“The personal is political” was a rallying cry of second wave feminism. It was [and still is] used to signify that what happened in the realm of politics, a field largely controlled by men, affect women’s everyday lives. This was not just a flashy slogan, and the truth of it is demonstrated powerfully in the 1976 documentary, Harlan County U.S.A.
While the film is about men’s jobs, women are just as important to the strike as men are. The women of Harlan County may or may not have considered themselves feminists, and the strike they were participating in was not a women’s rights protest, but in the context of the documentary these facts are irrelevant. They lived the struggles that second wave feminists were trying to make the rest of the country aware of. And their strength was essential to the eventual success of the strike.
In the first few minutes of Harlan County, U.S.A., we see a young woman talking about how her grandfather was a coal miner, how hating the company was a common household conversation, and how she too came to hate the company. She then talks about watching him die of black lung and that she knew something should be done about it. She says, “I told myself then, if I ever get the opportunity to get those coal operators, I will. ‘Cause I thought, you know, they was the enemy. So when this strike came up, I saw the opportunity and I jumped right in there.” And jump right in they did. They formed a club which organized women’s involvement in the strikes and, eventually, the strikes themselves.
At the beginning, men’s participation is strong, but eventually wanes and it’s women who keep the pulse of the movement going. At one point during a union meeting, a union leader is scolding the other men for not showing up at the picket line. The scene switches, and the women are at their own meeting having the same argument. While the women’s meeting temporarily devolves into cattiness, the voice of reason prevails. Sudie Crusenberry, one of the most prominent women in the documentary says, “I don’t care who takes whose man, who lives with whose man or what they do. If they can take mine and take him on, they can have him. I’ll shed no tears. I’m not after a man. I’m after a contract. I’m raisin’ two boys.” This gets to the heart of the reason women are so involved in the strike: their husbands’ jobs and salaries are necessary to their ability to keep their families safe and healthy. Furthermore, the idea that coal mining is the job for men in Harlan County, Kentucky prevails. Sudie, along with the other women, know that their sons will likely be miners as well, so they aren’t just fighting for their husband’s jobs; they’re fighting for the stability of future generations.
At a later meeting, a man addresses a crowd of men: “We’re gonna have a picket line in the morning. And we hope to have a big picket line. It’s gonna be set up a little bit different than the last one. ‘Cause we can’t have a picket line at the bridge with a .30-caliber machine gun shooting at you. These ladies are setting it up. We’re gonna have to get out there and back them That’s all there are to it. They come up to back us, and we’re not even backing them. It’s pretty disgusting.” One man speaks up to say that most men are afraid to picket. This is one of the most extraordinary parts of the film. At this point, as evidenced by the above quote, the strike had become pretty dangerous. The company sent out what the strikers call “gun thugs” to scare them and to shoot at them. This tactic is successful in scaring the men off, but not the women. And the men need a talking-to to support the women who were originally out there supporting them. After that, Lois, another strong, prominent woman in the group, asks to speak. She continues to harangue them, saying that they’re there to support the men, but they won’t keep doing it if the men don’t show up. At this point, the women are running the show. And the strike’s eventual success [which comes only after a man has been shot and killed] is in large part owed to the women’s perseverance.
Of course, it would be remiss to talk about women’s roles in this film without also addressing that the film was directed by a woman, Barbara Kopple. She has said that her desire in making documentaries is to get intimate, to take a peek under the surface where outsiders don’t normally get to see. And while the topics of her documentaries vary, she is clearly interested in women’s stories and contributions. It seems likely that she highlights the women in the movie not just because of their significance, but also because she is interested in documenting how this stressful, sometimes traumatic strike affected women, as well. The women of Harlan County provided much of the lifeblood of the strike, and Kopple’s documentation of the strike provided publicity, dignity, and a way to begin to heal. Without women’s contributions, it is unlikely that the strike would have been successful.