WOMEN COAL MINERS - POWDER RIVER BASIN, WYOMING
Although called the land of the cowboy, Wyoming is by no means solely a man’s country. Its great seal bears the words ‘Equal Rights.’ Here women have shared the adventures, hardships, and accomplishments with men.
—Wyoming, A Guide To Its History, Highways, and People (WPA, 1941)
Coal mined in the Powder River Basin (PRB) of Wyoming and Montana accounts for more than 40 percent of U.S. coal production. The 12 active mines in the Wyoming portion of the basin are centered around Gillette, Wyoming, the self-proclaimed “Energy Capital of the Nation.” The coal mines of the Powder River Basin directly employ approximately 6000 workers.
Women began employment at the coal mines soon after Belle Ayr Mine opened in the early 1970s. At first, the small percentage of women employees were mostly in clerical and administrative positions, but the number of women working in production soon increased as other large mines opened in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Most figures today state that women make up about 20 percent of all production crews in the coal mines of northeast Wyoming.
The Campbell County Rockpile Museum in Gillette, Wyoming is currently hosting a new exhibit, Women Coal Miners of the Powder River Basin, examining gender and culture in what is often seen as a masculinized profession. Featuring the photographs of Annalise Shingler, this exhibit shares the stories of fifteen women coal miners and officially opened on July 9, 2013 with a presentation by Dr. Jessica Smith Rolston, author of the upcoming book Mining Coal and Undermining Gender: Rhythms of Work and Family in the American West. Rolston—a native of Gillette and the daughter of a mine mechanic—did her research through participant observation at four mines in the PRB, interviewing numerous miners, managers, families, ranchers, and residents.
Dr. Rolston argues that the coal mines of the Powder River Basin are a “success story for integrating women into a non-traditional field.” She cites as evidence the 20 percent of women on work crews in the PRB—significantly higher than the eight percent average nationally—and the fact that, generally, women in the West have high workplace satisfaction.
Rolston found that women used two different approaches to making relationships in the workplace: some diminished the significance of gender, while others emphasized its importance. Rolston says women are negotiating between the two strategies on an everyday basis, but their male co-workers are also adjusting to changes in the workplace. The need for workers has led to “less restrictive notions of gender” and this unique dynamic has “played a key role in the rapid expansion of the energy industry in the American West.”
Images - Annalise Shingler; Words - Robert Henning
(Special thanks to A/G Guide Christine Tharp for coordinating this dispatch)
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Robert Henning is The Rockpile Museum registrar and curator of the coal mining exhibit. He hails from Iowa, holds a master’s degree in museum studies, and currently lives in Gillette.
Annalise Shingler currently lives and works in Denver, Colorado. By day she’s a teacher, by night she’s a whole person involved in fitness, art-making and sometimes fascinated by delicious tea and Marvel superheroes. Find more of her photography and art at annaliseshingler.com.