StoryCorps: 'If You Don't Fight For Yourself, Ain't Nobody Gonna Do It For You' That's the lesson Tanya James' mother taught her. And she says it was invaluable in the West Virginia coal mines, where she worked for decades. Now, she's passing that lesson down to her daughters.
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'If You Don't Fight For Yourself, Ain't Nobody Else Gonna Do It For You'

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'If You Don't Fight For Yourself, Ain't Nobody Else Gonna Do It For You'

'If You Don't Fight For Yourself, Ain't Nobody Else Gonna Do It For You'

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's Friday morning, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. People interview their loved ones, and we get to listen. Today we have story from West Virginia coal country, a story about Tanya James. Her family members have worked as coal miners for three generations, and she started working in the mines in 1979. Very few coal miners were women. Some miners even held a superstition that a woman in a mine was bad luck. In a StoryCorps recording session, she told her daughters why she took the job.

TANYA JAMES: My dad passed away when I was 17. My mother still had to take care of the family, and so she decided to take the mining class. And I'd go down with her every day. The instructor said, well, if you're going to come down here every day, you might as well take the class too. She started in the mines. And six months later, I started in.

MICHELLE PAUGH: When I was younger, I remember watching you. Gary would go to work, wondering if he was going to come back home that night or not.

TANYA JAMES: I understand how you girls felt. I know what it feels like to have your mother in the mines. And it could be a little rough. So I was pretty protective of her, even though I knew she could protect herself. I seen her pick up a guy by the neck (laughter), so she was a tough cookie. And I was taught at an early age from my mother, if you don't fight yourself, ain't nobody else going to do it for you, you know.

When I was hired, a lot of people thought the only reason women wanted in the mines was to find them a man. And for the first six months, you're not allowed to be by yourself. I remember one time, they sent me and this one man back into a part of the mines that nobody goes into. And he started getting a little too friendly. I told him, don't touch me. Well, the third time he approached me, he put his hands on my shoulders, and when he did, I just brought my knee up. I hit him true and hit the mark (laughter). And he went down, rolled and cried and throwed (ph) up. He got the point. He never bothered me again. You had to make them respect you, and you had to prove yourself daily. But I don't believe in stuff being handed to you. I think you need to work for everything you get. If it ain't worth working for, it ain't worth having in my opinion.

PAUGH: Kind of brought us up a little the same way.

TANYA JAMES: I think you've proved to me more than once that you're not going to let anybody run over you, and I'm proud of you for it.

TRISTA JAMES: You're an extraordinary woman, and I would like to be one one day, too.

INSKEEP: Tanya James, with her daughters Michelle Paugh and Trista James at StoryCorps in Morgantown, W. Va. Tanya's story will be archived at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. And as always, you can find the StoryCorps podcast on iTunes and at npr.org.

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