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Mining Coal and Undermining Gender

Rhythms of Work and Family in the American West

by Jessica Rolston

Publication Year: 2014

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.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xii

In many ways, this book’s roots stretch back to 2000, when I spent my first summer home from college working at a coal mine south of my hometown in northeastern Wyoming. My father had spent most of his working life as a mechanic at a different mine owned by the same company, and the “summer student” program in the Powder River Basin was a rite of passage for all of us who had grown up with parents working in the mines. I did not originally...

Part I: Orientation

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1. Putting Kinship to Work

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pp. 3-34

“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.1 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...

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2. Labor Relations and Corporate Social Responsibility

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pp. 35-60

For the past century, mining communities and workplaces have proven productive ground from which to document and theorize the harms of capitalism. As Elizabeth Ferry writes, “The high concentration of capital and labor, territorial isolation, and heavy state intervention make the organization of power and authority, and resistance to it, appear in particularly stark terms in mining contexts” (2005: 6). The legendary danger of mines, infamous...

Part II: Putting in Time

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3. Shiftwork as Kinwork

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pp. 63-86

The most difficult part of their jobs, according to Powder River Basin miners, is not operating some of the world's largest machinery in an inherently risky environment, but attuning their bodies and relationships to a demanding shiftwork schedule that requires them to switch continually between day and night shifts, each of twelve hours' duration. When talking about their work, ...

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4. Interweaving Love and Labor

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pp. 87-112

Traces of the mining industry are found throughout Gillette, even if the mines are located between ten to sixty miles outside of town. Driving into town from the north or east requires driving past active mines and power plants located alongside the highway; travelers pull over to watch shovels, draglines, and haul trucks in action from the road, sometimes stopping to take pit tours that com-...

Part III: Undoing Gender at Work

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5. Tomboys and Softies

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pp. 115-146

Miners in the Powder River Basin are not immune from evoking dominant ste-reotypes about men and women as they make sense of, comment on, and debate issues and events both in the workplace and outside of it. This observation is not surprising given that they watch American television shows and movies that play up differences between men and women and naturalize them in biological ...

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6. Hard Work, Humor, and Harassment

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pp. 147-182

Accusations of sexual harassment in the Powder River Basin coal mines are rare but unforgettable occasions for everyone involved. At only two points during my employment and research at six different mines did the crew I was working with or observing label an action sexual harassment. One of them involved a thirty- something equipment operator named Rick, whose high regard for his ...

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7. Conclusion

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pp. 183-194

Theories and ethnographic accounts of kinship and gender are rightly inter-twined. Both are cultural concepts that Euro-Americans naturalize in biology, and kinship is one of the primary social forces behind the enculturation of masculine and feminine persons (Rubin 1975; Yanagisako and Collier 1987). In fact, the foundational text for the feminist analysis of kinship and gender ...


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pp. 195-210

Glossary of Mining Terms

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pp. 211-214


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pp. 215-226


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pp. 227-238

E-ISBN-13: 9780813563695
E-ISBN-10: 0813563690
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813563688
Print-ISBN-10: 0813563682

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 4 photographs
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Sex role.
  • Coal mines and mining -- Social aspects -- Wyoming.
  • Women coal miners -- Wyoming.
  • Work and family.
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