When Bethlehem Mines announced in 1974 it was looking to hire the first female miners in Pennsylvania at their underground facilities in Washington County, Karen Tyler jumped at the opportunity to be a pioneer for women working in the dangerous profession.
Her father and grandfather had been miners, so coal ran deep in her family’s blood. But her father traveled all the way from New York City in an attempt to talk her out of it. Her husband, Sylvester, who was known as Lou, also objected to the notion of Tyler working underground.
Neither man could dissuade her, however, and Tyler was especially blunt with her husband when he refused to give her a ride from their Bentleyville home to Mine 51 in Ellsworth, according to their son, Wendell.
“If you’re not going to take me, then I’m going to start walking and put my application in,” Wendell Tyler recalled his mother telling his father.
“She started walking. And then my dad gave her a ride,” Wendell said.
That brief walk by Tyler blazed a trail for other women in the area who wanted to follow in her boot steps. When other women heard she had applied, they showed interest in the job as well, Wendell said.
“They probably thought she was serious,” Wendell said of his mother’s influence on others. “I think my mom changed everyone’s mindset. She was very kind and wanted to see people succeed and help anyone she could.”
Four months after applying for the job, Tyler was hired by Bethlehem Mines on Aug. 1, 1974, and is believed to be the first female coal miner in Pennsylvania. The first officially recognized female miner in the country was hired in West Virginia in late 1973, although her name is not known, according to a New York Times article in 1982. Most coal companies were under federal court orders to hire a certain number of women for their mines, according to the article.
Tyler, just 5-foot-1 and raising four young sons with her husband in Bentleyville, relished her new job, even if it came with some of the toughest tasks as longtime miners tried to push her and three other recently hired female colleagues out of work. But that didn’t deter them.
“They saw they weren’t giving up,” Wendell said.
Tyler and some of the other Black women working with her in the mine faced both racism and sexism at the time. Tyler told her husband about some of the racist remarks she endured, prompting him to speak directly with the mine foreman to let the company know that behavior wouldn’t be tolerated.
“My dad was a very strong advocate for women coal miners,” Wendell said. “He had to set some people straight. She told my dad, and he took care of it.”
But the rough atmosphere didn’t faze Tyler or the other women.
“She pretty much didn’t pay any mind to it,” Wendell said. “She brushed them off: ‘I’ve got a job to do.’ “She was strong-willed. She knew she had kids to take care of.”
Mark Segedi worked with several women during his 37 years as a miner before retiring in 2015. Segedi, the president of the United Mine Workers Local 1197, said it was a tough transition for the male-dominated profession, but eventually the other miners came to respect the women for their hard work and tenacity.
“In the beginning, some men just didn’t want to see it,” Segedi said. “It was a man’s job in a man’s world, and this and that. But most of the guys took to them pretty good. And after a while, they were part of the crew.”
After all, the dangers the men faced in the mine were the same for the women.
A roof bolt hit Tyler in the head and knocked her unconscious, and an underground vehicle’s brakes went out, forcing her to jump out to avoid serious injury before it crashed.
In another dire situation, Tyler was buried by debris and other miners had to search for her below the rubble. Carmen Tyler, one of her other sons, received a phone call from a worker notifying the family about the accident.
“We can’t find Karen,” Carmen recalls hearing the worker tell him over the phone.
Tyler was pulled safely from the pile and eventually underwent physical rehabilitation for her injuries.
“And then she went back in the mine,” Carmen said.
The camaraderie between the women working in the mines was tight. Segedi remembers seeing that in person while working with Tyler and several other women at various mines in Ellsworth and Cokeburg, including Barbara Johnson, Kip Dawson and Gwen Bailey.
“They did the job and were respected,” Segedi said. “Very close. Those women, they stuck together, naturally. They were close friends.”
“Sisterhood,” Wendell added. “That was her family.”
Bailey, 77, was a childhood friend of Tyler’s while they grew up in Daisytown. Bailey followed Tyler into the mines in the late 1970s and worked more than 30 years as a miner before retiring in 2008.
“We proved we could do the job. Some of us worked better than the men. We had to prove ourselves because they didn’t think we could do it,” said Bailey, who started working at Mine 60 in Cokeburg. “A lot of women did a whole lot of stuff the men did. We had to.”
Tyler was also a leader, helping to organize the Fifth National Women’s Miners Conference in Dawson, Fayette County, in June 1983. The keynote speaker at that convention was then-UMWA President Richard Trumka, who died last month while serving as president of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the country. Tyler was also secretary for the Pennsylvania Women Miners Support Team and state representative for 717 female coal miners in Pennsylvania in the early 1980s.
“She was in all this union stuff,” Bailey said. “She found she was the only Black woman there.”
Tyler tried to use her role to empower and inspire other women, telling one publication for a story featuring female miners in March 1984 to “be patient and don’t give up.” In doing her own research, Tyler learned she was the first female coal miner in Pennsylvania, she told the publication.
“Keep pushing forward,” Tyler said. “If you do that, everything will work out. Develop self confidence and don’t let anything stand in your way.”
Carmen remembers a local television station and a Polish magazine interviewed his mother when the public began learning about these trend-setting female miners.
“They were like celebrities, in a way,” Carmen said.
But coal companies struggled in the 1980s as the steel industry crumbled. Tyler, who worked most of the time in Mines 51 and 60, was furloughed several times and brought back, but she left the mines for good in late 1986 or early 1987 when a downturn in the industry made her layoff appear permanent. She became a nurse and worked in that field for years, while her husband, Lou, worked as a mechanic in the mines for 24 years.
“She missed it,” Wendell said of her mother’s job in the mines. “She was a dues-paying union member until the day she passed.”
Tyler died June 15, 2020, at age 71. Now her four sons, Carmen, Sylvester Jr., Chuck and Wendell, are trying to keep their mother’s memory alive by telling others about her historic work as the state’s first female miner.
Wendell, who lives in Houston, Pa., is “super proud” of his mother and what she meant to the other women who followed her into the mines.
“I tell everyone I meet. It makes me excited to talk about her,” he said. “I think of my mom as a pioneer for a lot of women going into the coal mine. She gave her best.”