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MAKERS Moment

The Backhanded Compliment

The Backhanded Compliment

More From Barbara

In this video

Burns shares her retort to a classic sexist backhanded compliment.

Barbara's Biography

Secret to a Happy Marriage: “Treat your husband or your wife the same way you did on your first date.”
Most Meaningful Advice:  From her father: “To be honest and always remember that I was no better than anyone else but I was no less.  And not to worry about things, to deal with them.”
Biggest Influences: “All the women that preceded me that were brave enough to go into non-traditional jobs.”
“Not a Quitter”: After sticking out a thirteen-year sexual harassment suit Burns knows a thing or two about perseverance: “When you get discouraged just take a deep breath, wait a day or two, and just start over.”

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.

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