Working Girl Blues and Coal Tattoos: Women in Labor Unions in the 1970s

Florence Reece, author of the song "Which Side Are You On?"

Florence Reece, author of the song “Which Side Are You On?”

Written by contributor Audra Butler, this post is taken from a larger essay on women’s involvement in the American labor movement of the 1970s. “Though most of us think of the urban and pink collar organization during that decade,” writes Butler, “Appalachian women also organized and fought for better jobs and higher wages.”  She provides this brief history of the tradition of organizing and union involvement in the Appalachian coal communities and the tremendous impact women had in the development of labor unions in the region. This essay is connected to our ongoing work at the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action. 

Women in the Southern Appalachian mining region traditionally took a more active role in male labor disputes than their urban counterparts and an understanding of women’s participation in mining strikes decades before they were allowed to enter mines is essential to understanding the tactics and evolution of the women’s labor movement in the region. Business interests in the region and the coal industry viewed the region as a wealth of resources ripe for development and exploitation. Citizens often countered claims of backwardness and an inability to capitalize on their own resources with alternative and often militant approaches. Sustained involvement in coal mining unions and hostile, often violent, confrontations with local officials allowed the poor and working class to challenge oppressive legal and institutional practices. Women often led the efforts to organize communities and unions long before they could directly benefit from labor contracts. In December of 1921, five hundred women from mining camps of Kansas crowded into a small church hall. Caught in the wake of a protracted strike, facing diminished family incomes, the women resigned to take action themselves. Within days their numbers grew to thousands, and the women marched, sung patriotic and traditional songs, blocked mine entries, and assaulted miners attempting to cross picket lines. The women were labeled an “army of amazons” and were detained and fined for disturbing the peace.

The involvement of women in Appalachian mining strikes in the 1920s reflected a larger social tension in the United States. The average miner earned between $1,800 and $2,000 dollars annually, wages that fell below Bureau of Labor Statistics minimum requirements for “health and decency.” Strikes impacted the family income, further diminishing resources and household welfare, but provided the only means to negotiate higher wages. The inextricable link between household welfare and income blurred the lines between the public world of work and the domestic sphere of the household, and explains the unique connection between women and the mining community.

Women in Appalachian coal mines were rarely employed outside the home and the radical politics of trade unionism offered one of the only means, though indirectly, for these isolated women to enrich their lives.  Strikes centered on family- and community-based resistance, and offered women an important role. Women participated in strikes in same sex groups, marched picket lines, guarded mine entries, and organized strikes at local factories with sisters, mothers, and girlfriends. The tradition of women’s involvement in Appalachian labor movements continued into the 1930s and 1940s. Women served as morale-builders but also union organizers and were active at picket lines and rallies. Women were harassed, beaten, thrown in jail, and even shot and killed. Appalachian women adapted the language and behavior of the union men and strikers. One man even described an incident in the 1920s where women grabbed men crossing picket line, stripped them naked, and violated one with a pistol.

Music became a formidable tool in the rallying of union members. Women used it to raise spirits and maintain the oral traditions of Appalachian communities. The most famous song from the coal mining unionization in the 1930s was Florence Reece’s “Which Side are You On.” The wife of a union organizer in Harlan County, Kentucky, home to some of the most violent coal strikes in American history, Reece wrote “Which Side Are You On” after watching the local sheriff ransack her house and wait outside her home for her husband. Adopting union language, Reece called strike breakers scabs and highlighted the divisive nature of unionization in Harlan County and around the United States. Set to an old Baptist hymn, “Lay the Lilly Low,” the song claimed that there were no neutrals in Harlan, only union men or thugs. 


Sarah Ogan Gunning

Sarah Ogan Gunning

Women wrote songs highlighting the difficulties of coal labor, political, and social issues. Sarah Ogan Gunning wrote songs about confronting scabs on the picket lines in 1932 and called for the sinking of the “capitalist system in the darkest pits of hell” in “Come All You Coal Miners.” Aunt Molly Jackson outlined the suffering of families blacklisted during the Harlan County strike and wrote “I can’t forget them babies with golden hair as soft as silk, slowly dying from starvation, they parents could not give them milk” 

Appalachian women continued the tradition of songwriting and unionization into the 1960s and 1970s, in support of union men and in their own pursuits of union jobs. As coal miners and their families became more aware of the correlation between coal mining and lung disease, women picketed and organized petitions to improve healthcare and health standards for coal miners. In “Hello Coal Miner” (1979), Gunning wrote “Don’t ever work in the coal mines, down in the dark cold ground,” after the death of her father and first husband from Black Lung. Hazel Dickens, the most prolific and well-known female composer of Appalachian mining and union songs, continued the tradition of previous generations, singing songs about Black Lung and unsympathetic mine owners, and mine injuries in “Coal Tattoos.” A professional singer, Dickens combined her traditional Appalachian roots with a feminist outlook and championed coal miners unions and the opening of underground mining jobs to women.

After a decade of prosperity in the 1950s, the Appalachian mining region fell into a deep economic regression, with over half of the regions poor and working-class made up of women. Like the generations before them, the women of the Appalachians risked their lives to mediate the labor disputes and the growing threat to the land and environment posed by strip mining. Women, like the elderly “Widow Combs” of Knott County, Kentucky, used their bodies to stop bulldozers, while others organized Black Lung movements and fought for better health care. As the Tennessee Valley Authority began to grant an increased number of contracts to strip mining companies, mountain men and women living in the remote regions of the Appalachian Mountains stirred to action as they realized their communities and way of life and culture were being threatened. Dressed in homemade dresses from a bygone era, women joined former coal miners and farmers to make the journey out of the mountains, many for the first time, to the Kentucky capital. While in Frankfort, women told stories of watching bulldozers disinter family cemeteries and plead for the state to save their land. They later petitioned the Kentucky Supreme court in Martin v. Kentucky Oak Mining Company to prevent the destruction of Kentucky land and challenged some of the nation’s largest mining companies. The documentary film Harlan County, USA showed women confronting mine owners, armed thugs, and sheriff’s deputies as their husbands, brother, and sons organized a labor strike for better wages and mine safety. In the tradition set decades before, women joined men on picket lines and formed women’s divisions of local coal unions (Harlan County, USA).

In the early 1970s, women began to apply for underground coal mining positions. All though women had been allowed to work a limited number of surface jobs after World War II, coal miners labored under the superstition that allowing women into mines would result in tragic accidents or the death of male miners. Women who grew up in the coal mining tradition and had organized for the improvement of male labor benefits began to organize for access to the better paying jobs monopolized by men. In 1973 there were no women employed as underground miners. In 1977, several women from the region organized the Coal Employment Project to assist women in attaining and keeping coal mining jobs. Women of the Coal Employment project worked within existing labor and feminist structures, including local chapters of the national Organization of Women (NOW). Unlike their northern counterparts, however, Appalachian women strove to break out of the female job ghetto and into an all-male occupation. Between 1973 and 1981 the number of women in the coal industry increased from zero to over 3,500 or just over two percent of the labor force. Women took these jobs, often dangerous and demanding to earn wages support families and improve their standard of living, and in doing so, female coal miners challenged gender expectations. Performing nontraditional work allowed female coal miners to change their sense of self and earn wages far above those in traditional women’s jobs. 


Hazel Dickens

Hazel Dickens

Women miners faced open hostility from miners and union workers. After years of working alongside union men to secure labor contracts, women miners found themselves fighting these same men for a place in the mines. Hazel Dickens used the tradition of folk songs to encourage women to pursue coal jobs and union members to accept these women into their ranks. In “Coal Mining Woman,” Dickens sang, I’ve got the right to choose a job with decent pay, a better chance to make my way, and if you don’t stand with me, don’t stand in my way” and transformed the pro-union folk song into a feminist bastion for equality. 

Female mine workers altered the meanings of womanhood and manhood in the traditional culture of the Appalachian. Although women had always worked in the home or in restricted occupations, introduction of women into mines and mining unions, the miner as a symbol of male fortitude in the Appalachian culture and American society was challenged and resulted in some men’s resistance to women’s entry into trades and unions. Like men across the country, coal miners had to learn to navigate the changing relationships between gender, work, and equality (MacLean, 63).


Florence Reece singing “Which Side Are You On?”

From the film, Dreadful Memories: The Life of Sarah Ogan Gunning. Click here to watch the entire film via Folkstreams. 

Hazel Dickens singing “Black Lung,” a song written for her brother.


Anglin, Mary K. “Lessons from Appalachia in the 20th Century: Poverty, Power, and the “Grassroots,” American Anthropologist, 104(June 2002): 565-582.

Gaudill, Harry M. My Land Is Dying. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1971.

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. “Disorderly Women: Gender and labor Militancy in the Appalachian South.” The Journal of American History 73(September 1986):354-382.

Schofield, Ann. “An “Army of Amazons”: The Language of Protest in A Kansas Mining Community, 1921-22.” American Quarterly, no. 5 (Winter 1985):686-701.


MacLean, Nancy. “The Hidden History of Affirmative Action: Working Women’s Struggles in the 1970s and the Gender of Class,” Feminist Studies, 1 (Spring 1999):43-78.

Yurchenco, Henrieta. “Trouble in the Mines: A History in Song and Story by Women of Appalachia.” American Music, 9(Summer 1991):209-224.




1377196_971417515082_2088434164_nAudra Butler is an Arkansas native with deep roots in the Pope County area. She has a BA in History and Political Science from Arkansas Tech University and is completing her masters degree in history. Audra is the executive assistant for ARVAC, Inc, a community action agency serving low income individuals and families in the Arkansas River Valley.