Coalmining Women

Black and white photo of six women of different races and ethnicities in coalmining gear

Southern Exposure

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 9 No. 4, "Working Women: A Handbook of Resources, Rights, and Remedies." Find more from that issue here.

Elisabeth Laird 

It is late afternoon in the Rebel Queen cafe in the crossroads coal and cotton town of Cordova, Alabama. Elizabeth Laird spends much of her free time here since her children have grown and gone. The jukebox blares as two teenaged boys feed quarters into the blinking lights, but she continues talking, slowly, deliberately. The contours of her face, like those of her speech, are plain but gentle and belie her 59 years. Just a half hour before, she looked exhausted. Lines of fatigue creased the layer of coal dust on her face as she sat down heavily in the bathhouse, drawing solace from a cigarette. Now, she has recovered. 

My father worked in the mines in Aldridge, Alabama, just a few miles down the road. He dug coal with a pick and shovel. He worked from can to can’t, you know — before daylight to after dark.  I never thought about it then, but now I wish I had went in the mines earlier, younger. I started keeping house after my father died, at 15. I’m 59 now. I’ve been working nearly 45 years. 

I went in the mines when I was 54. Been there five years. Five years more and I’ll get a 10-year pension. That’s what I’m planning on. Then I’m going to write my book and buy a kiln and do ceramics. 

When I was 20,1 was working in the cotton mill. That’s textiles, here in Cordova. I worked 23 years as a weaver. When I first went to work, I made $14 for five days, eight hours a day. Before that, I kept house for people. Three dollars a week, Monday morning till Saturday morning, taking care of two children. 

I would have loved to stay home with the children when they were small. But I think when you once work, you’re used to your own money and get too independent. It’s not a bad thing. When I married, I was making more money than he was. 

The 10 months I worked as a spinner liked to got the best of me. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done. Face ventilation in the mines is the easiest job I’ve ever done, and it’s some of the hardest work in the mines. Spinning was hard because each spool had a brake on it, chair level off the floor. You had to brake them with your feet. So if your work done bad, you hopped around on one foot all night. 

The divorce was 11 years ago. I picked up a moonlight job in a cafe, and did two jobs a day. I had three kids, two in college. My husband paid child support for the youngest, but child support in Walker County is just not that much, about $20 a week. The mines was the only place I could work on one job and have time with my youngest son. He was about 14 or 15. He was so proud. He was the first kid in school who had a mother as a miner. 

When I went in the mines, I no longer had to work 16 hours a day, which is what I was working when I went in. Six days a week at the factory, and seven days a week at the diner right down the street. The other eight hours I slept. 

If I had a daughter, I would give her an education, but it wouldn’t be that bad if she wanted to go in the mines. I would agree to it. I want my children to do what they’re best at. Two of my sons are in white-collar jobs. I couldn’t stand that. I can’t tolerate being dressed up, with my face fixed and my hair fixed. I like to feel free, and when you’ve got on hose and high heels and makeup, you just can’t feel free. 


Ethel McCuiston 

Long before women were listed as miners on company payrolls, they worked alongside brothers, fathers and husbands when the need for their labor outweighed the taboo against their presence underground. Ethel McCuiston was among the largely uncounted numbers of women in this century who handloaded coal in small family or contract mines. Women were employed under the care of some male relation, their contribution acknowledged as a bonus in the male paycheck. 

I was always told that it was bad luck for a woman to enter the mines. My grandmother told me about women being bad luck when I was a small child. After I got married, that was in 1937, my husband was a timberman. Times was very hard back then. We’d been married about two years when the mining started booming, and he got a job in the mines. That’s where it all started. 

I didn’t start work regularly until about 1941. My oldest was two years old, and my other was one, when I first went in. I was 21.1 borrowed one of our boarders’ belts. I had long hair, and I stuffed it all up in the cap. The boarders would laugh. They got a kick out of seeing me dressed up like that. 

I just couldn’t stand the thought of Arthur  working over there by himself. During the war, there were about half the miners there as were there before. About all the miners were drafted into service. Arthur knew how desperate they were for coal. He would go in there and undertake to do the whole job himself. The other wives called me a fool. I told them, Arthur’s life is just as sweet and precious to me as it is to him. 

I’d come over there and help my husband shoot coal. I’d make the dynamite dummies to put in the holes, so we could shoot the coal down. I would be in the back shoveling dust and watching those big stell poles holding the top up, and if I seen them a-giving, I’d always holler. That way, he had a buddy to tell him to cut the machine off and jump. When we were cutting coal I got down on my knees and I shoveled that coal just like any man. I really helped him. 

Some of the men would come out in the morning and find out I’d been in there that night, and they’d be a-cursing and going on. But the boss, he was a wonderful man. He said, “If Ethel didn’t help Arthur cut coal last night, there wouldn’t be no work today. What would you think if your payday came up small?” Some of them said, “I’d just quit.” And he said, “Go ahead. I’m not going to tell her not to. She can work any time she wants to.” He told them he’d call it a great honor that a woman would come into the mines to work, so they could work and make bread for their families. After a while, they didn’t mind my being there a bit. Some of them would quit, and then think better of it and come back in two or three months’ time. 

When I was working regularly, I worked about three nights a week. I would work all night from about seven in the evening until about five in the morning. I would go home and build a fire in the coal cookstove and boil me a big kettle of water, and take a bath and clean up. When I washed my things out, they’d be just as black as that dust I shoveled. Then, quick as I got cleaned, I’d start cooking breakfast for the day shift [boarders] and the school kids. I’d get the day shift off to the mines, and the kids off to school, then I’d get the beds made and the dishes washed and the cows fed, then cook breakfast for my husband about nine o’clock. Then I’d go to the field, or do whatever I had to do. I never did need much sleep. 

One thing I’m bothered with [now] is smothering a lot. I call it sinuses. There has been a lot to suggest it was black lung. They’ve kidded me and told me I should go get x rays. But there’s no record of me working. They just put a bonus in Arthur’s pay. So I wouldn’t have anything to show. When these [new] women went to working in the mines, it was terrible what people would say. I don’t blame women a bit for going where they can make the most, if they have to get out and work for a living. 

See, I know what it’s all about. I’ve been back in there, and I know. I just say, “Lord bless em! Help em! Don’t let them get hurt.” 


Sandra Bailey 

As women miners with experience move up from shoveling the belt to becoming equipment operators, foremen and safety inspectors, one of the most coveted positions is with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) as a federal mine inspector. 

Thirty-three-year-old Sandra Bailey of Mayking, Kentucky, was one of six women hired nationwide in the agency’s coal mine inspection program. The other five were part of an “upward mobility’’ program that allows clerical workers to gain inspection training. With nearly six years’ underground experience, Bailey is the only woman with mining experience training to become an inspector.

I have been a waitress, school bus driver, and have worked in a shoe factory and a school lunchroom. There’s very little work here other than the mines. I put in applications for a year, just on a lark. In the meantime, I found a CETA job with Senior Citizens, driving a van. I really enjoyed the work, but it didn’t pay anything at all. 

At first I was afraid of the grueling work, afraid I couldn’t do it, although I’d always felt that I was emotionally and physically strong. But I did it. After the first week, I felt pretty confident that I was going to make it. 

At first I was so ignorant about the mines that I didn’t know the danger. It took awhile, maybe three weeks or a month, and then one night I was sitting there thinking while on a break that there must be a thousand ways to kill yourself in a coal mine. To get killed. Just by touching the trolley wire, just by putting your hand in a belt roller. Just by so many things that you had to constantly be on your guard against. I was lucky that people tried to teach me the safe way to do things. I became more and more interested in safety, and I started studying up at home on pamphlets that the federal inspector would leave around. 

I’d see people run through unbolted breaks sometimes, for short cuts, and I would try to tease them into realizing the seriousness of it. I’d say, “You sure did save yourself a lot of steps. We could have been off work tomorrow for your funeral.” 

I used to take those very same chances. I really did. And I didn’t realize the seriousness of it until one night when I was running the scoop and went through an unbolted break, and just as I went through it, it fell in. That really made an impression. So I became more and more safety-conscious, and was on the safety committee at our local, the first female officeholder in the local. 

When a man quit the safety committee to become a federal inspector, he suggested to the president that I be appointed to fill his unexpired term. The president was a little bit leery of such a radical move, and he asked the membership to speak up if they had feelings against it. No one spoke up. It was carried by the majority. 

Being on the safety committee was really frustrating, because you have all kinds of responsibility and no authority. You have no authority to enforce the law. You have to convince people to do what you would like to be done. Sometimes I felt I was in the middle with everybody against me. It was a good education. 

I’d worked about a year and a half when the first-aid team got started. When they came and asked if I’d be interested, I asked why we couldn’t have a mixed team. But they said when they had tried the year before, some of the wives made their husbands quit when a woman came to the practices. They decided that mixed groups would not work, because of arterial pressure points and such. It was wonderful, getting to know the women, becoming better friends. We had all been isolated from each other at different mines - within a general 50-mile radius, but totally isolated from each other. 

It was wonderful to be able to talk about the same problems that we all had. And we really worked hard that year. There was such team spirit. 

We should have won first place. As it was, we won second. But one of the judges told me that we deserved first but they were afraid to give it to a woman’s team, especially a first-year team. 

I had been working real hard to get a district safety inspector job, like the woman in District 17. But then, very unexpectedly, after three years of applying, and struggling, and begging, the federal people finally hired me. This has been my goal. I began thinking about it when I was on the firstaid team. The judges were federal inspectors, and I was impressed with their knowledge. I needed to establish some goals, and I thought that would be a good one, to become a federal mine inspector. Now I work in the lab with dust samples, and only get out in the field occasionally. That’s been a big change and a big disappointment. I just couldn’t settle in to working with the government at first. I had achieved this apple pie in the sky that I had been working for for so many years, and suddenly I was without goals. But I definitely won’t stay where I’m at. 

I’ve never, ever done office work before. You have so much independence as a miner, to do the job, not necessarily at your own pace, but to choose your priorities as to what to do first with very little supervision. You can see the fruit of your labor, it’s visible. Whereas answering the phone all day, you can’t see anything visible that you’ve done. 

And I miss watching the coal being cut. It is really beautiful. I really miss seeing production. And I began to realize how many, many women there were out there who would like to have the same opportunity that I was having, but the opportunity was just not there without a little encouragement. One night at work, it just hit me that if this hadn’t come along, I would probably still be a waitress, or working in a school lunchroom. 

I will never ever be the same person I was before I went underground, never in a thousand years. I feel now that whatever life has to thrust upon me, I can handle it. I’ll just never be the same again.  


Bonnie Howard 

In Ermine, Kentucky, Bonnie Howard was raised with the old ways, by grandparents who cared for her until she was of age to go to work and care for them. It was a mutual relationship that has continued into her marriage, and Bonnie sees nothing unusual in the fact that her husband, Dan, does all the housework and child care for their daughter, Martha, while she puts in her eight hours underground on the “hoot owl” shift. 

“When one gets sick, the other works, ” she explains, and points out that Dan, also a miner, worked until illness forced him to leave work. Martha is accustomed to seeing her father wash the dishes, sweep the floors and work the garden, while her mother leaves the house for the mines and a union paycheck. 

Bonnie was still sleeping the afternoon I arrived, unannounced, on their doorstep, but Dan ushered me into the bedroom and we began talking. Dan and Martha shared in the conversation the way they shared the workload because, as Bonnie put it, “That’s just the way we do things. ”

As far as working, I’ve done a little bit of everything. I’ve been a waitress, cook, secretary, school bus driver, butcher, nurse’s aid, house cleaner. Now a coal miner. I started work when I was a freshman in high school. I worked on the weekends and after school. 

I never imagined me a-goin into the mines. What got me into it, I was working as a butcher, and came up from being a trainee, but my pay didn’t raise none. Right there, that killed me ever being a butcher. 

At the first mine I worked at, they asked me why did I want to start working at the mines. And I told them I was a butcher, and my work went up but my pay didn’t get any higher. My husband was sick, I had a child in school, and I needed a job that paid good money. 

I guess it was about a week later, they told me, we have to hire a woman, and your work record is good. I went straight into the mines. They hired me on a Friday, and I went to work that Sunday night. I’d never been in a mine before. I was nervous and scared. I kept watching the top and the sides so hard I got a crook in my neck. Going in on the mantrips, I kept my head way down below my knees. I was really scared, to tell you the truth. Still am scared. 

I never told Dan I was going into the mines until after I took my physical. He about swallowed his tongue. He thought I was kidding. But he told me, if you can be a butcher, I know you can be a coal miner. 

They worked me real hard at first, to see if I was man enough to take it, as the old saying goes. The first 30 days, they about bruted me to death. I didn’t think I could stand it. I worked every day. I’d be so tired that I’d come home and could hardly put one foot in front of the other. 

If it wasn’t for my husband, I don’t think I would have made it. That’s the truth. He done all the housework. He took care of the kid. He did all the cooking, all of it. All I did was come home and bathe and go to bed. I’d hit that bed and they wouldn’t wake me up, because I’d be so grouchy they couldn’t stand me. 

Dan: It’s a shame, a shame, the way the men talk about a woman going into the mines around here. A shame. 

Bonnie: They start lies on you. The women were jealous. I knew one woman, made her husband move on day shift. She didn’t want him to work with women. They had day shift full of men whose wives were jealous. 

Dan: The way I see it, you’re buddies. She’s my buddy if we work side by side. I don’t care what she wears, whether it’s a two-piece bathing suit. When she does her job and I do my job, that’s it. We get the same pay.  

Bonnie: After I got laid off from the first mine, I was a rockpicker. I picked rock right beside of Dan. Me and him worked together. There was one other woman. Dan was the one helped to get that woman on. A lot of the other men were against women. 

Dan: My boss said if he had five men like Bonnie, he could run 500 tons of coal a day. 

Martha: I thought it was a new experience for Mom. I thought it was neat. When she told me, I said, “Hey, my mom’s a miner!” But I was really scared the first two weeks. 

Bonnie: She still has nightmares. She started that when I first started working, having nightmares and crying for me, afraid I’d get hurt. 

Most people, they don’t explain mine safety to their kids. I tell her, if you do your job cautiously and right, you are not likely to get hurt. But I ain’t saying you won’t. 

Martha: I don’t think I have enough nerve to go in there like my mom does. I ain’t got enough backbone. I keep a light on at night and everything. 

Bonnie: Well, the reason I’m in there working is to keep her out. I want her to have the education that I didn’t have. I’d like to see her make a doctor, if it’s possible. And as long as I’m working, I’m going to see that it’s possible. 

Lord, if I didn’t have Dan, I don’t think I could survive it. I’d just have to let everything go until the weekend. I’d be so tired. I never worry about my kid, whether she’s hurt or anything, because I know Dan will take care of her. He does all the housework. When I go to bed, the house is clean. Even if he works, he comes in, and we do it together. You may think it’s fantasy, but it’s the truth. 

Dan: I think a husband should help his wife. I don’t give a heck what that woman does. If a man comes in after working all day, and the woman’s been there at the house, she’s got more work there than the man who’s gone out to a job. If I come in from work, I still help her. I grew up under my mommy’s coattails. She taught me how to do it. I can bake anything I want to, cook anything, sew anything, mop, wax, clean windows, anything. 

Bonnie: It’s 50-50 in a marriage, if it is a marriage. I’m in there to make a living for my young’un and my husband if he’s sick. If I was sickly, he’d take care of me, so what’s the difference in me taking care of him?