MAKERS Profile

Barbara Burns

Coal Miner

In this video

Barbara Burns on becoming one of the first female coal miners and her courageous legal battle against sexual harassment.
Barbara Burns was one of the first female coal miners in the country and an ‘everywoman’ champion against sexual harassment in the workplace. The oldest of eight, Burns grew up in West Virginia, in a family where almost all the men were coal miners. By 1975, she was a mother of two, with ambitions to pursue nursing and a husband in poor health. Eager to earn more than she could in the low-wage, female-dominated jobs she was working—waitress, cashier, she went to work in the mines as one of the first female coal miners in the country. Burns went underground and worked her way up to foreman before being recruited to Smoot Coal as a lab technician in 1984.   At Smoot, Burns found herself the target of aggressive sexual advances and stalking by her boss, the company president. She endured the escalating harassment for months, scared to quit because of her husband’s failing health and the threat of being blacklisted from another job in the coal industry. But in 1986, unable to take it any longer, she sought out attorney Betty Jean Hall and filed a complaint with the West Virginia Commission on Human Rights. Excruciatingly, the case dragged on until 2000, when the West Virginia Supreme Court finally ruled in her favor. Meanwhile, Burns’ sexual harassment case, the first from a coal miner, encouraged Burns’ coal miner peers and women in other industries to move forward with their own complaints, and they often turned to Burns for advice and support. Burns became a nurse, a cattle farmer, and a grandmother of four.

More From Barbara

Pink Panties Revenge
Burns tells the story of the humorous way she combated some early sexual harassment on the job.

Impact on Family
Burns explains how enduring the thirteen-year sexual harassment lawsuit actually helped bond her family.

Mining’s ‘No Women’ Wives' Tales
Burns reveals the old superstitions that kept women out of coal mining.

A Female President
Burns considers the peace-loving, compassionate qualities a female president would bring to the office.

Together as a Family
Burns shares her advice on raising children as a working mother and having your kids help out.

The Backhanded Compliment
Burns shares her retort to a classic sexist backhanded compliment.

Not a Manhater
Burns talks about how she drew strength from the women's movement but shied from the media-fueled stereotypes of feminists.

Plastered With Playgirl
Burns recounts some of the early hazing she endured as a woman, and the new person, at the mines. 

A Life Bigger Than Mom’s
Burns and her father saw a bigger future for her than the life of her homemaker mother.