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Women coal miners to gather Aug. 2-4 in Jonesborough

Women coal miners, Vansant, Va., in 1976. Courtesy Earl Dotter (www.earldotter.com).

JOHNSON CITY (July 24, 2013) – On the first weekend in August, women coal miners and their supporters from across the United States, Canada and England will gather for a reunion in Jonesborough, near the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University, where important collections related to women miners are preserved.

Participants will include former underground miners who pioneered gender integration in the coal industry in the 1970s and representatives from Women Against Pit Closures in England.  This reunion is the first international gathering of women coal miners in nearly 15 years.

On Saturday, Aug. 3, the Archives of Appalachia will film interviews with some of the women miners, with assistance from ETSU’s Office of University Relations.  These interviews will strengthen an understanding of coal and labor history while fostering a greater appreciation for women miners, according to Amy Collins, director of the Archives of Appalachia, which is a unit of the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services (CASS) at ETSU. 

Interest in the history of women coal miners draws researchers from across the country and abroad to the archived collections at ETSU, which include the Coal Employment Project Records, the Jeanne M. Rasmussen Collection, the June M. Rostan Papers and the Marat Moore Collection.  These collections document women miners’ efforts in the areas of mine health and safety, pregnancy research, parental leave and pay equity.

As part of the reunion, CASS is sponsoring a concert by musician Sue Massek on Aug. 3 at 7 p.m. at the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre.  The concert is free and open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis.  Any donations given during the event will support the work of the repertory theater.

Massek’s performance is based on a new one-woman play by Si Kahn entitled “Precious Memories.”  Khan’s work celebrates the life and music of Sarah Ogan Gunning, an organizer and songwriter in the eastern Kentucky coalfields in the early 20th century.  Gunning was deeply admired by fellow folksinger Woody Guthrie for her talent and activism.

Massek has worked through her music to advance social justice for more than 30 years.  As a founding member of the Reel World String Band, she has toured the United States, Canada and Italy.  She has also been involved with the Highlander Center in New Market, which has trained grassroots organizers since the 1930s, and she played for many Coal Employment Project (CEP) conferences.

The CEP was a national nonprofit organization of women miners that was initiated in the late 1970s by lawyer Betty Jean Hall to address issues not being discussed at the time by the United Mine Workers of America, of which most women miners were members.  Hall was working in East Tennessee, and many of her early contacts were mining coal in the Appalachian coalfields.

The CEP grew from a support organization to an activist network led by women miners, and they traveled internationally to meet women in nontraditional occupations and to build support for labor campaigns.  Women miners forged close ties with women in England who had formed the Women Against Pit Closures in the 1980s.

From 1979 until 1999, the CEP held conferences around the country hosted by local women miners’ support groups, and these events drew union officials, labor activists, researchers and media.  The organization closed its doors in 1999 but left behind substantial archives that are now preserved at the Archives of Appalachia.

For more information on the Women Coal Miners Reunion, contact Marat Moore at (301) 474-2721, (240) 240-7617 or .  For more information on the Archives of Appalachia at ETSU, call (423) 439-4338.