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 while her husband was in poor health. Eager to earn more than she could in the low-wage, female-dominated jobs she was working (a waitress and 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, often turning to Burns for advice and support. Burns became a nurse, a cattle farmer, and a grandmother of four.