As coal jobs decline, coalfield women win the bread, and gender power balance shifts with ‘a little taste of freedom’

Coal once provided solid employment and a comfortable living in many areas, but as the industry has declined, women who were once able to stay home have been increasingly going back to work — and staying there.

“The share of women in the workforce rose substantially in places throughout Central Appalachia, as well as in parts of the industrial Midwest and the rural South,” Campbell Robertson reports for The New York Times from Letcher County, Kentucky. “Few places have seen a more dramatic change,” he writes. “For generations the archetypal worker was a brawny, coal-dusted man in reflective overalls. Just 10 years ago, nearly three-fifths of the work force was male. Now the majority is female.”

Coal-mining jobs in the county fell from more than 1,300 in 2009 to under 50 in 2017, then increased to about 100 this summer. “Coal mining has always been boom-and-bust, but it is hard to shake the feeling that this might be the last bust,” Robertson reports. “Some men picked up and left at word of mining jobs elsewhere, some went to work as linemen or truck drivers, and others, figuring they were too old or physically broken to start over, just dropped out of the labor force. It was as if the very identity of a Letcher County man had been declared insolvent.”

Employment of women has always increased in coal country when mines lay off workers. Women once did mostly entry-level work like housecleaning or waitressing when their husbands were laid off from mines, but when coal jobs picked back up, women generally went back to staying home or cut back their hours, Robertson reports. That’s partly because child care is often hard to find in rural areas, but mostly because such work wasn’t nearly enough to replace a coal miner’s income.

Now that coal is in a long swoon, many women are considering investing time and money in going back to school for long-term employment that pays better, helped by a state program that pays tuition and some living expenses for miners’ families. Because of the area’s high rates of chronic disease and addiction, health-care jobs are in demand. Women fill almost all of those nursing jobs in Letcher County. At the Mountain Comprehensive Health Corp. clinic in Whitesburg, only four of the 110 nurses are men, Robertson reports.

Employment is changing the way some women feel about themselves, and shifting the longstanding power balance between men and women in coal country, Robertson reports. Ciara Bowling, for instance, went to school to become a medical assistant when her fiancé couldn’t find a mining job. But when he was finally able to get a job, she didn’t drop out of school. “There was now the prospect of real independence, of not always having to defer to a husband because he paid the bills,” he writes.

“Women now, they got a little taste of freedom,” Bowling told Robertson. “Men has been able to do whatever the hell they want for so long, while women has had to sit in a chair and keep their legs closed and be nice and polite. Now they don’t have to….All these men, they just don’t know what’s about to happen.”

The Rural Blog is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.