“bureaucratized rape” in the coal fields
May 12, 2016 4:07 PM   Subscribe

‘Rape Rooms’: How West Virginia Women Paid Off Coal Company Debts | What was the Esau scrip? [with audio included] | The Whipple Company Store | The Soul of a Company Store - The Haunted History of Whipple, WV [audio, story sharing].

There would be a selected guard that would be waiting for them and they would receive a brand new pair of shoes with no accountability other than to perform whatever the service the guard wished to have in lieu of pay. We had one woman in particular share with us that her mother was a young girl about 25 years old and bought her first pair of shoes here and the women’s entire life those shoes remained in the shoe box on her closet shelf never to be worn and she refused to wear another pair of shoes her entire life. She made her shoes out of cardboard, newspapers and twine.
posted by nickyskye (16 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

And yet, somehow, some people will always clamor for unregulated capitalism.

The Invisible Hand of the Market, indeed.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:58 PM on May 12, 2016 [16 favorites]

I just want to pull out this paragraph:
His article on Esau won a Denny C. Plattner Award, but it also earned Kline the wrath of academia. Harris writes in Truth Be Told that professors demanded more sources and more concrete proof, but they did not step up to assist in the research. The work of further documenting the existence of Esau scrip fell to a limited number of “unfunded independent scholars” like Harris.
I love academics, but they tend to have a hard time with the more brutal aspects of the real world.
posted by languagehat at 5:23 PM on May 12, 2016 [30 favorites]

Thanks for posting this. It's a terrible, horrible thing, but an interesting piece of history.
posted by dazed_one at 5:24 PM on May 12, 2016

Jesus wept.
posted by ob1quixote at 5:25 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

What the fucking fuck.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:03 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's so frustrating to see the calls for "concrete proof" with the unspoken subtext of oh no not the stories told by the victims that doesn't count--only paper records written by the men committing the abuse count and they didn't write any of that down for some reason. Ugh.
posted by metaphorever at 6:04 PM on May 12, 2016 [35 favorites]

I don't doubt a bit that the Esau issue existed. Metaphorever said it: only the male view is the correct one.

I wish the ghost woo-woo thing wasn't being linked to the history. It sets up a format for rejecting all accounts as being silly and overblown nonsense. Ugly history exists--we don't need unsubstantiated claims of seeing dead people.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:16 PM on May 12, 2016 [12 favorites]

I'm right there with you, BlueHorse - putting accounts of ghosts and of systematic sexual exploitation in the same documentary may be great folkloric storytelling, but it is really problematic reporting, and it directly erodes the credibility of the women who shared these experiences with Harris and Kline.
posted by gingerest at 7:17 PM on May 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

Rakes told Moore that he has researched criminal court proceedings in Fayette County and has never come across anything like the Esau story. “If this kind of behavior was common, was an actual institutionalized part of the operating procedure, you could not keep all these things quiet. It would have ended up in Fayette County Court,” he said.

Right, because rape is always brought directly to court with fair punishments for the guilty.
posted by bendy at 10:39 PM on May 12, 2016 [16 favorites]

Particularly in times and places where company management also ran the town. This is why the song "Sixteen Tons" has the lyrics
You load sixteen tons and what do you get
A fair wage, bonuses, and a safe working environment
I really enjoy my job and my copious leisure time
I certainly have no understanding of financial coercion
posted by gingerest at 11:22 PM on May 12, 2016 [39 favorites]

I can't believe that there are any scholars who have a hard time believing that this happened. I can't believe anybody anywhere would be surprised by any of this, frankly. What do men in power always do to women without power? I thought this was such a foregone conclusion that everybody would just have assumed that it was happening.
posted by IAmUnaware at 12:12 AM on May 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

I can't believe that there are any scholars who have a hard time believing that this happened.

It isn't my field, but as an academic who read this here today I have no trouble believing it happened; it's an awful story, but entirely plausible.

The paragraph that languagehat pulled out sets off my contrary side, though:

His article on Esau won a Denny C. Plattner Award, but it also earned Kline the wrath of academia. Harris writes in Truth Be Told that professors demanded more sources and more concrete proof, but they did not step up to assist in the research. The work of further documenting the existence of Esau scrip fell to a limited number of “unfunded independent scholars” like Harris.

Let's try to dig a bit deeper here. The Denny C. Plattner Award is apparently sponsored by Appalachian Heritage, a journal founded in 1973 and based at Berea College, a liberal arts college in Kentucky. So it was academics who gave Harris's article this award.

"The wrath of academia" sounds like sensationalist journalistic shorthand for "some academics questioned these accounts", rather than the Kahn versus Kirk battle it invokes. Without reading Harris's book and the academic articles he takes issue with, I'm not even sure what kind of questioning, let alone "demanding", has taken place. But I can imagine a typical bland academic statement about needing more evidence (which academics always say - we always think it's good to find more evidence) being read as a "demand for concrete proof", if on the one side you have a more detached observer and on the other a researcher who has been heavily invested in this specific issue. Ask any academic about the experience of having their own work critiqued by other academics, and odds are you'll hear stories of frustration at PhD examiners who didn't read their thesis properly, or journal article reviewers who misunderstood them and demanded unnecessary changes, and so on. It's human nature to focus on even the slightest negative criticism over the positive.

"They did not step up to assist in the research": there could be any number of reasons for this. Individual academics in the social sciences have their own research projects, and they won't always be in a position to drop everything to switch to another. Even if they want to, other commitments like teaching and admin compete, and funding to help relieve those might not be available. If it's an area with a modest profile, like most social science research based on specific local areas (especially less-populated ones), there aren't going to be a lot of interested academics who are in a position to do the research in the first place. I mean, I'm interested in this story in the sense that I find it compelling and dismaying - but I live and work in a totally different context, so can't "step up to assist" without abandoning everything else and (if I really wanted to do it properly) moving to West Virginia. I don't know the size of the pool of academics who might be in a position to, but I'm guessing it's small.

Finally, it's too easy to conclude from that paragraph that academics in general just want the official story recorded by men, and don't care about women's voices. But men and women are equally represented in the social sciences nowadays; one would expect there to be plenty of social scientists who would care very much, the same way Harris did. It's true that it's frustrating that important research such as this often falls to "unfunded independent scholars", but that's part of a much bigger story about the underfunding of social science research, the shift in academia from tenured positions to precarious adjunct roles, and society in general judging any discipline that isn't immediately convertible into profit as a waste of time. This kind of story should be the sort of compelling evidence of the importance of social science research that convinces all of us to support it (with cash, and not just words), but won't be if it's set up as another example of "academics not taking women's voices seriously, so screw 'em". That's a recipe for any future research on such issues always having to be done by unfunded independent scholars.
posted by rory at 3:28 AM on May 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

I get where you're coming from rory but I don't think it's unfair to give the side eye to Dr. Rakes here given that he is described not as saying "we need more evidence (more evidence is always good)" but that his assessment of the stories is that they are "not credible". Now that's not a direct quote so it's the might be the author exaggerating but as written it seems like a pretty direct dismissal rather than a call for more research.

Also, I think if you (general you) actually consider the condition of the miners who are pretty much by definition too sick, disabled or dead to work and had no money or social standing it's kind of obvious why they wouldn't or couldn't have "left that camp as soon as they knew this kind of behavior was required or a potential danger; or 2) they would have reacted to it violently” and that's not even going into how much rape is under-reported, covered-up and kept quiet today, after almost a century of progress in women's rights on top of the well documented culture of silence surrounding doing what you had to (like child labor) to get by in mining towns. So no, sorry, you don't get to dismiss multiple stories, which all corroborate each other and were told with no prompting but simply because stories like these demand to be recorded—lest we forget... You don't get to dismiss all of that with a weak-ass "but surely these women would have told their sick husbands that they were raped to pay for the bread that he was eating on his death-bed and then he would have gone out, too sick to work as he was, and attacked the men who did it, who had all of the guns, money, and institutional power in town and then those same men would have recorded it in the official records as such and not as 'tried to steal some shoes, shot by guard'".

Yes, history is messy. More sources are always helpful but that doesn't sound like what Dr. Rakes is saying. Here's the direct quote:
“What history has shown us that cannot be challenged is that the reality of the loss of civil rights, constitutional rights in coal camps, economic restrictions that coal miners lived under, that’s a tragedy. And I’m not taking anything away from that. By the same token, I’m not applying that to these other social standards.”
I don't see any other way to read that than that the terrible things that happened to men in these towns "cannot be challenged" but that the women who lived under that same awful machine of systematic exploitation don't get to have their truth recognized because the men who were hurting them were smart and powerful enough to keep them quiet and cover their tracks. Ugh.
posted by metaphorever at 7:13 AM on May 13, 2016 [15 favorites]

you don't get to dismiss multiple stories ... with a weak-ass "but surely these women would have told their sick husbands"

I completely agree, and that critic's reasons don't sound persuasive to me. But I would hope that Harris getting a prize for his work from other academics in that region means that he has plenty of support there too.

Because yeah, this sounds like exactly the sort of situation where you'd expect the women affected not to breathe a word to anyone for decades, given the prevailing atmosphere of the time it was all happening.
posted by rory at 8:50 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I apologize if I let some of my disgust at the rape culture victim blaming and denial that Rakes is doing spill over into criticism of your more general argument—which I do agree with. These stories are getting attention but academic discourse and disagreement often can be dry and boring and so the temptation to insert a narrative of 'lone truth-seeker against the establishment' is always present and may even be at play here—there are certainly other issues with the framing as others have noted.

I shouldn't have used your comments as the jumping off point for mine. I really just felt like I had to post the expanded version of my thoughts earlier and your comment was right there at the bottom of the thread with just enough contrariness for me to misinterpret it in bad faith. Dr. Rakes comments just seem so fundamentally ignorant of everything we know about company towns and rape culture and at first my reaction was just "ugh, that's shitty" but the more I thought about it the more incoherent his argument seemed and I had to actually spell out the scenarios he was proposing as counterfactuals to help me process it. Sorry if I came off as fight—I think we are both on the same page, just talking about different aspects of this.
posted by metaphorever at 11:21 AM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am privileged, but I grew up in West Virginia. I find these facts 100% believable. In fact, it seems like a logical extension of the other horrors of mining towns.
posted by poe at 11:22 AM on May 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

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