Nancy says that's all she had to say. "That nipped that in the bud. No one ever tried that trick again on me."
For Nancy Dorset, it was the same no-nonsense approach that protected her dinner bucket that had drawn her to the mines in the first place. A single woman in her 20's, Nancy knew she loved exploring underground in caves and that she needed good-paying work. "The reason I wanted to work in the mines was that I was a cave explorer and did a lot of cave exploration on the weekends," she recalls. "Muddy, wet, underground all weekend. It seemed like working underground, getting dirty and whatnot during the week and getting paid for it might be an interesting situation."
But, Nancy says, it wasn't always easy. "I still came at a time when women didn't work in the mines yet. They were more concerned with my marriage status than anything else. I was single and no kids, and they couldn't understand that." She wasn't the first female in her mine. Two women had already worked there, though one had quit. Nancy says her coworkers had a pool for how long she would last. She's not sure if there was ever a winner in that pool she lasted until the mine permanently closed in 1995.
She says she just loved the work. "It's hard to get bored in a coal mine," she says. "I liked the coal coming off the face. I don't know what it is, but [there was] something about seeing that stuff go, and knowing it was going to improve somebody's life. Even though they might not recognize that their electricity came from coal, it was going to do something good."
Beginning in 1973, thousands of women like Nancy Dorset challenged ideas about who belonged underground. Women had been working in mines for centuries, but in the wake of federal civil rights legislation, this generation entered the mines in large numbers for the first time, carving out a place for themselves within the modern coal industry.
It was a time of upheaval. There was a new federal mine safety law, and grassroots movements had successfully organized for black lung protections for miners and environmental restrictions on strip mining. [See "'Let's Show Them What a Fight We Can Give Them': The Black Lung Movement in West Virginia," by Catherine Moore; Summer 2006.] Women drew on these movements' organizing models as they fought for access to mining jobs. They joined the union and moved up its hierarchy, and created their own organization to advocate for women's interests in the mines.
Civil rights legislation and a strong coal market enabled the entry of women into West Virginia's mines in the 1970's, but these were hardly the first mining ladies. Women worked alongside men from the earliest days of mining, centuries ago. Irene Adkins Dolin dug coal to heat her family's home in the 1930's, something women had been doing in Appalachia for at least a century. In Marat Moore's 1996 book, “Women in the Mines”, Irene recounted how she entered the mines as a girl, after her father got tuberculosis from the mines:
"I was 10, and my sister was seven. We had to go in and dig the coal to keep our family warm," she remembered. "We were lying down, and I'd take a sharp pick and hit it. I'd be digging out that coal and hear it falling. We'd lay our picks down, and me and my sister would push the coal into a 100-pound coffee sack until it was almost full. Sometimes we'd fill up two sacks, because it was a long trip back out to that hole."
There are historical records of women slaves working in mines in the early 19th century, but it was nearly 100 years later before women earned wages as miners. An 1887 statute in West Virginia expressly prohibited women from working in mines. The law was amended in 1907, though, to create a loophole for small family mines; penalties for hiring women miners only applied if a company had more than five employees. The prohibition against female employment in West Virginia mines was lifted altogether in 1925.
By that time, larger forces pulled women in and out of mines. World War I drew more women into mining employment. After thousands of male miners joined the military, coal operators encouraged women to enter the mines, and in 1920, 275 women worked in West Virginia's mines. The Great Depression created a pull in the other direction. Seventeen states moved to protect male employment and prohibited employing women in mines, though West Virginia was not among them. The World War II effort created another labor demand, and more than 500 women found work in West Virginia mines during those years.
Amid these economic and political circumstances, social and cultural factors hindered women entering mines. Victorian social mores of the 19th century discouraged women from working outside the home, and superstitions warned that a mine would be cursed by danger if a woman entered it. "One of the most curious superstitions is that a woman's visit into a mine is disastrous," wrote George Korson in his 1965 book, “Coal Dust on the Fiddle”. "It is probably the most common superstition in the coalfields, anthracite as well as bituminous. Miners will cite instances of disasters following in the wake of a woman's visit. To outsiders, they may appear purely coincidental, but the mine workers insist upon a cause-and-effect rationalization." This folklore had a very real effect. For example, in 1936, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had to cancel a planned tour of a working mine in the face of local protest.
There were other concerns about how bringing women into mines would affect workplace dynamics. In 1942, a group of women were hired at a tipple in southern West Virginia, but the United Mine Workers of America condemned the hiring. The union argued the hiring of women encouraged immorality. UMW District 29 president George Titles threatened to strike if the women continued to work at the mine. The women were fired, and union leader John L. Lewis declared that the situation in West Virginia had been "promptly adjusted."
Then, there were practical concerns of bringing women into what was previously masculine domain. Nancy Dorset remembers men complaining about not being able to go the bathroom wherever they needed to anymore, since she was underground. It would take new laws, and lawsuits to enforce them, before women could gain entr into mines in any real numbers.
Several civil rights bills provided the legal tools for women activists to open up mines for women employment. The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited sex discrimination in hiring. The coal market sharply increased in the early 1970's, creating new demand for labor in West Virginia's coal mines, and women activists deliberately focused on opening up this coal employment to women. They recognized that technology had changed the physical demands of skilled trades like coal mining and saw mining as a new economic frontier for women.
The first woman in the modern coal industry was hired in a West Virginia coal mine in 1973, the beneficiary of federal affirmative-action mandates, though her identity is lost to history. It took litigation over several years in many Appalachian states to truly open up hiring to women. Bethlehem Mine Corporation began hiring women miners to stave off discrimination lawsuits, and by 1978, it was the largest employer of women miners, including mines in West Virginia. Other lawsuits resulted in six-figure settlements to women seeking employment and created affirmative-action programs for women in mines. The Coal Employment Project (CEP), a Tennessee-based advocacy group, brought a lawsuit in 1978 against 153 coal companies, including companies that operated in West Virginia. The lawsuit alleged a blatant pattern of discrimination in the coal industry. The federal government agreed to investigate the coal industry, company by company.
By the end of 1978, Consolidation Coal, the company that hired Nancy Dorset, agreed to pay back wages to women applicants and agreed to hire one inexperienced woman for each inexperienced man until women made up more than 30 percent of its workforce.
The CEP, formed in 1977, had its roots in both feminist and antistrip-mining movements. The group pursued its cause through legal channels; it also used the media to create public demand for changes. CEP shared its 1977 federal complaint with The New York Times, which ran a story when the lawsuit was filed. The group also became an advocacy organization for women already working in mines. It went on to form support groups for women, run sensitivity training for mine supervisors, and lobby the United Mine Workers union for support of women.
Opportunities for high-paying work were a major motivation for women entering the mines in the 1970's. For example, Nancy Dorset entered the mines because she liked exploring underground, but the paycheck didn't hurt. Nancy recalls that no other job in the Morgantown area could compare to the pay and benefits for miners. "If I remember, the salary jump was something like $10,000 to $33,000," she says. "I ended up paying more in taxes than I had been making."
Nancy was single and had no children, but many women miners in the 1970's were single mothers who went underground to provide for their families. A survey of 25 women miners in West Virginia and five other Appalachian states found that 20 of them had dependent children, and 20 of them were single. A 1975 UMW survey of 200 union members found that more than half were the sole breadwinners for their families. The union concluded from the survey that there were two groups of women miners: divorced women in their mid-30's who supported children with their paycheck; and younger, single women, like Nancy Dorset, "who were generally in mining for the long haul, as a career."
Another West Virginia miner, Cathy Willis, was 28 years old and divorced in 1978. She told historian Carletta Savage that when she became a miner, she wasn't getting any child support from her husband and earned only $3.15 an hour as a secretary. She was hired at Consolidation Coal's Humphrey No. 7 mine in Monongalia County and worked there until the mine closed in 1996.
Lawsuits might have gained entry for many women into the mines, but once there, women miners had to assert a place for themselves within their company and their union.
Nancy Dorset recalls that it was initially a little tricky to figure out how to interact socially with her coworkers. "I don't think I ever developed a close working relationship, but I was willing to be social in the way they wanted to be social," she says. After working at the mine, she decided on a few occasions to stop off at the pub that catered to miners coming off their shift. "I think I only went three or four times. They got so they weren't nice to be around once they started drinking. They were sexually suggestive, and I felt preyed upon ... After a few times there, that was enough."
For the most part, Nancy says she was happiest in the mine when she got to work on her own. She also focused on mine safety and started accompanying inspectors after only a couple of months on the job. She was elected to her local union's safety committee, but she wasn't welcomed with open arms. "I'll tell you, honestly, with the union, I encountered more prejudice than I did in the mines," she says. "It was bad enough that women were in the mines, let alone entering a voluntary position like the union. Even though I'd been voted on by the rest of the mine, that didn't mean that the rest of the people I was serving with had to like it."
Over time, Nancy says, she found acceptance at the union, first from the international, then from the local. Her experience paralleled those of other women miners in the 1970's. CEP vigorously lobbied the UMW for support of its legal efforts on behalf of women miners. The union rebuffed them once, but ultimately did pass a resolution of support. But it wasn't until 1982, when Richard Trumka became president of the UMW, that CEP felt it had an ally at the head of the union.
Nancy Dorset went on to work in virtually all capacities in the mine, from a belt cleaner on up to a continuous miner operator, roof bolter, and part-time fire boss. She was on a union committee that tested the first self-rescuer air packs underground. [See "Mine Rescue Curiosity Response"; Fall 2006.]
But when her mine closed in 1995, it looked like her career in coal was over. She was too far down the list, below more senior male miners, to hold out any hope of finding other mining work. She went back to school but found a way to stay in the coal industry. She now teaches mining technology at Pennsylvania State University and is scheduled to complete her doctorate in mining engineering this summer from West Virginia University.
The face of women in coal mining has changed. The generation of women who entered the mines in the 1970's have largely left mining. The CEP officially disbanded in 1999, as its membership waned from a peak of 1,000 members in 1984. A United Mine Workers Journal article on the organization's dissolution noted that at a recent conference, only 12 of the 50 attendees were working in mines. Retired West Virginia miner and CEP member Libby Lindsay was there. Five years earlier, she had written about the legacy of CEP in its newsletter:
"Sisters, we fought some big battles to get jobs and keep them, to make the mines safer for all miners, for parental and family leave, for workplace justice and human dignity. We fought sexual harassment from innuendo to peepholes, fought for bathhouses and for training on equipment. We fought for the union, and sometimes we fought the union itself. Some women were jailed for strike activity. Some women moved up and on. Some women were forced out through injury, and many through layoff. Some were killed. Some have died. I'll bet they didn't think what they were doing was remarkable."
In more recent years, coal companies have moved to incorporate women in their lobbying efforts. The Women's Mining Coalition, formed in 1993, makes an annual trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers about the mining industry's policy priorities. Terah Burdette, a native of Frame, Kanawha County, and mine engineer for Arch Coal in Charleston, was the group's president in 2006. In 2005, she reported on their efforts in Coal People Magazine:
"We got a letter of thanks from Congresswoman [Shelley Moore] Capito," she said, "for our continued efforts to support the mining industry and showing how important mining is to women and the opportunities it presents for us." Burdette had a role model when she started her career in mining her mother entered the coal industry in the early 1970's.
Today, it's not clear just how many women work as coal miners. A Bureau of Labor Statistics study found that women held only seven percent of the nation's coal mining jobs in 2004, and that included miners, mining engineers, executives, accountants, and administrative staff. That makes coal mining the most male-dominated field in the American labor force with fewer percentages of women than logging, construction work, or auto repair. For her part, Nancy Dorset is disappointed that nearly all of her students in her mining engineering classes are male. It's difficult to get an accurate count of how many women are currently entering the mines, but Nancy isn't optimistic. "We're not seeing women wanting to go into the mines as in the 1970's. Don't know if that's because of other jobs, or that family obligations prevent," she says. "I've talked to a few human relations people, and they say, no, they're just not getting women submitting the applications. It isn't even a matter of getting turned down. It's a matter of even getting the applications."
Nancy is hopeful that trend will change. She says coal mining has been good to her and thinks other women should consider it. "Especially in this day and age when marriage doesn't seem to last as long as it used to, I think for women to be able to be financially independent both while they're working and while they're retired is very important," she says. "And mining is one of the best ways." *******
ANNA SALE grew up in Charleston, West Virginia. She received a bachelor's degree in history from Stanford University and wrote her thesis on race relations and urban renewal in Charleston. Anna is a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.