Stories of the Women of Bethlehem Steel

The Beyond Steel Archive historical collections contain photos, documents, and interviews of Lehigh Valley residents during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with a specific focus on the steel industry. With its international headquarters located in Bethlehem, PA, Bethlehem Steel  dominated the industrial, economic, and cultural life of the Lehigh Valley during its operation. The goal of the Beyond Steel Archive is to offer residents a deeper understanding of the area’s unique history through oral history and primary documents.

One recent addition to the Beyond Steel Archive is the Women of Bethlehem Steel Collection. This collection showcases the voices of women involved in the Age of Steel and reveals the enthusiasm and challenges that women experienced as they joined a male-dominated industry. Through multiple interviews with women working at Bethlehem Steel in many different capacities, the collection gives voice to a previously underrepresented group of Bethlehem Steel’s workforce.

The Women of Bethlehem Steel Collection is the result of a collaboration between Bethlehem-area faculty and staff and the women who worked at Bethlehem Steel. The project’s research team is led by three key academic partners: Jill Schennum, Seth Moglen, and Julia Maserjian. Schennum, a professor of anthropology at County College of Morris, is an expert on Bethlehem steelworkers and is finishing a book that draws on interviews found in the archive. Moglen is a Professor of English at Lehigh University with a deep commitment to studying labor history. Moglen, also, is completing a book manuscript that addresses the history of Bethlehem with a focus on union organization. Maserjian, the Digital Scholarship Manager at Lehigh University, is an oral historian who specializes in bringing archival research to life online. Working with these organizers are a number of additional faculty and staff from both Lehigh University and the Steelworkers’ Archives who are fundamental to the success of the project. However, it is the women of Bethlehem Steel who provide the organizational heart of the project through their leadership in identifying people to interview, presenting their stories to the public, and discussing their understanding of mid-twentieth century labor history. 

Those involved with the Women of Bethlehem Steel project identified a lack of representation of the roles women played in civic history and the retaliation they faced while working at Bethlehem Steel. The need for a deeper understanding of women’s labor history in Bethlehem and a platform for these historical stories inspired the project and led Schennum, Moglen, and Maserjian to write a Melon Digital Humanities Initiative grant proposal to collect and digitize interviews of women workers. “The story of steel making in Bethlehem,” Moglen states, “is often a heroic story about men.” The Women of Bethlehem Steel project complicates the limited focus on male laborers and provides new stories from the viewpoint of women laborers in the age of Steel.

When considering the history of women industrial laborers, there are two important periods when women integrated the male-dominated work environment. The first wave was during World War II when women were encouraged to take industrial jobs as men went to war. This movement was popularized by the famous image of “Rosie the Riveter.” During WWII, women steelworkers expressed pride on the shop floor, proving they could perform difficult physical labor. Eventually, despite these efforts, women were expected to forfeit their positions as soldiers returned from war.  

The second period during which women entered the steel industry began in the 1970s and lasted until the closing of Bethlehem Steel in the late 1990s. New federal legislation in the 1970s mandated that industrial corporations like Bethlehem Steel hire women. When women integrated the steel mills this time, it was understood that they were assuming permanent positions. However, many men working at Bethlehem Steel resented women for taking jobs that they believed should be reserved for men. As Bethlehem Steel began its decline, the increase in women laborers heightened tension already present after the mandate. Many workers felt their jobs and futures were in jeopardy, and some male employees erroneously linked Steel’s decline to the women who had recently been hired.

For generations, Bethlehem Steel defined, employed, and built the Lehigh Valley, and it is that importance of the steel industry which kept some women silent.  When the Bethlehem plant began to close its doors in the 1990s, women workers felt unable to share their experiences with sexism. With the entire city upset by layoffs and nervous about an uncertain economic future, these women felt it would be inappropriate to speak out. The fall of steel was devastating to the area and sharing the personal stories of harassment experienced by these women would have been perceived as deepening the wound. At a time when the Lehigh Valley had lost its singular defining industry, many people wanted to remember the “Age of Bethlehem Steel” as heroic and prideful. Today, with the city working toward a brighter economic future and its citizenry more removed from the closing of the Steel, women workers are freer to share their important stories. 

The women’s stories featured in this collection address many diverse aspects of women’s experiences as steelworkers, including the financial benefits, the joy that the women took in their physical strength, the pride in their ability to perform “men’s work,” the camaraderie that they developed with each other. Their stories also expose sexism at Bethlehem Steel. These stories reflect the differences in the two phases of women working at Steel: World War II and the late twentieth century. These stories are reminders of the courageous women who entered an industry dominated by men, the harassment they faced, and the resilience they demonstrated. For the women working in the company’s headquarters, their stories also offer a more complete image of life at Bethlehem Steel beyond the shop floor. 

Southsider will be featuring a new series to celebrate the Women of Bethlehem Steel collection. The articles in this series will reference an oral history from the collection, provide a link for readers to listen to the interview, and offer a discussion of the topics addressed by the speaker.  We hope this platform extends the goals of the project’s team to share the voices of the women that worked at Bethlehem Steel and, more broadly, women workers in the Lehigh Valley.

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