The word 'slag' is far from new. But it hasn't always been negative. Originally, the term referred to extremely hard working, super amazing and often grieving women who expanded a profession they have rarely been credited for improving: the mining industry. Yep, that's right! Its linguistic history is important. We should take extra care over the way we use the term today. Here's why.
Firstly, let's put one thing straight. It is never okay to degrade women, or anyone for that matter. Whether you're degrading someone through words, phrases, actions or even pizza (EVEN PIZZA). It's just not okay. The reason I want to talk about the word 'slag' in particular is because its linguistic history shows how casual sexism has subconsciously found its way into our vocabulary. I also enjoy talking about awesome and undocumented women. I hope you enjoy reading about them!
The word 'slag' has always been used to describe the glass-like byproduct of mining. It was particularly prevalent before the industrial revolution when the UK's coal mining industry was flourishing. At this time, huge amounts of hot and unwanted slag (byproduct) was routinely extracted from mining plants and discarded, creating volcanic-looking mountains of debris. These were called slag heaps. Most of this substance was unusable. However, some elements remained valuable, including glass and certain metals. This is where kickass women thrived. To capitalise on these unwanted slag heaps, women worked on them. They extracted and organised what little glass and metal remained. Finding these materials was challenging. It required patience, skill and physical stamina. Once they had collected enough of these materials, they sold them. It was hard work. It was groundbreaking. Society considered women incapable of hard labour and earning their own income at this time. They destroyed that notion. They were heroes and paved the way for modern society.
So, how did the term 'slag' morph into a degrading term for women, given this awesome female legacy? Well, working on a slag heap was not only hard work; it was hot work. These women worked outside under the sun and next to the heat exuding from both coal mines and the heap itself. To combat these temperatures they would often work topless. This was not unusual. Male miners worked topless too and, unlike women, would occasionally go so far as to work entirely in the nude. Nonetheless, women were ridiculed. Through no fault of their own they were consequentially sexualised and objectified. Men were not.
There's another level to this history that I want to focus on. Women were considered promiscuous for working topless on slag heaps for another important reason. Outside of a handful of professions, women who worked in the early 1900's generally did so because they had to. However wrong, women were not considered able to earn a living alone. Many would have never entertained the thought of employing a women, let alone considered actually doing it. Those women working on the mining industry were not wealthy. They needed to work to survive. Many had lost partners or parents and had no preexisting male income to rely on. They were doomed by the gender prejudices of their time. But instead of suffering, they did something amazing. They created a network of self-sufficient female professionals in an environment where such a network was not supposed to exist. It was revolutionary. To chastise these women for surviving, breaking taboos and pushing the human race forwards towards female acceptance and utilising more of the talent and work capabilities of the entire human workforce is extraordinary, particularly when these women were often forced into doing so out of grief and deep poverty. Any person who continues to use this word in a negative way continues to disregard the heroism of these women; they legitimise the prejudices that held these women back, and that continues to hold women and society back today.
Despite history negating women's contribution to the mining industry, it was significant. Mining women were pioneers. Having faced fierce opposition, they capitalised from what was considered valueless, created professional networks decades beyond their years, and gave birth to the idea of women supporting and empowering women. The next time someone uses the word 'slag' in a negative way, you can relay the amazing feats achieved by the women they are actually referring to. They were awesome! I am sure they would love to know that.
Special thank you to my amazing mother for sharing this piece of history with me! It was passed down through her mining family in Derbyshire.