Women of Bethlehem Steel: Spotlight on Myrna Rivera by Hannah Provost

Southsider’s series focused on the Women of Bethlehem Steel Oral Histories Project gives our readers the opportunity to explore the stories of women in our community who worked in the steel industry. Each article in the series will feature an introduction to one oral history, a link that allows our readers to listen to her oral history, and analysis of the major themes that the speaker addresses. This week we are honoring Myrna Rivera.

A Chance at Education

Myrna Rivera was born in Puerto Rico, but considers herself a native of Bethlehem, PA. At six months old, her mother and father brought her to Bethlehem, and she spent her entire life and career here. Rivera’s story, and her work at Bethlehem Steel, reveals the nuances of cultural expectations for women during the 1970s, as she was growing up and joining the workforce. Rivera remembers that, in 1972, when she was graduating high school, it was not a time when very many women went to college, and for her, that attitude was particularly entrenched in her family’s culture. While her brother was expected to continue on to college, she and her sister were not encouraged to pursue a college education, even though Rivera felt herself yearning to learn more. Because she didn’t have a network of support that also believed in her desires for further education, Rivera did not attend college right after high school. 

As Rivera recounts it, Bethlehem’s economy was booming in 1972. As she was preparing to graduate high school, she got job offers at three different companies, and ultimately, she started working at Bethlehem Steel because in that position she wouldn’t have to travel. Workers were needed so badly that the schools and companies like the Steel struck deals to allow students to begin working even before graduation, splitting their time between school and their jobs. Rivera stayed at the Steel in part because of Bethlehem Steel’s generous tuition assistance, won by the union. With the financial assistance of the Steel, Rivera went on to get her associates degree at Northampton Community College, her bachelor’s degree at Cedar Crest College, and her master’s degree at St. Joe’s University. These “learnings” as she calls them, were the dearest to her, and mark a certain kind of fulfillment that her other work did not reflect. Ultimately, with access to the benefits offered by the Steel, Rivera was able to achieve goals that a sexist culture had originally precluded her. 

Work Experience and the Culture at the Steel during the 1970s

Myrna Rivera remembers the culture at Bethlehem Steel to be very masculine. While she did stay to see several women vice presidents in the company, much of the detail she provides reflects the masculine nature of the Steel’s work environment. Most of her coworkers were male. Rivera recalls how smoking and drinking at your desk was normal, even part of how you did business. Rivera also described in detail an elite program that groomed talented young men to become vice presidents of various departments of the company. The “loopers,” as they were called, went on a career rotation throughout the departments at the Steel, and were chosen straight out of high school. Something about the exclusiveness of the program seemed to not be fair to Rivera, and it reflected realms of opportunity that were reserved only for men.

After starting out as a secretary, Rivera was moved to the Mining Department as a translator. Rivera spoke Spanish, and since the Steel had iron mines in Venezuela and Chile, Rivera started working on translating shipping documents for the Steel. After Venezuela nationalized its mines, the Steel lost that resource, and Rivera began working with the coal miners themselves in a human resources role. Rivera echoes stories that other women have shared about the first women to go underground in the mines, and how many of these women experienced sexual harassment or suspicion because the male miners believed women were bad luck underground. She visited Bethlehem Steel mines in Indiana, and said that though she had never understood the extent of pay and benefits miners had received before, walking out of that cramped, dark mine, with the smallest ring of headlamp light, she thought: “there is not enough money out there to put me in there [the mines] for 40 hrs a week…. They deserve every penny they make.” 

In reflecting on the working conditions of miners, Rivera reveals the kind of work environment that many people value: comfortable, low-risk, stable. Yet, many workers today who are able to acquire positions that are low-risk and comfortable get the most pay, in contrast to high-risk jobs, or in today’s pandemic terms, “essential workers.” Rivera’s insights reveal a visceral understanding of the much needed connection between high-risk jobs and high benefits and wages that are separated today because of the isolation of economic sectors.

A photo from the Beyond Steel Archive, labelled “Girls on Turning Lathe.” Myrna Rivera’s story is part of a long tradition of women working in the steel industry.

Then and Now

These days, more than 50% of college graduates are women. Many women in America no longer experience the lack of support for pursuing higher education that Myrna Rivera experienced. Yet other barriers have arisen or persist. Tuition has skyrocketed, and competitiveness between colleges and universities have often meant that only students with the best resources during high school—often thanks to higher income neighborhoods or ability to attend private schools—are able to get in, let alone attain tuition assistance for the very best schools. Many options like community colleges exist, and provide excellent education, but the culture around who gets encouraged to continue education is still biased in terms of socio-economic status and race. Rivera’s story reveals how much culture and support systems can affect our choices and desires, debunking the myth of individual determination. Her story shows that making choices more accessible on a structural scale, through programs like the tuition assistance she received from Bethlehem Steel, can open up more doors than doubling down on a culture of self-determination.

The ideology that still persists today that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they work hard enough is the groundwork for the “American Dream” and its promised upward mobility. But if structures like racism, sexism, and socioeconomic status are hidden influences in the background, working hard is not all it takes. Instead, restructuring a system to dismantle the uneven playing field is necessary. In her oral history, Myrna Rivera relays that her parents, coming to America from Puerto Rico, believed in the American Dream. Rivera herself revealed she was not so sure that she believed in it. Did the benefits and security of her job at the Steel negate the need for the narrative of constant upward mobility? Rivera also reflected that the American Dream was most enticing to her parents because they were battling their way out of poverty, whereas she started from a relatively privileged position in life. Her reflections perhaps illustrate that the American Dream narrative is the most enticing for low-income individuals, just as it obscures the systemic realities that actually hinder most low-income individuals from achieving such a dream. Ultimately, Myrna Rivera’s experiences with sexism, education, and the American Dream, reflect the ways that our environments and the policies and cultures around us actually have extensive influence over our realities, to this day. Her experience with the positive policy of tuition assistance through Bethlehem Steel might give us a glimpse at the change that is possible when we loosen our focus on individual work and begin to build structures that benefit many in our communities. 

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