Comment on a feminist documentary

Women heroes in Harlan County, USA

There are two prominent women heroes in the documentary Harlan County USA (1976), each representing a larger collective class of women. Lois Scott is the leader of the strikers’ wives, and Barbara Kopple, the filmmaker, represents the women filmmakers who brought the story of the women’s struggle and the strike to the public. Although each had the help of men, there would have been no story, and no telling of the story, had it not been for these heroic women. Lois’s heroics, with the rest of the strikers’ wives, is brought to our attention with cinema verite realism through the courage and heroics of Barbara Kopple and Nancy Baker.

As Annette Kuhn states in her book Women’s Pictures, Feminism and Cinema, “The central characters of socialist realist texts frequently embody heroic traits, a quality which has its origins in the influence of revolutionary romanticism on socialist realism. Art offers a vision of the future which is optimistic, but also aims to be grounded rather than utopian.”

While there is socialist realism in Harlan County USA, the filmmakers exhibit no desire for objective realism. This is a film by women and about women, and the momentous role they play in the struggle against classism and oppression. Kopple tells a story of real women living real lives, and tells it subjectively. She is keenly interested in representing the real lives, thoughts and feelings of her women protagonists. Thus she breaks with the conventional Hollywood cinematic tradition of placing woman in the gaze of man, woman as object for the benefit of man. The stereotype of woman as passive and man as active is shattered, as we are given a glimpse into the world of women organizing themselves in meetings, actions on the picket lines, verbal jousting with the sheriff and the gun thugs, Lois Scott packing a revolver, and women singing protest and labour songs (Hazel Dickens and Florence Reece). Throughout all this activity, women look after their children and their families. They support each other but are not shy about arguing about issues that matter to them most.

As Karen Warren argues compellingly in her essay The Power and Promise of Ecofeminism, there is good reason for feminists to support the ecology movement. Naturism, the destruction of nature by men, is justified in mainstream society by a logic of domination that is part of a patriarchal oppressive conceptual framework. The domination of nature by men is deemed justified by a process similar to the one that is used to justify domination of women by men. Harlan County USA provides a living, historical example of the powerful impact women can have in a struggle against patriarchal institutions, especially when women align themselves with other oppressed groups, similar to the way Karen Warren argues for feminists to see themselves also as ecofeminists.

In Harlan, oppressors are represented by two patriarchal institutions. The first is Duke Power, the corporation that owns the coal mine and that is governed by an executive board of men in suits. The second is the United Mine Workers of America, the union that represents the striking coal miners, also governed by an executive board of men in suits. And of course, the corruption and dealings between these two patriarchal institutions is made known by the film, through the use of stock footage found by Barbara Kopple and other scenes that play out during the strike.

One could argue that the wives act in support of their husbands against the company, purely for reasons of self-interest. They naturally want their husbands, the miners, to be safe. And they need for their husbands to receive better pay and benefits so they can feed and clothe their families and pay medical bills. This may well be true. However, the film supports a reading that the women have aligned themselves as an oppressed group themselves, with the strikers, another oppressed group by virtue of their class as workers. In addition to that, I would suggest, the film shows that members of one oppressed group often find it quite natural to make an alliance with members of another oppressed group. This is because oppression and struggle is understood as a result of personal, lived experience. As such, people who have never experienced oppression have difficulty feeling empathy with those who have, while those who have suffered oppression often relate with understanding to the struggles of others.

For example, in one telling incident captured on film in Harlan, the gun thug Basil Collins makes a threatening comment about the only black man we see as one of the strikers, calling him a “nigger”. Lois Scott hears the threat and shouts back at Basil “That nigger is a better man than you’ll ever be!” Here we have the natural alliance of aware and courageous women with other oppressed groups, in this case the racially oppressed (although the black man in question is also a member of the oppressed strikers).

Too often, though, empathy alone does not result in protest or action in solidarity with other oppressed groups. There is personal risk in doing so. But in the case of Harlan County USA, we see the women persuading the sheriff to serve an arrest warrant on Basil Collins. They do not ask the men to talk to the sheriff – they do it on their own, now that they have realized some inherent personal power as women. It is possible that empathy, on the one hand, and belonging to a group with common purpose, on the other hand, combine to supply the sense of empowerment often necessary for the taking of action in the face of personal risk.

Thus the power and influence of Harlan County USA is that it represents women as heroes in taking a stand against social injustice, as well as taking a stand to defend themselves and the oppressed. My point is that not only is this an example of one oppressed group struggling against an oppressive patriarchy, but rather there is much more happening here. When women take a stand in defence of other oppressed groups, the normal violent response of the patriarchal oppressors (at least in a more or less civilized society as 1970’s USA) is thwarted. Women have the power to use their perceived status as carers and nurturers to effectively shield themselves from the violence of men who defend the patriarchal institutions (scabs, strikebreakers, thugs, police). Women know that men see them not only as “the weaker sex” but also as the people entrusted with the care of their children and their families. The women know and expect, or at least have hope, that men would not be capable of shamelessly harming women in broad daylight and in living colour on camera. And their presence on the picket line protects the men on strike as well. This is what gives their non-violent resistance efficacy.

This advantage is available to the women of Harlan County through their own courage and the courage of Barbara Kopple. Kopple spent so much time on the picket lines with the strikers and their wives, that she became like family to them. Her main reason for doing so was her knowledge that with her on the picket line, holding her camera for all to see, the men gun thugs would not likely resort to violence. In the film there is an encounter between Basil Collins, the leader of the gun thugs, and Kopple. Stopping next to her in his truck one day, he tells her he wants to see her press credentials, while he has one hand on his revolver on the seat. Kopple asks to see his credentials, and says “Seems I forgot mine at home as well”. Basil’s attempted intimidation is thwarted. He drives off without incident. Kopple is a small woman, armed only with a camera, but aware of the source of her power and smart enough to take advantage of it. Nonetheless, it is a scary moment for Kopple, as she discloses in the commentary to the film.

The scene relating the shooting death of Lawrence, a young married white striker, one night when Kopple is not on the picket line, serves as proof for the viewers that the thugs, defenders of the patriarchy, are capable of employing violent means. As such, calling the role of the women heroic is no exaggeration. Ironically, the murder of Lawrence serves as a catalytic event that leads to a contract settlement with the company. The men in suits, representatives and defenders of the patriarchy, no doubt feel guilty for allowing its foot soldiers, the gun thugs, to commit murder.  With murder on their conscience, the struggle has gone beyond acceptable forms of intimidation. Duke Power could be seen by the public as vicariously responsible for the criminal act of its agents. It thus becomes politically expedient to give in to the strikers’ demands.

Another reason why Harlan is a women’s film is exemplified by the way it was made. The making of the film in a way mirrors some of the story it describes, in that it was made in a collaborative effort by the filmmakers, many of whom worked without pay for long stretches of time so that the story of the struggle could be told. And like the collaborative nature of the film production, the unfolding events described in the film come about through collaboration between groups as well. The women of Harlan County and the women filmmakers work together. The women of the strike connect with the filmmakers because they appreciate their support. Kopple and Nancy Baker lived with the women of Harlan County for several months. They heard their stories, saw how they lived and struggled, and came to respect them and their courage. Collaboration, as opposed to competition, is a hallmark of femininity. Harlan shows us how it can be a key to successful struggles against an oppressive patriarchy. As Annette Kuhn so aptly points out,

“To the extent that it has adopted collective and participatory working methods, feminist film practice shares in and contributes to a broader tradition within independent cinema, a tradition which arises from a rejection of the production practices of the film industry, with their highly developed divisions of labour and hierarchies of power and authority.”

Harlan County USA is a political film; political in the sense that it documents the struggle for social justice, waged by an oppressed group. Many people nowadays seem to think that when it comes to political struggles, there are always two sides to every story. Harlan reminds us that we need to take a stand when we are witnesses to oppression. That is the mark of a just society. I imagine that in 1970’s USA, you could either be for the Vietnam War, or you could be against it. It must have been untenable to say you were undecided. What brought an end to the war was the effect of so many people who were willing to give voice to the strength of their conviction.

Harlan shows how movements of social struggle against oppressors use this principle of solidarity. People join a movement in support of the oppressed. And struggles succeed when the movement gains momentum from the solidarity of those on the margins of the struggle. Kopple makes this point clear when towards the end of the film we see Florence Reece singing her anthem of the coal miners “Which Side Are You On?”, rallying the miners at a meeting. The song is a call to awareness and action. While seeking the solidarity of those on the margins, it serves also to create a sense of community among the strikers, in a similar way that Pete Seeger’s We Shall Overcome became the rallying song for supporters of the civil rights movement. I expect African-Americans would not have achieved their civil rights without the active support of women and white folk, minorities and others.

When it comes to oppression, acquiescence is not an ethical option. Either you are for justice and fairness or you are against it. Barbara Kopple, as a woman filmmaker, understood this reality early on. She had no hesitation in joining the side of the oppressed – the women and the coal miners. It was never about objectivity. It was always about what was right.

It seems ironic that this notion of choosing sides – “Either you’re with us or you’re against us” – is today often used as a talking point in the public relations campaigns of right-wing, conservative political groups, at least in the USA.

Harlan County USA is a woman’s film, a feminist film. It portrays women as heroes and as powerful. It could not have been made had it not been made by a woman – a politically aware and courageous woman. Not only is the film’s story an inspiration to women and other politically oppressed groups, but the filmmaker – unafraid to take a stand – is an inspiration to political women filmmakers and to women seeking to break from patriarchal notions of how to make socialist realist art.


  1. Kuhn, Annette (1982). Women’s Pictures – Feminism and Cinema. London, Routledge & Kegan
  2. Warren, Karen (1990). The Power and Promise of Ecofeminism. Environmental Ethics, vol. 12, No. 2 125-146
  3. Crowdus, Gary, ” American Dream (Interview of Barbara Kopple and Nancy Baker),” in Cineaste, vol. 18, no. 4, 1991