It takes a strong woman to take on the world of steel, yet take it on they do.
Never was this more apparent than during WWII when “Rosie the Riveter” was born.
“Rosie” was not a real person, the name comes from the popular 1942 song by The Four Vagabonds. Artists, ranging from Norman Rockwell, who painted a “Rosie” for the cover of the May 29, 1943, Saturday Evening Post, to J. Howard Miller who actually created the now-iconic “We Can Do It!” poster in 1942, gave face and form to the women flooding the factories.
How many real women entered the steel industry during the war? The number is hard to pin down. A 1941 New York Times article cites “conflicting reports” from the government about the number of women who had entered defense manufacturing. But, in August, 1943, LIFE reported that, “In 1941 only 1% of aviation employees were women, while this year they will comprise an estimated 65% of the total.”
The magazine even sent one of its photographers, Margaret Bourke-White, to the Gary, Indiana, to something the women who were working in the steel mills.
But, the women who lived during WWII were not the first to make significant contributions to both their country and the steel industry.
In 1869 construction began on the Brooklyn Bridge, the first bridge to use steel for its cable wire. The bridge was designed by John Roebling, who died early on, so his son, Washington Roebling, took over the project. Washington subsequently became ill so his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, actually oversaw most of the construction. In fact, she was the first person to cross the bridge, which was completed in 1883.
Sometimes all it takes is one woman to turn an entire industry around. Alice Peurala was one of those women. In 1953 she began working for Chicago South Work’s steel mill. By that time, many of the women who’d worked in the mills of the midwest during the war had left (or been forced to leave) their jobs.
In 1967 Peurala was denied a promotion that would move her from the Metallurgical Division to one with a better schedule (she had a daughter) in the testing labs. As a civil rights activist she knew that her rights could no longer be trampled on based on her gender, so she went to the EEOC who recommended that she sue.
She did, and a compromise settlement was reached between Peurala and U.S. Steel. It is widely thought that this court case helped lead to the 1974 Consent Decree that was signed by nine major steel companies, the steelworkers union and the EEOC. The decree was a major step forward in the battle against discrimination in the steel industry.
It was in the early 70s that another woman, Lenore Janis, entered the family steel construction business. Recently divorced, Janis needed income, and her mother was running the company at the time so it was a natural move.
In 1979 she started her own company, ERA Steel. With the new government mandate that any construction project using public funds had to contract out a certain amount of work to woman- or minority-run businesses, she did well for a time. (There was some controversy and at least one lawsuit, unfortunately, about the contracts.)
She, along with 11 other women, also launched Professional Women in Construction (now PWC), a non-profit that, according to their website, “seeks to advance women and minorities in the construction and related industries.”
Similarly, the Association for Women In the Metals Industry (AWMI) began in 1981 in California and is now an international organization supporting women in metals around the world. AWMI provides resources and education to educate and promote the advancement of women in metals and their Vision is to have a “A metals industry characterized by proportionate representation of women in management positions.”
Today, women make up about 18 percent of the workforce with jobs in primary metals and fabricated metal products manufacturing. While that number isn’t huge, it would certainly be much smaller if these steel spined women hadn’t forged their own paths in the industry.
Women’s Equality Day this year is Wednesday August 26 and I want to honor all the amazing women who contributed to the metals industry in the past, as well as those who continue to work in metals today.