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Challenging Stereotypes

The miner and the matriarch: Coal mining women of West Virginia



Violet Gathalee Pavkovich stands on the small back porch of her powder blue, turn-of-the-century farmhouse, an orange cat meandering around her legs. White wicker furniture contrasts the rusty railroad tracks that border her back yard.

“Trains hauling coal come through here two or three times a day,” she remarked casually. As I thank her for her time, she asks if she can give me a hug.

Pavkovich is like most female coal miners in West Virginia. Her undeniable femininity mingles with a natural sense of industrialism. She is strong, but she is compassionate. She’s maternal, but she’s one of the guys. Her story of the pain and joy forged underground spans four decades. As the nation shifts away from coal, stories like Pavkovich’s are threatened to stay in those dark and dusty tunnels forever.

Mountain mamas of West Virginia

Coal mining is deeply ingrained in Appalachian life. As a coal miner’s daughter, I recall how the black dust embedded in my father’s fingerprints left sooty smudges on every birthday card and paycheck. His brown eyes, lined with kohl, live in my memory. We have two washing machines (one reserved specifically for his denim overalls) and two frames of mind: the comfort of his snores on the living room couch and the worry when he leaves for work at 4 a.m.

My family represents the traditional unit of coal-mining culture. Shortly before the Civil War, coal replaced timber as the preferred fuel source. Tycoons established behemoth companies to exploit the rich seams of coal folded within the Appalachian Mountains. They created small, self-sufficient camps surrounding the mines in which miners and their families lived. Women held integral—albeit auxiliary—roles in twentieth century coal camps. They were charged with rearing the children as their husbands labored double-digit shifts underground. Some women even worked “off the books” alongside them. After coal camps began to dissolve in 1950, women remained in traditional homemaking roles.

Pavkovich’s mother was one of those women. Every man in her life was a coal miner, from her grandfather to her future husband John. Her mother, a “feisty, little” woman, tended to the children as Pavkovich’s father labored away in a Kanawha County coalmine. In 1955, just after her thirteenth birthday, Pavkovich’s father received a steady position in a new mine. Within months, he was rendered paraplegic in an accident underground. Pavkovich’s mother—like many coal mining wives—now had to care for her husband, as well. Women in coal communities were slaves to the company, even after their husbands ceased working.

Their unlikely liberation from domesticity arrived with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it protected both African Americans and women by creating the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to help prevent workplace discrimination. The Act was amended just eight years later to establish affirmative action, a policy that required employers to hire minority workers.

The federal government pressured coal companies in Appalachia to adhere to affirmative action, but very few companies hired more than a handful of women. However, in 1978, the Coal Employment Project, an advocacy group for women, filed a lawsuit over sex discrimination in the hiring process. As a result, coal companies hired 830 women in 1978. By the mid-1980s, that number quintupled.

A man’s world

Pavkovich entered the coal mines in October 1976. She grew tired of bouncing around from job to job. Her husband was a coal miner. She figured there was no reason why she couldn’t be one, too. She abandoned her $1.60-an-hour gig at Rite Aid for nearly $18,000 in her first year as a miner.

“I loved it,” she said with a shrug. “I always liked hard work, and I got good money for it.”

In the book Daughters of the Mountain: Women Coal Miners in Central Appalachia, sociologist Suzanne E. Tallichet explains that women of the 1970s began to “challenge men’s breadwinner status within the patriarchal working-class family.”

By fearlessly entering a male-dominated workplace, Pavkovich and other female coal miners undermined the traditional familial setup for coal families.

(Courtesy Photo: Violet Gathalee Pavkovich)


However, Pavkovich’s fortitude elicited animosity from her male coworkers.

“A lot of them didn’t think women should be in the mines. They didn’t want to work with me,” she admits.

In her first few months underground, the men were relentless. They teased her with rats and refused to teach her how to operate the equipment, a skill necessary for her role as a general inside laborer (G.I.).

G.I.s perform brute work in the coal mine. They are required to assemble and move heavy machinery, as well as shovel coal by hand when it falls off of the beltway. In 1978, 57 percent of all female coal miners were G.I.s, compared to 20 percent of all men. Instead of improving her relationships with her coworkers, Pavkovich’s bosses demanded that she learn on her own.

“They wanted to use me,” she emphasizes. “The boss would order me around: ‘Violet this, and Violet that.’ He wouldn’t tell the other guys to do that stuff, and I did whatever he told me to do.”

In one instance, her coworkers’ obstinacy resulted in serious injury. She and another miner crouched in a low area of the shaft to secure the top of the mine with bolts.

“He wouldn’t teach me to run the machine. He should have been teaching me. That’s what I was there for,” Pavkovich insists.

Because she wasn’t taught correct safety procedure in the situation, Pavkovich moved in front of the machine. It smashed her leg when her coworker swung the equipment around.

“I still have a great big indentation from that,” she said.

Tallichet explains that the animosity between male and female coworkers materializes as the process of “housewifization.” Men pressure women to perform the same duties in the workplace as they traditionally do in the home.

“The result is a gendered division of labor that puts women at a disadvantage in the workplace,” Tallichet summarizes.

By refusing to teach Pavkovich the skills necessary to do her job, her male coworkers relegated her to menial and back-breaking tasks that mirrored a wife’s duties at home, like cleaning up the beltway or watching men perform the “real work.”

Pavkovich’s belittlement was also dangerously sexual. The company provided bathhouses on site, where most men changed before their shifts. As one of the only women at her mine, Pavkovich was given a separate bathhouse, but she felt uncomfortable using it. Every day, she got dressed for work at home, donning her denim uniform and tucking her hair completely into her hardhat.

“That’s the only way my coworkers ever saw me,” she explained.

One day, Pavkovich was late for work and unable to dress beforehand. When she arrived at the mine, the men were astonished to see her in feminine attire with her long brown hair cascading around her face. She quickly disappeared into the bathhouse, changed into her uniform and headed underground.

“I seen you when you came to work,” a man said, approaching her in an empty tunnel. “You really looked good.”

Pavkovich retorted that she had never given him a second thought and yet he moved closer. He chased her underground, trying to pin her against a piece of machinery.

“I knew what he was going to do,” Pavkovich recalls. “I had listened to him talk.”

Pavkovich immediately went to her boss and demanded that the man be removed from any of her future shifts. The boss reluctantly complied.

Tallichet explains that sexual assault and harassment in the mines is about dominance, rather than lust. The men’s refusal to acknowledge Pavkovich as a valuable coworker and the attempted sexual assault stemmed from the same desire to subordinate women.

“Objectification and work-related trivialization are mutually reinforcing processes,” Tallichet said. Like Pavkovich, many women dealt with the issues themselves to avoid any legal ramifications.

In 1981, however, eight women miners at a coal mine in northern West Virginia filed a lawsuit and sought $5.5 million in damages when their coworkers drilled a peephole into their bathhouse.

“This still goes on, everywhere,” Pavkovich laments.



‘Just like one of the guys’

In 1979, Pavkovich was laid off.

“When they hired me, they told me that they hadn’t had a layoff in 30 years, and that I wouldn’t have to worry about it. Three years later, I was laid off,” she remembers.

Layoffs increased during the late 1970s and early 1980s due to improvements in mining technology and deindustrialization. Tallichet explains that women were among the first to go.

“It gave the company the excuse it needed to get rid of those women who [they believed] weren’t qualified to be coal miners,” she explained.

Pavkovich returned to work in 1996, after seventeen years of raising her granddaughter.

“When I went back at age 54, I noticed a shift. They treated me just like one of the guys,” Pavkovich recalls. “They offered to help me. They weren’t mean to me.”

Pavkovich’s new coworkers were happy to include her in rites of passage, some of which were unwanted. Veteran coal miners often grease newcomers, a messy ritual in which a few men hold the rookie down and pour grease down his or her pants.

“It was humiliating,” Pavkovich said with a laugh.

The use of nicknames was another way that the male coal miners started to become more inclusive. None of the miners could pronounce her middle name or last name. They tried calling her “Pack” for a while, but they finally just settled on Violet.

By contrast, Addie Marie Jefferson, a 73-year-old coal miner in north central West Virginia, recalls her nickname with fondness. When her boss assigned tasks for the day, Addie noticed that he gave her more work than any other miner.

“If you want me to do all of those jobs, you’re going to have to pay me mo’ money,” she told him. Her coworkers, amused by her response, started calling her “Mo,” and the name stuck.

Addie Marie Jefferson said she got the nickname Mo’ from coworkers in the mines as a result of their amusement when she told the mine bosses “If you want me to do all of those jobs, you’re going to have to pay me mo’ money.” (Photo: Adelina Lancianese)


Tallichet credits newfound inclusivity to the adaptability of women rather than the sensitivity of men. Time allowed women to adapt to their environment and take on more masculine traits.

“Those women who could ‘act like a man’ and ‘still be a woman’ demonstrated considerable inner strength,” she said. Nicknames and initiations were signs that men finally acknowledged the strength of women.

Eventually, Pavkovich began to out-produce the men, which only increased their respect for her.

“I could shovel coal for two hours without stopping, even at 60 years old,” she boasts. Thirty-year-old miners would swap shoveling duties every half-hour while Pavkovich continued on.

“Not very long ago, a former coworker told my granddaughter that I was the best there was. Men couldn’t outwork me, and I never grumbled or complained.”

From miner to matriarch

In 2004 and at the age of 62, Pavkovich retired from the coal industry. Despite the practical jokes, the harassment and the disrespect at the beginning of her career, she said would choose coal mining again.

“There’s no job that a woman can’t do,” she said. Pavkovich is grateful that retirement has given her time with her family, who supported her during her years underground.

“She worked like the rest of the guys, and probably better than most,” said Pavkovich’s son James.

Over the years, Pavkovich worked from dawn until dusk, and then came home to make dinner for her family. She raised three children and a granddaughter. She nursed her ailing husband until he passed away in 2015. She baked for her coworkers, bringing elaborately decorated cakes for break-time birthday celebrations. She mothered and she mined coal.

Violet Gathalee Pavkovich stands on her small back porch. (Photo: Adelina Lancianese)


At her farmhouse in southern West Virginia, Pavkovich waves as I back down her gravel driveway. I think about the game I would play with my father’s overalls as a little girl, plucking them from the dryer and testing how long I could touch one of the scorching copper buttons before pulling away.

I wonder if Pavkovich has two washing machines. And then I realize—to my dismay and to my delight—that her second washing machine is probably her own two hands. She is a miner and a matriarch. Both of her identities are rich and necessary — just like West Virginia coal.

Adelina Lancianese (@AdLancianese) is a graduating senior in Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C. She is majoring in Culture and Politics and minoring in Justice and Peace Studies. Adelina is a freelance writer for The Beckley Register-Herald, The Post-Report, and The Washington Post. She also serves as project assistant for The American Pilgrimage Project in conjunction with StoryCorps. She hopes to pursue a career in feature writing or political journalism upon graduation.

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Challenging Stereotypes

The Lies We’re Told About Appalachia



FILE - In this April 13, 2018 file photo, teachers from across Kentucky gather inside the state Capitol to rally for increased funding and to protest changes to their state funded pension system in Frankfort, Ky. Thousands of teachers took their voices to state Capitols this spring, winning pay raises in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, and increased education spending in Kentucky. Most state lawmakers have returned to their districts to campaign, and teachers have followed them. Scores of educators are running for office across the country, hoping to sustain the momentum from their marches and strikes. Photo: AP Photo/Bryan Woolston, File

The old exploitative images are indelible: out of work, white, needy. They obscure the region’s diversity and long tradition of activism.

Granny Hazel taught me how to feed the chickens. Hold the ear of dried corn in both hands and twist to pry the kernels from the cob, then throw it out into the yard for the waiting chickens to eat. I loved watching them peck away at the ground, eating the corn our family had grown that summer. At 5 years old, I’m sure I thought the chickens were her pets. Maybe I thought she just fed them like that because she liked to watch them peck at the ground, too, softly clucking as they did so.

Appalachia stereotypes came from common images from the War on Poverty era of the mid-1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson and Ladybird Johnson visited Tom Fletcher in Martin County, Kentucky. Photo: LBJ Presidential Library.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned she killed those chickens by twisting their necks with her bare hands to feed her family. This gentle, kind woman did what she had to do, just like countless Appalachian women before, during and after her time.

Granny Hazel was a complex, fully realized person, as are all Appalachian people. But, because of the images propagated about the region by media and Hollywood, most only know Appalachia as one thing. Either the kind granny teaching her granddaughter to feed the chickens, or the necessary violence that is killing your own animals to eat them.

Stories about Appalachia, who tells them and who gets to claim them, matter a great deal when it comes to understanding the place and people more fully. And that understanding is critical because, without a deeper and more complete understanding of Appalachia, it will be hard for its people to build a brighter future that crosses lines of division and works toward parity between race and class.

Appalachia has been portrayed in various oversimplified and negative ways throughout modern history. Scholars such as Meredith McCarroll point out that the common stereotypical images of the region that most people know today came from the War on Poverty era of the mid-1960s. The images were voraciously mined by media makers shortly after President Lyndon Johnson stood on Tom Fletcher’s porch in Martin County, Kentucky, to declare his administration would fight tirelessly to end American poverty.

These images—of an all-white populace, depressed-looking men hunched over from years working in the mines, dirty-faced and barefoot children, and women in shift dresses, holding a baby in one arm, cooking over a wood stove with the other—have defined Appalachia for at least two generations. In her new book, Unwhite: Appalachia, Race and Film (University of Georgia Press, 2018), McCarroll tells us these images are buttressed by generations of images that came before: the lazy, shiftless, oftentimes violent hillbilly man and his over-sexualized wife with their many underfed children. That these images have now shifted to be more about the out-of-work but noble coal miner, is nothing new; this trend of “rediscovering” Appalachia happens every 20–30 years, right about when the nation needs an explanation for some kind of major shift in economy or politics. But what McCarroll asks us to do is to dig a little deeper and ask why these images are the ones being taken out of the hills in the first place.

The answer, of course, has everything to do with power. McCarroll suggests we adopt the term “unwhite” to describe Appalachian people, since they are portrayed by Hollywood as neither of the dominant White culture nor of the minority cultures of people of color—they are in between, but always othered with a purpose. At the turn of the 20th century, the coal industry wanted to extract as much coal and wealth from the mountains as they possibly could. So, they worked with local politicians and national media makers to cast mountain people as either backward, ignorant, and dangerous, or as simple-minded folk in need of a strong hand. Either way, the narratives were meant to set Appalachian people squarely outside the dominant culture—a relic of the past that, if they could not help themselves out of poverty and assimilate into the dominant culture, could not be saved no matter what the country did to help. When a place and its people are cast as lesser, it makes it a whole lot easier to justify taking everything from them.

“One of the most effective means of controlling a people is controlling their image,” McCarroll writes. The stories being told about Appalachians were not made or controlled by them. They had little say in what images the rest of the country saw, and how those images would shape policy, grantmaking and the local economy for generations.

From Paint and Cabin Creeks in West Virginia to Brookside in Harlan County, women have been on the frontlines of every labor struggle the mountains have known. Jessica Wilkerson, in To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice (University of Illinois Press, 2018) shows how women cared for their children and their male relatives who were disabled in the mines, or they stood on the picket lines when the men weren’t allowed to. They started clinics when they were needed, like the Mud Creek Clinic, launched in 1973 by Eula Hall in Grethel, Kentucky. They organized across racial lines, like Edith and Sue Ella Easterling did at the Marrowbone Folk School; they held the line, like Betty Eldridge did when miners went on strike at the Brookside mine; they even went to work in the mines in the 1970s and ’80s as a way to seek equality in the workplace.

Women, people of color, young people, and queer people have held this place together, and held it up, making sure we kept our eyes on the importance of working together to address the challenges we face, as Wilkerson points out through the story of Appalachian women activists. And yet, their names will rarely, if ever, be seen in print, on TV, or in the movies. Children will not learn about their efforts in school. It’s a whole lot easier to keep Appalachia in an easily digestible box than it is to make the story more complex, and in so doing, more real.

To this day, Appalachia is a largely misunderstood place and people. National reporters have flocked to the region since 2014, the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty, and again in a wave of fervor after the 2016 presidential election, to seek an explanation for the nation’s ills by trying to define us and tell us who we are. As McCarroll says, Appalachia has largely been cast “as a scapegoat for America’s neglect, poverty, obesity, greed, and environmental destruction.” For the most part, these waves of reporters have sought the easy answers—the bootstraps and hardhats narrative; the hopelessness narrative; the brain-drain narrative. And the region has suffered for their unwillingness to seek the answers to why the conditions the region faces exist at all.

No one narrative can tell the full story of an entire region and the people that live there because no one person or story can lay complete claim to a place. Appalachia, like every other region of this country, contains multitudes, and without fully grasping that and showcasing that whenever possible, not only will people outside the region never fully see us as human, but we will lose the ability to see ourselves and our complex lives within those stories. A diverse and complicated populace can never fully know who it is if every story ever told about it is missing entire plot points.

Many powerful people have worked for decades to obscure the truth about Appalachia in the hopes that they would then be able to reap as much reward for themselves as possible, completely unfettered. Throughout the history of the region, other people have always been trying to tell us who we are. In Never Justice, Never Peace: Mother Jones and the Miner Rebellion at Paint and Cabin Creeks (West Virginia University Press, 2018), Lon Kelly Savage and Ginny Savage Ayers relate how that’s shaped perceptions of Mary “Mother” Jones as she witnessed and spurred on the mine wars in early 20th century West Virginia. But that theme carried forward in time to the antipoverty and welfare rights movements and union battles of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s that saw women in eastern Kentucky taking lead roles, to the “War on Coal” rhetoric of today.

Now, though, as coal reserves continue to dwindle and companies like Blackjewel in Harlan County try to shutter operations without paying their workers, as governments in Kentucky and West Virginia try to strip teachers of their pay and dignity, as healthcare access for the most in need among us is once again threatened, we are remembering our history of fighting for each other, and we are standing on the line once more, just as we’ve always done, because this, too, is who we are.

The time has come, then, to tell a new story of this place—to reclaim the truth and the complexity of being of and from Appalachia. We must talk about the struggle and the tragedy, but we must tell the truth of those struggles and why they exist in the first place. We must tell the tales of the women who’ve infused an ethos of caregiving into the activism in which they felt compelled to participate, an ethos, as Wilkerson points out, that remains in the justice movements in the region today. We must fight back against the stereotypical images about Appalachia that still portray it as “the strange and peculiar place that is easy to forget,” as McCarroll writes; we can’t let those images define us. And, we need to know that the union organizing Mother Jones bolstered in Paint Creek was part of a larger movement for justice against oppressive systems that continues today. We must embrace the contradictions and live within them, and present to the world and to ourselves our truest form. We must understand that while we fed the chickens, we were preparing to kill them for food.

Unless we know the truth of Appalachia in our bones, we won’t fully be able to build a more just and equitable future in this place because we won’t even know where to start. A more complex story of self could help us take that first step, and the more truth we reveal and uncover, the more steps we’ll be able to take. And just like Mother Jones, the Appalachian women activists of the mid-20th century, and the documentarians attempting to tell more honest stories of the region, we’ll move forward, together, building a stronger Appalachia as we go along.

This article was originally published by YES! Magazine.

Ivy Brashear is the Appalachian Transition Director at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.

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Challenging Stereotypes

Book ‘UnWhite’ Examines Appalachia’s Portrayal in Movies



In movies, the people and places of Appalachia are often made into an “other.” That makes it easy to both romanticize and look down upon the region.

One example is the common joke many Appalachians are all too familiar with, when someone who isn’t from here pretends to play the banjo riff from “Deliverance.”

In Meredith McCarroll’s book “UnWhite: Appalachia, Race and Film,” she examines the way the people of Appalachia are portrayed in films.

McCarroll’s book looks at how often stereotypes play into the way filmmakers depict Appalachians, and how race plays into these stereotypes.

“I had the experience of running into, almost literally, a reading of the Affrilachian poets at the University of Tennessee and at that reading, I realized I don’t have to think about race and the region completely differently,” she said.

McCarroll said she decided to “blow up” the idea that Appalachia is a monolithic white culture. To do that, she watched a lot of movies.

She said she saw the same patterns of representation over and over again. She realized it parallels the way people of color have been represented in movies, although she makes it very clear that she does not believe that Appalachian people have been discriminated against in the same way or to the same degree. But, said McCarroll, the function of the lazy stereotypes are similar.

“A lot of times those images of poverty and rural poverty get placed in the mountains and the mountain south. And then something interesting happens as people begin to see the mountain south, as people begin to see Appalachia a place that lacks diversity.”

She explained that in films, the people of Appalachia are often romanticized, portrayed as  “our contemporary ancestors,” implying that they were a throwback to the people who settled this country. At the same time, she said, Appalachians are also demonized in films — as is the case in “Deliverance.”

Looking at Appalachia simply through popular media is limiting because of the stereotypes in use.

“Appalachia is an incredibly diverse place. It spans 13 states, it has economic diversity, it has racial diversity, it has urban and rural. That sometimes is missed if you watch a movie or two and think you understand a place,” McCarroll said.

The book “UnWhite: Appalachia, Race and Film” is available through the University of Georgia Press.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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