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Women in the Mines Today

Sharon Petron says her male co-workers helped her learn how to operate the shovel. - Photo by Stephanie Hemphill

At a mine called Hibbing Taconite, Sharon Petron runs an enormous shovel. Her seat is two stories off the ground; she has to take a hydraulic lift up to a set of stairs to climb up to the cab. Inside, she uses two joysticks to guide a scoop the size of a one-car garage. The scoop digs into the wall of blasted rock in front of her. A dump truck as big as a house pulls up below her. She swings the bucket of the shovel past her face and drops a load into the truck with a tremendous roar.

“You have to be careful, because sometimes big rocks will hang up on your teeth,” she says over the groaning of the machines. “If I drop it on his canopy or on the back, they really feel a lot in that truck, so you have to be careful with them. I know what it’s like because I drove truck for 10 years, so I like to be gentle with them.”

Sharon Petron’s hands on the joysticks sport bright fingernail polish and lots of rings. She’s so small she has to sit with her feet on a box. Her legs are crossed, and she looks as comfortable as if she were watching TV while the machinery shrieks and the cliff in front of her crumbles and crashes. She says she wanted to be a shovel operator for years. She’s grateful to the men who taught her to do it.

“They knew how nervous I was,” she says. “They worked with me and had a lot of patience with me.”

Petron has been working at Hibbing Taconite for 12 years, and she says she’s never seen graffiti or lewd photos like the ones that used to be on the walls at Eveleth Mines. She says there are still men who don’t want women in the mines, but they don’t feel free to say so these days.

“There was only one man and that was when I was on trucks,” she says. “He came into the lunch room and told me that I belonged at home, barefoot and pregnant, taking care of my husband. The other men said, ‘You shouldn’t say that to her.’ I said, ‘No, let him speak his piece.’ And he did. Then I said, ‘I’ll just prove it to you.’ And I did do that. I had four children. I was married. It’s possible to work and take care of a family.”

Next: Women in the Mines Today - part 2