Monday, May 6, 2013
Kopp: A Man's World
A Man's World: Women in the US Mining Industry
In nineteenth century United States history, men made up the majority of the publicly visible working class. Men tended to serve in the crafts, industrial manufacturing, and manual agricultural labor. Though there were women in these sectors as well, such as garment factory workers, many women had positions in more private settings, such as domestic servants, prostitutes, foodsellers, and boardinghouse operators. They ways in which women became more visible in the working class changed with westward migration during the “Manifest Destiny” period of the mid-to-late 1800s. Many women took on the task of traveling across the country with their families, facing hard conditions along the journey and then helping to financially support their families once they reached the West and Southwest. While some women became entertainers or ran boardinghouses as their mode of income, many women took on more physically laborious jobs, one of them being mining.
The mining industry in the Western United States was predominantly made up of white (or “Anglo” men). Mexican and Latin American women trying to find a place in the mining industries of California, New Mexico, and Nevada struggled for equality (both in the workplace and socially), their jobs, and their sanity. A multitude of challenges were posed to both working women already residing in the west and to women traveling cross-country to find work in the mines. Though gender and ethnic inequality hardship did not fade away, more women began to take jobs and infiltrate this masculinized industry as mining continued to boom throughout the West. However, these women faced new challenges—challenges that extended out of the harsh conditions of the labor itself and into the cutthroat environment of labor unions and strikes. Women who worked in mining during the twentieth century struggled to fight for equality in unions1 and faced challenges against mining companies and law enforcement when they were striking for better working conditions. Women of the twentieth century also supported their mining husbands who worked for mining companies by establishing auxiliaries and standing in picket lines when their spouses could not. Women miners of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century were both faced with gender stereotypes, racism, but the latter group made an impact in their working class by fighting for equality, better wages, and conditions in the working place. These groups of women miners and women in mining families contributed a great deal of their lives to their survival, work, and activism.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Ferminia Sarras arrived in Virginia City, Nevada from Nicaragua. She brought with her four daughters but no husband—historic texts speculate that she may have left her home country a widow.2 Ferminia carried a pick ax for diggings and “bucking” boulders and also a gun to ward off wolves and coyotes.3 The conditions of the landscape of the mining countryside were dry and desolate—finding game and water was often difficult. Ferminia, like the other mining workers at the time, had to carry a pack over forty pounds containing provisions while she climbed the Nevada hills in search of ore. She was noted for her remarkable strength despite her short stature.4 Ferminia not only faced harsh climate and terrain conditions, but social ones as well. The California Gold Rush masculinized the act of mining so much, the women within the industry had to break through the gender stereotype barrier.
As a woman in a so-called 'man's industry', Ferminia was an exceptional women because she was successful in her mining endeavors—this was a feat rarely even accomplished by male miners. She became known as the “Nevada Copper Queen”.5 Being both Latin American and female, odds were against Ferminia when she set out in search of gold, silver, and copper. In addition to dealing with general racism in all work industries, women like Ferminia had to deal with the history of excluding Latinos and Latin Americans from mines in the Gold Rush Period with the Foreign Miners Tax. Despite these roadblocks, she asserted her independence as both a worker and a woman. Ferminia did not depend on the men in her life for her livelihood—she lived through her prospecting.
This way of life was also followed by women such as Nellie Cashman, who braved the extremely cold conditions in Klondike, Alaska. She worked alongside men in her mines and coveted respect from the male mining community.6 Cashman was unique in that she was able to operate her own businesses in the mining industry and men worked alongside her as equals. Though she did not have a fortune as large as Ferminia’s, she did make as many as twenty claims while she prospected in Alaska. Following the lives of Ferminia Sarras and Nellie Cashman depict how women miners broke through social, cultural, and political barriers during their time. Though not all mining women were successful in building their fortunes, (and neither were all men), some women were able to blaze a path that allowed for future generations of women to continue to break the mold of the 'domesticated housewife' in a patriarchal, capitalist society.
The same gender and ethnic discrimination was still intact in the mid-twentieth century. Women were not considered as “full” participants in mining as men were. However, a landmark event in which women showed their contribution to mining was the 1951 strike against the Empire Zinc Company in Zinc Town, New Mexico. The Anglo and Mexican men who worked in the mines were striking for better working conditions but their efforts were halted when the Taft-Hartley Act prohibited them from striking. However, as seen in Salt of the Earth the movie, this did not bar women (wives and sisters of the male miners) from holding the picket line.7 In fact, because women took advantage of this legal loophole and replaced men on the picket line, their efforts to keep scabs away from the mine was a success. Despite facing opposition from their own husbands and fellow community members when they proposed taking over for the men on strike, and despite being hit with tear gas, harassed by the local sheriff, and even unlawfully arrested, these “Salt of the Earth” women persevered and carried out a landmark moment of labor activism for working class women. This event inspired and influenced women (both Anglo and Mexican American) throughout the U.S. to seek jobs in mining and other masculinized industries.
A similar moment of labor activism came thirty years later. The Arizona Copper Mine Strike of 1983 happened during the worst United States recession since the Great Depression. Flossie Navarro was hired, along with many other women during World War II, by the Phelps Dodge Mining company. According to an interview with Navarro, “On our shift it was all women... Those women kept that mine going.” 8 In 1981, in an attempt to keep running during the recession, Phelps Dodge Mining laid off hundreds of workers. When the mines finally reopened the next year, the company and unions were unable to reach an agreement and miners went on strike in 1983. Phelps Dodge wanted to freeze workers' wages and end cost-of-living protection. When injunctions barred men from picketing, their wives and daughters—as well as women miners—turned out for the picket lines in order to keep the union alive.9 Women miners during Navarro's time were seen as unladylike and unwomanly (by both men and women) for working and picketing in such a masculine industry. Women on the lines endured naming calling and were unlawfully arrested. Both women and men were injured during riots between strikers and strikebreakers/authorities.10
Despite dealing with these hardships, many women were still able to organize themselves. The Morenci Miner's Women's Auxiliary stepped in to do mass picketing during the Arizona Copper Mine Strike. Although auxiliaries were often 'domesticated' (i.e. they fed and clothed children and families during the strike), the MMWA actively maintained the picket lines and organized rallies to raise awareness of the miners' plight. Although the women's contribution to the Phelps Dodge strike was ignored by much of the media, it greatly impacted the women involved. One of the leaders of the MMWA at the time of the Arizona Copper Mine Strike was Anna O'Leary, a woman of Hispanic descent. O'Leary and women like her faced opposition on both sides of the workforce spectrum: sexism and racism. O'Leary's outlook on the strike (which eventually failed when the mining union was decertified in 1984) was one of hope. “Through the strike, I have learned to appreciated my culture and myself.”11 This ideology applied to many women who were part of the 1983 strike. “"Nothing can ever be the same as it was before," said Diane McCormick of the Morenci Miners Women's Auxiliary. "Look at us. At the beginning of this strike, we were just a bunch of ladies."”12
Women who worked in the mining industry endured not only negative responses to their work from the people around them, but also the physical aspects of such a demanding, traditionally “masculine” labor. Both women miners of the nineteenth century and women in the twentieth century faced these adversities, but they were persistent in their attempts to succeed in this industry and to defy the gender and ethnic biases in place. Although women like Ferminia and Cashman did not organized themselves into labor unions or women's auxiliaries, their independence was one of the factors that kept women in the mining industry. Without women in the 19th century braving the dangerous conditions of mining and break their social molds, it may have take much longer for women of the 20th century to find their place in the unions, in mining, and in working class history.
1 Michael Seitzman, North Country, film, directed by Niki Caro (2005; USA: Participant Productions, 2005.)
2 Jan Cleere, More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Nevada Women, (Guilford, Connecticut: Morris Book Publishing, 2005), 17. This book is a collection of brief biographies that profile the lives of women who lived and worked in Nevada during the late 19th century.
3 Kerby Jackson, The Mining Review. (Oregon, Jan 2010), Web. 30 Mar 2013.
4 Sally Zanjani, A Mine of Her Own: Women Prospectors in the American West, 1850-1950, (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 60-63.
5 Sally Zanjani, A Mine of Her Own: Women Prospectors in the American West, 1850-1950, (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 60-63.
6 Sally Zanjani, A Mine of Her Own: Women Prospectors in the American West, 1850-1950, (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 8-10.
7 Michael Wilson, Salt of the Earth, film, directed by Herbert Biberman (1954; Bayard: Independent Production Company/Independent Productions, 1954.)
8 Barbara Kingslover, Holding the Line: Women In The Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), 3-10 . Kingslover’s interviews with women of the Phelps Dodge Copper Mine allows the reader to get a new perspective on unions and strikes during the late 20th century.
9 Barbara Kingslover, Holding the Line: Women In The Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), 64-70.
10 Rosenblum, Jonathan. Copper Crucible, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1998), 3-10. The Copper Crucible focuses on the brutality of both the employer and law enforcement against the workers and strikers during the 1983 copper mine strike. It also depicts how the strikers were treated on the lines and how they interacted with strikebreakers.
11 Lee, Heller. "Women and Mining: Holding the Line." Off Our Backs Vol. 20, No.5, The Work Issue , May 1990, 22.
12 Barbara Kingslover, Holding the Line: Women In The Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1996)