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Center for Working-Class Studies


A Statistical Rarity--A Female Coal Miner Shares her Perspective on Life and Work in the Coal Mining Industry

By Kelli S. Cole

When female coal miner Tanya James rides an elevator 1,000 feet below ground surrounded by dozens of men and few, if any, women, it's not the men, not the darkness, the cold, the heat, nor the exhaustion that gets to her.

Instead, it's women in her community who think that mining is just for men. For every 100 men who work in coal mines in West Virginia, there are only two women. .

For 27 years, through the births of her two daughters, through accidents and illness and through the jealous glares of women in her community, Tanya James has proudly been a member of the West Virginia's two percent of female miners. .

James, who works six days a week in a mine, has had to prove herself to her male co-workers and to other women in West Virginia society. .

She remained at work even while pregnant with her daughters Trista, 21, and Michelle, 18.

"When I got pregnant with [Trista] I had hurt my knee and I was off work. With Michelle, my second one, I actually worked in the mine until I was five months pregnant. I was shoveling in the belt line one day and pulled a muscle in my stomach and the doctor wouldn't let me go back after that until she was born," she said. .

With her first daughter, she stayed home six months. After her second child, she returned to work five weeks later. .

James said women did not understand why another woman would choose to work in a coal mine. It was dangerous and dirty, the women argued.

She said some women reasoned that her motivation for working in coal mines was to steal their husbands.

Her longevity has spoken volumes to anyone who doubts her abilities or her motives. Speaking about her sister coal miners and herself, James said, "We've been here 20 or 30 years and ain't going nowhere so they just gotta take it."

Today, she said she is somewhat more accepted by other women. "A lot of women though are in awe and ask 'how do you do that?' They are just amazed more than anything," she said.

As James sat inside an office at the United Mine Workers of America in Fairmont, West Virginia, she smiled and spoke easily about the industry she has labored in for more than 20 years.

She sat cross-legged with a cast on her left foot with painted toes. A mining accident nearly two years ago required her to have surgery recently, but she spoke as if she hadn't a problem in the world. "I enjoy my job. It's a little risky," she said.

James began working at Consol Energy when she was 19 years old. "Honestly, it was the money at the time. I hadn't been out of school long. It was at a time when coal fields had to hire so many women to catch up to the ratios," she said.

When she was hired in 1979, she earned between $11 and $12 dollars an hour. Currently, she says the lowest pay rate is slightly above $20 dollars an hour.

James comes from a mining family, her grandfather, father and mother all worked in the mines.

James' mother began working in the mines just six months before she did. James said she has always been amazed at the work in coal mines and about the environment.

"Most people think it's a little hole in the ground and you can't stand up, can't move around. All the mines I've worked at, it's like being in a big room," she said.

The mine where James now works is a few hours away from home, so she purchased a 30-foot camper where she lives to avoid the commute. Sitting in a mauve chair with her husband a few feet away, James discussed the impact of the move away from home.

It's not only her willpower that keeps her going, but also the support of her husband of 23 years, Jesse.

He said it is difficult having a wife who works in the mines. The dangers of her job cross his mind every day but he has never asked her to quit because he knows it is what she loves.

When asked how he feels about his wife being one of 12 women who work with nearly 500 men, he says it doesn't bother him.

Trust, he said, is the key to their marriage.

Since she's away from her husband and daughters, she just relaxes and waits for the next day to begin. "At first it was awful. It was horrible. I'd never worked away from home like this before. I'd sneak off and ball and cry. But I've been out here for three years now so I've gotten kind of used to it," she said.

A day in the coal mine takes a lot out of Tanya. When she gets home, she enjoys the simplicity of a cup of coffee and a crossword puzzle.

Her routine keeps her going: "I go get mine clothes on - my belt, my hat, boots. Then, I go and get my light and get on the elevator."

"You go out from the elevator and try to get a ride. They have railroad tracks actually and your buses run on the tracks. Depending on how far you have to go out in the mine you either catch a ride with somebody or take one of your own. .

"Usually, with me I either shovel on the belt line or do what they call driving the belt and you have to keep so much of what you call rock dust--it's white dust from the rock. You have to keep so much of that on the walls and the floor of the mines in case of a fire or explosion or something it keeps the coal from burning.

"A lot of times your belt lines are kind of dusty. It gets dark so you have to go through with a broom and dust it off until it's white again. I do a lot of that. Depending on what shift you're on if it's lunchtime, you take a break for a half an hour. You might get sent to somewhere else. At the end of the day, you just put it in reverse, go back up try to get showered up. It's a dirty job. You get pretty dirty. Really that's about it on my day. "My day's pretty boring."