Beckley, W.Va. — ```You don't look like a coal miner!' people always say. But what is a coal miner supposed to look like?'' asks Pat McCarty, a mother of six who works the ``hoot owl'' shift (midnight to 8 a.m.) at Pinnacle Mines in Pineville, W.Va. For the last 15 years, women have been working in US mines, because of changes in workplace attitudes and equal-opportunity laws during the Carter administration.
Although they still face barriers and are the first to feel the pinch of layoffs, these women now mine in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Ohio, Alabama, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah.
Historically, there have been accounts of women working in mines in both Europe and the United States. But in most cases - at least in the US - they were either working as slaves, dressed as men, or surreptitiously working to help husbands and brothers bring in more money.
The first woman miner was officially hired in 1973 in a mine in West Virginia; 3,900 more joined the ranks in the next 12 years.
Many of these women (especially single parents) had been working two minimum-wage jobs to support their families. Many were working in factories or restaurants.
By moving into the mines, not only were the women breaking into traditionally male, high-wage jobs, but they were also dismantling long-held superstitions. It was traditionally believed that a woman who so much as set foot in a coal mine would bring bad luck.
As for the women, many people had previously thought the mine work would be too difficult for them. Washington lawyer Betty Jean Hall recalls interviewing young mothers in Appalachia who were struggling to make ends meet.
There was ``a single mom with four kids, in a shack with an outhouse, in the middle of winter carrying all those dirty diapers, plus two kids on her hips, to the freezing stream to wash them. She said, `I figure if I could do that in the dead of winter, there's nothing in the mines they could give me I couldn't do.'''
Pam Hall, whose husband Melvin is also a miner (but has been out of work for two years following a mine closing and a work-related injury), has been mining for nine years to help her support her family.
Mrs. Hall had previously held a restaurant job, in which she cleared $47.07 plus about $20 in tips for 48-hours of work a week.
``I worked till I was five months pregnant with our third child,'' Hall says. ``The company, USX, was super-good about pregnancy leave.'' She was back at work six weeks after her daughter was born, her job guaranteed.
Other than concerns about capabilities, there has been considerable criticism of women miners, especially from miners' wives. For generations of coal-mining men, the mines have been more than a job; they've been a way of life, passed down from father to son.
Women had traditionally accepted the idea that the mines were off limits. Although opposition has faded somewhat as miners' wives have gotten to know some of the female workers, the wives will occasionally mention resentment that other women get to share the ``mystery'' of the mines with their husbands.
The coal mines have a magnetic hold on many who work there. ``You're beating mother nature, robbing her of her coal, and she doesn't give it up easy,'' one miner says. He says they feel tremendous pride and accomplishment when they've had a good run.
That's what Wanda Jeffcoate, who worked for six years in USX mines, misses most, since a back injury forced her off the job.
``Every carload of coal we got out thrilled me,'' she says. ``I miss the mines. I loved it. It broke my heart [when] I couldn't go back.''
Barbara Regan worked for 12 years deep-mining, roof-bolting, and operating shuttle-car machinery. She had a college degree in history and had quit working as a nurse's aide because she found she could earn more money in the mines.
Last August, Ms. Regan decided to return to school to become a physician's assistant, since she felt job security in the mines was not guaranteed. More than anything else she misses the camaraderie that is forged in the mines in the face of constant danger. ``I don't think I'll find that togetherness in any other job again,'' she says. ``In most jobs, you're competing against others. Miners work together. You have to, to survive.''
``Things have improved a lot safety-wise,'' says Ms. McCarty. ``USX/US Steel is very safety conscious, and we're reminded a lot to check for safety things.''
Although sexual harassment has been at issue since the women entered the mines, Regan counters, ``I worked with 600 guys and two gave me a hard time. Just two; two individuals who are jerks. The issue should be, I worked with 598 guys who were terrific. ... We all produced that coal together, and were very proud of it.''
``Some men think we shouldn't be there,'' says Brenda Ward, ``but most accept it, because they have to. ... A lot have been very supportive.''
But it was never an easy job market to enter.
``Every woman who has a mining job got her job directly or indirectly as the result of legal action,'' says Betty Jean Hall, who founded the Coal Employment Project (CEP) in 1977 to try to help land mining jobs for women.
Under her direction, the group has not only secured jobs for the women, but it has also helped gain important health and safety benefits for all miners - including special oxygen masks, and family leave for childbirth and catastrophic illness.
The masks, called oxygen-generating self-rescuers, not only keep out coal dust and noxious fumes, but they also provide miners with a supply of fresh oxygen - an important feature in case of mine accidents.
Today CEP's membership, and that of groups that support it, include many men. And with new economic and political challenges ahead, the organization is debating what directions and goals to pursue next.
The early 1970s was a good time for women to begin coalmining. Just one year after they went to work in the mines, the 1974 oil crisis sent coal prices soaring along with wages and hirings. That year, a record 45,501 men were hired compared with 6,713 the year before. Towns that had been known for their Appalachian poverty made the national news for the record numbers of millionaires, Mercedes-Benzes, and front-lawn satellite dishes they spawned.
Most important, because there were finally jobs to be had in the mines, thousands of homesick miners who had moved to the industrial Northeast to find work came back home in swarms.
But women's hard-won mining jobs are in jeopardy. While production in this boom-and-bust industry is up, recent changes in marketing and modern mining techniques have led to large layoffs of miners. And with men being laid off in record numbers, what will happen to the women?
``Last hired, first fired,'' say women miners.
Because seniority is crucial for keeping the mine jobs, there is apprehension and controversy over whether there will be any women left in the mines five years from now.
``There are not many of us left nationwide,'' says Sandra Barber, who is now the only working female federal mine inspector who has actually mined the coalfields.
There may be more secure jobs to be found elsewhere, but most coal miners and their families will say they don't want to leave their homes in the hills of Kentucky, or the mountains of West Virginia.
``West Virginia is home, I'd never leave,'' says Olive Allen, a mother of six and grandmother of 10, whose shift ends at 1:30 a.m.
Although the modern machinery is making an indelible mark on the coal-mining work force, women at Pinnacle Mines were buoyed by a recent announcement from the office of Sen. John Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia. Taiwan and South Korea are planning to buy 1.8 million tons of West Virginia coal over the next five years.
``It's wonderful news,'' Pam Hall says. ``At least we know we're going to have our jobs for a while.''