Putting a Human Face on it: gender and photographic meaning in a Canadian women’s coal mine campaign

Jean Spence, Carol Stephenson*

*Corresponding author for this work

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In January 1999, the Canadian government announced their withdrawal from the Cape Breton mining industry with a settlement package for redundant miners, which was considered inadequate by miners and their families. In response, a group of women organized a community-based campaign, United Families (UF), led by two women who traveled to Ottawa to meet national politicians presenting themselves explicitly as "miners' wives."While the UF located their campaign within the context of family and community, as expected of miners' wives, their principal focus was the men disadvantaged by the settlement. Here they strayed onto the terrain of the men's union. To support their case the women took photographs of miners leaving the pit at the end of a shift and organized them into an album. This became a catalyst for the disjuncture between the gendered expectations associated with female roles, and the women's efforts to represent the interests of the men. Intended as objective evidence in support of their position, the photographs carried a range of complex emotions relating to the women's campaign: They expressed the subjective meanings of the women's relationship with mining and the men photographed, as well as providing material evidence of the condition of the miners. This subjectivity was overlaid onto gendered subtexts inscribed within the history of photography in the public and domestic spheres. In campaign negotiations the women struggled to control the meaning of the photographic images and their endeavors resulted in only very minor amendments to the original settlement. The UF women's creative use of photography ultimately undermined the legitimacy of the women's negotiations. However, the photographs remain a testament to the history of mining in Cape Breton and to the emotional commitment of women to a partnership with men forged through the sexual division of labor in coal mining. This article draws upon a range of evidence and theories of gender, activism, and photographic practice to analyze the ways in which the women were disadvantaged in their campaign.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)345-370
Number of pages26
JournalInternational Labor and Working-Class History
Early online date9 Aug 2023
Publication statusPublished - 2023

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