Tanya James was 17 years old when her father died in 1978. His death left her and her mother, Beryle Hanlin, struggling financially. So they did what so many generations of West Virginians before them had done—they went to work in the coal mines.
At the time, almost 99 percent of miners were men, and some still believed in the old superstition that a woman setting foot in a coal mine brought bad luck. Many also assumed that the few women who took the job only did so to find a husband. Harassment, both verbal and physical, was not uncommon, and a 1979 survey found that more than three-quarters of female coal miners had been sexually propositioned at work, and that 17 percent had been physically attacked.
Both Tanya and Beryle regularly faced hostility from their male colleagues. Early in her career, Tanya was sent to a remote part of the mine with a male colleague who kept trying to touch her. Unable to convince him to stop by simply telling him “No,” Tanya put an end to his behavior by kneeing him in the groin.
But none of this discouraged Tanya and she never considered quitting. Her career underground lasted more than 20 years and she recently became the first woman in her union’s 124-year history elected to international office. She came to StoryCorps with her daughters, Trista James (above left) and Michelle Paugh (above right), to tell them what it was like for her early in her mining career.
Originally aired March 18, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.