Coalmining Women (1981)

Coalmining Women (1981) 
(38min) 16mm, color, sound
Director: Elizabeth Barret; Narrator, Helen Matthews Lewis; Crew, Frances Morton and Mimi Pickering; “Coalmining Woman” composer and singer, Hazel Dickens
Grant Awarded to Appalshop
Archive: Appalshop


Interviewed at home and on the job, female coal miners tell of the conditions that led them to seek employment in this traditionally male-dominated industry — and the problems they encountered once hired. 

Coalmining Women traces the historical contributions of women to coal mining in Appalachia and their emerging presence in the mines in the 1970s. Interviewed at home and on the job, female coal miners tell of the conditions that led them to seek employment in this traditionally male-dominated industry — and the problems they encountered once hired. Watching these women bolt mine roofs, shovel beltlines, haul rock dust, and build ventilation barriers leaves little doubt that they can, indeed, do the work while bringing a special understanding to the problems all miners face. Coalmining Women traces women’s significant contributions to past coalfield struggles and the importance of their newer position as working miners in an excellent film for audiences interested in women in nontraditional roles, women’s history, labor studies, and women as a force for social change.

Coalmining Women filmmaker Elizabeth Barret has focused on women’s issues since the outset of her Appalshop career. In the mid-1970s, in the midst of second wave feminism, she directed Nature’s Way and Quilting Women, both of which specifically addressed women’s experiences in the region. Through interviews with female coal miners in Kentucky, Coalmining Women sheds light on histories of women’s exclusion from coal mining and their prominent roles in movement-building. Appalachian Studies pioneer and sociologist Helen Matthews Lewis narrates, calling women coal miners “an organizing and irritating force with which the authority and companies have to reckon.” The film draws from an educational video aesthetic reminiscent of PBS specials and ascribes to its subjects an intellectual quality that is often doubly denied to women and Appalachians alike. Another strong feminist voice from the region, revered singer-songwriter and activist Hazel Dickens, wrote the song “Coalmining Woman” specifically for the film. In fact, much of the soundtrack complements the narrative and reinforces the film’s feminist politics. Coalmining Women exemplifies Appalshop’s ethos of self-representation, where artists from the region use their intimate knowledge of place to amplify the stories and lived experiences of central Appalachian people. In addition, it is one among several films that marked Appalshop’s evolution from a group of passionate youth media producers learning their craft and finding their voices through the 1970s, to a collective of professional artists whose films were becoming more complex, more analytical, and more technically proficient in the 1980s.

Elizabeth Barret is the producer/director of the acclaimed media production Stranger with a Camera, a personal and poetic interrogation of the documentary genre that raises far-reaching questions about what it means to take pictures. Her place-based work is produced in association with the artist-centered organization Appalshop located in the Appalachian coalfields. Barret is the recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Film/Video/Multimedia Fellowship, NEA Southeast Media Fellowship, and Kentucky Arts Council Al Smith Fellowship in Media Arts. Her work has been screened at venues worldwide and supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Ford Foundation, Independent Television Service (ITVS), Kentucky Foundation for Women, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, NEH, Soros Documentary Fund, and others. The award-winning Stranger with a Camera (2000), a self-reflexive exploration regarding issues of media representation, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, was selected for PBS broadcast on the series P.O.V., and presented at 21C Museum, Anthology Film Archives, Film Streams cinema, Guggenheim Museum, MoMA, Museum of Fine Art, Houston, Pacific Film Archive, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, among other venues. Her other works include Quilting Women (1980), Hand-carved (1980), and Long Journey Home (1987). Barret founded the Appalshop Archive in 2001, and most recently was Producer/Director of Portraits & Dreams, a documentary in collaboration with photographer Wendy Ewald, which premiered on P.O.V. in 2020.