For three generations, Tanya James’ family has worked the coal mines of West Virginia. James is no different. She began working in the mines in 1979, when only about 1 in 100 coal miners were women — and she didn’t begin under the happiest of circumstances.
Her father died when she was 17, leaving her mother to take care of the family. Out of necessity, Tanya’s mother took a mining class, and Tanya herself wasn’t far behind. Every day, she went down with her mother, to the point where the instructor invited Tanya to join the class, too.
Six months later, Tanya was working in coal mines, as well.
“I know what it feels like to have your mother in the mines,” Tanya James, now a mother herself, tells her daughters Michelle Paugh and Trista James on a recent visit with StoryCorps. “I was pretty protective of her even though I knew she could protect herself. I seen her pick up a guy by the neck,” she laughs, “so she was a tough cookie.”
From an early age, Tanya James says, she learned an important lesson from her mother: “If you don’t fight for yourself, ain’t nobody gonna do it for you.”
That attitude helped give her the strength to deal with an environment that wasn’t exactly welcoming to women. It was a long-held suspicion among miners that it was bad luck for a woman to even enter a mine. When they did enter one, many people just figured it was to find a man.
And that’s to say nothing of the dangers awaiting her in the deeps from the men themselves. In a survey that came out of the 1980 National Conference of Women Coal Miners, it was found that 76 percent of female coal miners had been propositioned by coworkers. Seventeen percent had been physically attacked.
For the first six months on the job, new miners were not allowed to go down alone. At times, James found that company to be a danger in its own right.
“I remember one time they sent me and this one man back into a part of the mines that nobody goes into. And he started getting a little too friendly,” James says. She warned him off, but he kept repeating his advances.
“Well, the third time he approached me, he put his hands on my shoulders, and when he did, I just brought my knee up. I hit him true and hit the mark,” she laughs. “And he went down, rolled and cried and threw up. He got the point. He never bothered me again.”
Time and again her mother’s lesson made its value known.
“You had to make them respect you. You had to prove yourself daily,” James says. “But I don’t believe in stuff being handed to you. I think you need to work for everything you get. If it ain’t worth working for, it ain’t worth having, in my opinion.”
Tanya James spent more than 20 years in the coal mines, and recently she became the first woman to hold a seat on the international executive board of the United Mine Workers of America. Recently, she be she’s tried to instill the same beliefs in her daughters.
“I think you’ve proved to me more than once that you’re not going to let anyone run over you, and I’m proud of you for it,” she tells them.
“You’re an extraordinary woman,” Trista tells her, “and I’d like to be one one day, too.”
Produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher Morris.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.