Date: Fri, 29 Mar 1996 05:53:03 -0600
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>>> Item number 9470, dated 96/03/27 22:56:11 -- ALL
Date: Wed, 27 Mar 1996 22:56:11 GMT
Reply-To: Peoples Weekly World <>
Sender: Activists Mailing List <ACTIV-L@MIZZOU1.MISSOURI.EDU>
From: Peoples Weekly World <>
Organization: Scott Marshall
Subject: Women’s bittersweet victory in the coal mines

In the struggle for women’s equality—Women’s bittersweet victory in the coal mines

By Barbara Jean Hope, People’s Weekly World, 23 March 1996

Once upon a time coal mining was a male-only job. Women were forced to understand that the job wasn’t for them. That changed more than 20 years ago.

As the coal mines dug deep into the hills and mountains of West Virginia, the need to work at a living wage dug deep into the women who were not allowed to earn a living wage to support their families. After protests demanding that women be included in the action, women became part of the mining work force in the U.S. after coal companies with government contracts were forced to become equal-opportunity employers.

A pioneer, Mavis Williams, an eastern Kentucky mother, became a symbol of the women’s fightback when she told a mining supervisor that, if she could carry two toddlers on her hips when she went to carry cooking water from the river, she surely could handle coal work.

But as women found work in recent years in the mines, they are also shouldering the burdens of an industry that has laid off nearly 80,000 Appalachian miners in the past two decades. Being among the last hired assured these women of being among the first cast to the winds by corporate greed.

One percent of the U.S.’ 97,500 coal miners are women - down from 4 percent during the 1980s, according to the National Mining Association. By the late 1980s between 3,000 and 4,000 women worked in U.S. mines, according to the Bureau of Mines. Today, fewer than 1,000 women work in the coal mining industry.

An organization called the Coal Employment Project (CEP) - founded to protect the rights of women miners - is considering taking coal out of its name to deal with the women who have been laid off by mining interests. The project, which counseled women on health issues (e.g., the health effects to the kidneys of holding their urine because there were no bathrooms underground), now provides a newsletter, support groups and an annual national conference.

Cosby Ann Totten of Claypool Hill, Va., is one of those women who blazed the trail for others. A mother of six with no health insurance, Totten earned a livable wage as a miner - triple what other jobs in the area would have paid. Now CEP’s director, Totten, laid off in 1982, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, There’s no coal jobs around here any more for men or women. We used to fight harassment in the mines, but now we help laid-off miners try to find other jobs. Only problem is, there’s no other jobs. The mines was the only place a woman could make a decent check.

The women who broke ground as coal miners faced discriminatory hiring practices from the owners as well as sexual harassment from men who felt threatened by the demands of the women to be treated as human beings, equal in every way. Barbara Angle, a mining woman, said, There were three women and 300 men in my mine. They used to ‘joke’ with me. Hey, just set up a cot at the pit mouth and you’ll make more each shift than if you mine. Wives were suspicious of you. Eventually, though, most wives understood that you were mining to support your own family.

These mining women say that what they accomplished in the mines is being wiped out aboveground, where poverty rates in many counties of Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia have risen to more than 40 percent. The jobs in service and fast- food businesses aren’t enough, by far, to live on. Linda Lester, a mine roof-bolter, said, There’s 1,000 union guys in my county looking for work.

Speaking to the issue of unorganized mines, Lester said, Years ago [in unionized mines] there were 120 women miners in southwest Virginia. Now I know of only six. You’ve got all these non-union punch mines and little dug-hole mines opening and I don’t know of any women in them.

Supporting their families is an ongoing struggle for the laid-off women of Appalachia. In West Virginia - which has the lowest percentage of working women in the U.S. - finding a job that pays a living, family-supporting wage has become a dream, the search a nightmare. The rate of exploitation of female labor continues at a rate that is unconscionable. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the West Virginia Women’s Commission, the income gap between unorganized men and women in mine territory (working as retail clerks and in other private industry) is one of the most striking in the United States. Women make 45 cents on every dollar a male is paid.

Mining working women - as do all working women - continue to struggle for wage equality and better living conditions for their families. The fight against the special exploitation of women is a struggle that continues and is one that must be recognized by the entirety of our class - men and women, Black, Brown and white - as a key to the liberation of our class as a whole.

Capitalist exploitation, of course, is not aimed at women alone. The importance of the women’s struggle for equal wages can be summed up by understanding that wherever and whenever one group in our class is victimized, we are all victimized. We’re in this fight together.

The work in coal mines, which has resulted in centuries of astronomical profit for the owners, has been an equal opportunity destroyer of the health of male and female workers alike. As Lester attested, The mines broke my grandfather’s back, and black lung is what killed him. I have little pin spots on my lungs, too, but you try not to think about it. Every day, I get on an elevator with 50 men, and I drop 1,563 feet into the earth. The tunnels wind for miles, and the coal seams are four to six feet thick ... It’s a hard life.

The women noted that the harassment by their male coworkers lessened as the men understood, as Barbara Angle said, that when you cross that pit mouth, it doesn’t really matter what sex you are ... you know your life depends on the person next to you.

To take the statement to its broader meaning, our lives do depend on the commitment to struggle of the people, of the workers, next to each one of us, as their future depends on our commitment to the struggle for the liberation of our class as a whole. By uniting in clear understanding of who the real enemy is, we will see and understand that men and women, Black, Brown and white, can and must work together—work together not simply to mine profit for our exploiters, but to mine that solidarity that is the key to our freedom.