Barbara Burns grew up in a mining town in West Virginia and was the oldest of eight children. Burns had a strong-willed personality from a young age and was determined not to conform to traditional gender roles. Burns eventually found herself working in coal mines, and initially faced pranks and teasing from her male colleagues as a new employee. After working at various mines, Burns was offered a position as a safety director at Smooch Coal Company by a person she knew well. However, her positive working relationship with this individual eventually deteriorated, and she encountered harassment and stalking from him. She filed a claim with the West Virginia Human Rights Commission due to sexual harassment by a supervisor, and her subsequent termination. Despite her initial request to simply do her job without interference, she faced opposition and lost her job while her husband was undergoing a kidney transplant. Her lawyer, Betty Jean Hall, supported her throughout the legal process, which lasted for 13 years. The case involved conciliation negotiations, courtroom trials, and attempts by the company to break her down through intimidation and misinformation. Despite facing challenges and the judge's reluctance to rule against the company, Burn’s determination prevailed. The West Virginia Supreme Court eventually ruled in her favor, and she received monetary damages, vindication that there was no affair, and confirmation of her sexual harassment claims. Burns went on to work as a registered nurse and farmer.
"You still got these guys that'll say, 'You really do a good job for a woman.' I come back with, 'Well, you do a terrible job for a man.'"