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Mining Coal and Undermining Gender

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

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 250
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  • Book Info
    Mining Coal and Undermining Gender
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-6369-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Part I Orientation

    • 1 Putting Kinship to Work
      (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 layer of overburden (the layer of rock and dirt above a coal seam), extract...

    • 2 Labor Relations and Corporate Social Responsibility
      (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 examples of corporate negligence, and a celebrated labor movement established miners as icons of working-class struggle. In fact, miners were the only group of workers Friedrich Engels mentioned by name during his 1883 speech...

  5. Part II Putting in Time

    • 3 Shiftwork as Kinwork
      (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, all but the most cantankerous point to two things that inspire them to rouse themselves out of bed while their families are sleeping: their ability to provide financial stability for their families at home and their close relationships with crewmembers at...

    • 4 Interweaving Love and Labor
      (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 companies offer tourists and schools as a part of their outreach efforts. Approaching from the south or west requires driving past the offices and warehouses of equipment vendors and the giant machinery they park alongside...

  6. Part III Undoing Gender at Work

    • 5 Tomboys and Softies
      (pp. 115-146)

      Miners in the Powder River Basin are not immune from evoking dominant stereotypes 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 differences. Their own family histories or personal experiences sometimes confirm truisms about women’s supposed innate drive to nurture children or men’s helplessness to resist watching professional sports broadcast in high definition. But the miners and their...

    • 6 Hard Work, Humor, and Harassment
      (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 own abilities operating equipment outstripped his experience actually doing so in a mine. The more experienced members of his crew grumbled that he was a “fine construction worker”: he could make the machinery do exactly what he wanted it...

    • 7 Conclusion
      (pp. 183-194)

      Theories and ethnographic accounts of kinship and gender are rightly intertwined. 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 pushed for anthropologists to examine “what specific social and cultural processes cause men and women to appear different from each other” (Yanagisako and Collier 1987: 15)—in other words, to analyze the cultural construction of gender difference. After all, the production of sex/gender systems...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 195-210)
  8. Glossary of Mining Terms
    (pp. 211-214)
  9. References
    (pp. 215-226)
  10. Index
    (pp. 227-236)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 237-238)