'It has to be a Miner's Wife!' Representing Women in Mining Activism


Spence, Jean, and Carol Stephenson. 2019. " 'It has to be a Miner's Wife!' Representing Women in Mining Activism." In Shafted: the Miners, the Media and the Aftermath, edited by Granville Williams. Exeter: Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. 

Authors: Jean Spence, Carol Stephenson


The question of identity permeates interest in women's activism within mining politics. It is implicit in requests from researchers and students to interview ‘miner’s wives' who were involved in the strike. It is foregrounded in commemorative events and articles that seek to honour women activists. It is central to characterisation in cultural productions representing the history of mining life and politics. Having been a miner, a miner's wife, a member of a miner's family, or at a stretch, a member of a mining community, carries its own authority. Insofar as the narratives offered by individuals who can claim a mining identity are taken as authentic, they are regarded as self-explanatory and generally 'true'. Three instances from our encounters in recent years illustrate this: an academic speaker at a Working Class Studies conference offered the information that she was a miner's daughter to add weight to her analysis; a PhD student prioritised contact with miners' wives to access understanding of the Orgreave Truth and Justice campaign; a writer at a symposium presented the intergenerational stories of one female strike activist as representative of the history of all women in mining life.

Activist miners' wives have come to be seen as symbolic of the potential of all female working class struggle to create a better world. The ideal of the 'miner's wife' contains within it qualities such as loyalty, endurance, forbearance, selflessness. The activist wife is additionally brave and strong. Her commitment to justice and collective well-being exemplify the values of working class organisation, socialism and trade unionism. Yet the narrative piquancy of these imputed virtues rests upon the historically unequal sexual division of labour in mining life in which the partnership between men and women was ultimately framed by male power. The designation 'miner's wife' contains implicit gendered constraints. In the miners' strike, these constraints were challenged by the realities of female activism that included typically 'feminist' strategies of independent organisation, decision-making, and action. The process of collective female activism involved conversation and consciousness raising. However, to have acknowledged the feminist implications of this process would have disrupted the terms in which women could support the miners. In a predominantly male strike struggling for male jobs, led by the overwhelmingly male NUM, it was incumbent upon the women to manage gaps between expectation and reality in ways that did not challenge the masculine power of mining. Foregrounding the leadership of 'miners' wives' and a particular trajectory of activism in representing the women's struggle was a useful mechanism for achieving this.

Keywords: women's activism

Topics: Civil Society, Extractive Industries, Gender, Women

Year: 2019

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