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Rosie The Riveter at Bethlehem Steel

By Frank Whelan
Published On: Sep 23 2011 02:52:34 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 10 2011 10:04:10 AM CDT

In its heyday, the Bethlehem Steel Corporation made an awful lot of history, from railroad rails to skyscraper H. beams.

But sometimes the people story gets lost in the product story. And during World War II the role played by women was significant. They were the linchpin in what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the Arsenal of Democracy.

Although the idea of women working in a steel mill sounded odd to a lot of people in the 1940s, it had happened before. During World War I Bethlehem also recruited women to do "man's work" when the doughboys were off licking the Kaiser. Bethlehem Steel was the largest single source of arms for the allied cause during the Great War. But, except for some photos, women's contributions to the Steel during that conflict have been largely lost to history.

The outbreak of war in Europe on September 3, 1939 was the catalyst for ending the Depression-era conditions at the nation's second largest steel company. "Gentlemen," said Bethlehem CEO Eugene Grace to his golfing foursome at the Saucon Valley Country Club when he heard the news, "we're about to make some money."

Contracts from England, France and the U.S. government began to pour in to Bethlehem Steel. And despite a violent steel strike in March 1941, a great deal of money and weapons were being made.

But Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. entry into the war and the departure of male soldiers. American industry turned to women to fill the shortage. Over 5 million women worked in the country's mills and factories during World War II. And of that number 25,000 were working for Bethlehem Steel Corporation, 2,200 of them in the Bethlehem plant.

Many of these women were not unfamiliar with working in industry. It had been understood since the 19th century that women could have jobs in local cigar and garment industries. But when the local newspapers carried articles in March 1942, that upward of 10,000 Lehigh Valley women would be needed, the news brought a large number of them to the door of local industry.

Some were country people who had seldom been far from home before. One, Anne McLauglin Cassium of Jim Thorpe, recalled many years later how scared she was in her first days at Bethlehem Steel. Describing herself as a "skinny connected thing," she found herself encumbered in 60 pounds of safety gear. Other woman discovered that their long hair, then fashionable, had to go. It was too easily tangled in machinery, with sometimes fatal results.

Veronica Lake, a female movie idol of the early 1940s whose trademark was her peek-a-boo long locks, pinned her hair up as a part of a war-effort publicity campaign. Interestingly as a result her career took a nose dive from which it never really recovered, but for many women, the new shorter hair style was a lifesaver--literally.

Once they had been trained and became accustomed to the working environment of a steel plant, the woman generally enjoyed and were good at their work. By March 1944 the company's newsletter was pointing out that women were filling 53 types of manual work positions. They also served as members of Bethlehem Steel's internal police force. "They called us the pistol-packing mamas," one remembered.

But it was still not always easy for the men who worked beside them to get used to the presence of women. One woman remembered a male colleague who had developed a habitual use of profanity in the formerly all-male environment. "He'd be standing next to me and apologize for every third word he said," recalled one female Bethlehem Steel worker. "Finally I told him he really didn't have to do that since I had heard them all before."

One complaint that the woman at Bethlehem Steel heard constantly from their male co-workers was that they were taking jobs that should have gone to men. The fact that there was a labor shortage and that the woman were only there because the men were off fighting did not stop this constant charge. The fact that the women were getting 10 to 12 cents less an hour than men got for a similar job made it even harder.

To aid the women in their adjustment Bethlehem hired female matrons. It was their job to offer advice and sometimes comfort to the many young woman who worked there.

Rosie the Riveter, the poster icon widely known in the war era, was commonly thought of as an unmarried woman, but significant numbers of the female work force at Bethlehem were married with children. Many of them had husbands in the service. Although most left their children to be taken care of by a relative, there was a movement among the workers for child care. On March 8, 1944 a petition signed by 529 working mothers was presented to the Bethlehem School Board by the AFL-CIO Child Care Committee. It asked the school system to set up on school property a mixture of child care facilities for those up to 12 years old and a social center for teenagers. But before these suggestions could be acted on, the war was over.

With V-J day in August 1945 the era of Rosie the Riveter came to an abrupt end. "Now you women can get out," one male colleague yelled at them when news of Japan's surrender was broadcast. But a chapter in women's history was written. Although most willingly returned to the role of housewives and mothers that postwar society set for them, they would not let their war service be forgotten. Today they are remembered and honored for their aid in winning a victory both for America and women's rights.