Mining Coal and Undermining Gender: Rhythms of Work and Family in the American West

Mining Coal and Undermining Gender: Rhythms of Work and Family in the American West

Mining Coal and Undermining Gender: Rhythms of Work and Family in the American West

Mining Coal and Undermining Gender: Rhythms of Work and Family in the American West


Though mining is an infamously masculine industry, women make up 20 percent of all production crews in Wyoming's Powder River Basin--the largest coal-producing region in the United States. How do these women fit into a working culture supposedly hostile to females? This is what anthropologist Jessica Smith Rolston, herself a onetime mine worker and the daughter of a miner, set out to discover. Her answers, based on years of participant-observation in four mines and extensive interviews with miners, managers, engineers, and the families of mine employees, offer a rich and surprising view of the working "families" that miners construct. In this picture, gender roles are not nearly as straightforward--or as straitened--as stereotypes suggest.

Gender is far from the primary concern of coworkers in crews. Far more important, Rolston finds, is protecting the safety of the entire crew and finding a way to treat each other well despite the stresses of their jobs. These miners share the burden of rotating shift work--continually switching between twelve-hour day and night shifts--which deprives them of the daily rhythms of a typical home, from morning breakfasts to bedtime stories. Rolston identifies the mine workers' response to these shared challenges as a new sort of constructed kinship that both challenges and reproduces gender roles in their everyday working and family lives.

Crews' expectations for coworkers to treat one another like family and to adopt an "agricultural" work ethic tend to minimize gender differences. And yet, these differences remain tenacious in the equation of masculinity with technical expertise, and of femininity with household responsibilities. For Rolston, such lingering areas of inequality highlight the importance of structural constraints that flout a common impulse among men and women to neutralize the significance of gender, at home and in the workplace.

At a time when the Appalachian region continues to dominate discussion of mining culture, this book provides a very different and unexpected view--of how miners live and work together, and of how their lives and work reconfigure ideas of gender and kinship.


“Gender is not the most important part of my day,” Mary said to me during one of the shifts I spent with her at an enormous surface coal mine in northeastern Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, a region that is the largest coal producer in the United States. Mary had just completed her second decade of work at a mine that is one of the largest in the basin and the entire country. Surface miners like Mary spend their shifts operating heavy machinery to remove the top layer of overburden (the layer of rock and dirt above a coal seam), extract and transport the coal, and then replace the overburden during reclamation. On the particular day of our conversation, she was operating a giant electric shovel whose bucket could hold a few of the massive pickup trucks that were parked outside of every house and overcrowded apartment building in the area. From her perch on a worn seat in the cab, she maneuvered the shovel using joysticks at the end of the armrests and foot pedals on the floor. I was sitting behind her in a hard plastic chair usually reserved for trainees or supervisors, scribbling notes as we swayed back and forth with each pass from the dirt face to the trucks. Our conversation began at the beginning of the shift, before the sun rose, with her asking about my experience in mining. We talked about my father, a mine mechanic approaching his twentieth anniversary with a different company, and the summers my former high school classmates and I spent at the mines driving trucks and washing down machinery while on break from college. For our part, this annual rite of passage provided sizeable savings accounts, photos of us with imposing equipment, and a visceral appreciation for the work our parents had done to send us to school in the first place. Our summer employment presented mine employees with a rare opportunity to . . .

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