Jessica Rolston thought a career in anthropology would involve studying exotic cultures around the world. Instead, the case study that launched her career was in her hometown, where an unusual number of women work in coal mining.

As a miner’s daughter growing up near Wyoming’s coal-rich Powder River Basin, Jessica Rolston had no intention of following her father into mining. After high school, she fled to what she calls a ‘hippie, granola, liberal arts school,’ Macalester College in Minnesota,to pursue a degree in anthropology.

She envisioned a career studying obscure cultures in far-flung corners of the earth, but after taking a series of entry-level summer jobs in the mines back home, the budding anthropologist began to realize that a uniquely interesting case study lay in her own backyard.

“I was high school valedictorian and went to this fancy college, yet I found it incredibly difficult to figure out how to do these jobs,” she recalls, speaking of her 12-hour shifts loading coal trains, hosing down equipment and driving 18-foot-tall haul trucks. “I gained a new appreciation for what these men and women did. I was humbled, and I was fascinated.”

Fast-forward to 2014 and 33-year-old Rolston, Hennebach Assistant Professor of Energy Policy in the Division of Liberal Arts and International Studies, is unveiling her first book, ‘Mining Coal and Undermining Gender: Rhythms of Work and Family in the American West’ (Rutgers University Press). Years in the making, the 230-page book offers an intimate look at the successful integration of women into her hometown coal mines, providing a valuable model for an industry striving to boost the role of females in the face of negative, often misguided stereotypes.

“When you do a Google search for women miners, you come up with images of women with black faces,” Rolston says. “It is an index of them being this exploited, blue collar occupation. That is not the case in Wyoming.”

The book grew out of Rolston’s dissertation at the University of Michigan. A National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship funded another year of postdoctoral research. In all, she spent 22 months riding along-side shift workers in the wee hours of the night and interviewing their families during the day, in addition to the nine months she spent working in the mines herself. What she found was a reality far different from the one put forth in movies like ‘North Country,’ the 2005 drama about rampant sexual harassment in a Minnesota iron mine.

“In Wyoming, there was a sense that it was totally normal for women to be out there,” she says.

F_Women_Mining_sb_Rolston_final_cover2-hpWith a dozen surface mines churning out 462 million tons of coal annually, the Powder River Basin is the largest coal-producing region in the country. But it also holds another distinction: Nearly one in four of its production workers are women. (The national average hovers around 6 percent.) Single mothers (even those without college degrees) comfortably support their families with salaries of $60,000 to $100,000. They drive three-story, $3 million haul trucks and $50 million draglines, massively powerful equipment that was once strictly the domain of men. Harassment is rare.

“Many of the women miners had experienced harassment and hostility in previous jobs as bartenders, waitresses or construction workers, but very few have been harassed at the mines,” she writes.

That is not to say women don’t face unique challenges. While male truck drivers can simply pull off and relieve themselves, “women must locate a [portable toilet], park, enter a computerized code into the dispatch system to signal and categorize their delay, climb down off the truck, chock the wheels, pull down half their clothes, use the bathroom, unchock the wheels and climb back up, ‘a time-consuming endeavor that can cut into their productivity and invite scrutiny’. Some women even take care not to drink too much water.”

Twelve-hour shifts at odd hours are hard on mothers, who struggle to find day care or carve out time with kids. One night-shift worker, Nicole, averaged three hours of sleep per 24 hours: one hour each way on the bus to and from the mine, and one hour with her children as they napped.

Pregnancy also poses challenges. One interviewee drove a truck until she was eight months pregnant, shifting her swollen belly to the side until she could no longer fit behind the wheel. Another was rumored to pump her breast milk while driving.

Rolston reports that some women took what she calls ‘the pink hard hat’ approach, claiming their presence made the mine safer and more civilized. But most downplayed distinctions. “There are lots of other interesting things that people should care about,” one mine worker told Rolston, “like human needs. How to be a human out here. Not how to be a woman out here.”

When she took her first job at age 19, Rolston had her own notions of what she terms the ‘macho, ego-oriented’ male miner. She was surprised to find a family-like atmosphere where people took care of each other. “They turned out to be some of the funniest, smartest people I have ever known.”

She stresses that her hometown mines got off to a unique start. They were founded in the late ’70s and ’80s after women elsewhere had already sued for the right to work. Plus, there was a labor shortage, so they didn’t face accusations that they were taking men’s jobs. “It would be difficult to replicate,” she says.

But there are lessons to be learned. Women who were the happiest seemed to take neither the pink hard hat approach nor a hypermasculine approach. Most men neither coddled nor hassled. Instead, they all just strived to be good miners. “That meant being conscientious, caring for your coworkers and having a good sense of humor,” Rolston says, all good qualities, no matter your gender.

This article was part of a feature in the spring 2014 issue,  “Are Women the Mining Industry’s Most Underdeveloped Resource?” Read it here.