Bethlehem Steel Graphic Banner: Chapter 6

Bethlehem Steel Graphic Banner: Chapter 6

In a 1985 survey of 50 women war workers at Bethlehem Steel, Carol Baylor, a journalist doing a program for National Public Radio, found that many were living at home with their parents when the war broke out. Those who had children had friends or relatives to take care of them while they worked. Most had never worn pants, still regarded as mannish, a la Katharine Hepburn, and had never thought of working outside the home.

By May 1943, Dorolee, a women's clothing shop on W. Fourth Street in Bethlehem, was advertising coveralls for $4.25 and overalls at $2.69 as ''No. 1 Favorites With Women In War Jobs.'' By the next year, 53 types of manual labor at Bethlehem Steel, from assemblyman to wrapper of nuts and bolts, were being done by women.

''The introduction of women to work that heretofore has been exclusively men's domain has been planned with great care,'' the company said in a 1944 newsletter, which went on to note that Bethlehem ''enabled the women to feel 'at home' in their new surroundings.''

Feeling at home was important. One of the innovations provided at Bethlehem was the hiring of older women in the role of matron. They were assigned primarily to help insecure women adjust to their jobs and responsibilities. Decades later, many women workers fondly remembered the matrons.

Perhaps the toughest challenge the women faced was going into a male-dominated environment. Many men resented their presence.

Comments the women remembered hearing had to do with their taking jobs that should have gone to men, even though there weren't enough men to fill them. ''Why don't you go back to the sweatshop where you belong?'' one woman worker was told. Another recalled a man whose every other word was obscene. He would apologize afterward, which convinced the women he wasn't directing the comments at them, just being himself.

There were other aspects of work at Bethlehem Steel that made the women angry, such as disparity in pay. Many felt cheated when they learned they were making 10 to 12 cents less an hour than men who were doing the same jobs. But working with representatives of the United Steelworkers of America, the former Steel Workers' Organizing Committee, the women got their back pay.

Althea Kulp was not among the slighted women in the mills. She began working at the company as a stenographer in January 1942 for $95 a month. The 21-year-old Allentown High School graduate had heard from her older brother, Randolph, the accounting office employee, that opportunities for women at Bethlehem Steel had widened after Pearl Harbor. She quit as a clerk at Allentown's Hanover Acres housing program and signed on with the steelmaker, becoming a secretary to L.J. Bray, the superintendent of machine shops.

Like her brother and many other Steel employees, Althea rode to and from work on the trolley. Her father, Orville, was a motorman for Lehigh Valley Transit's south Bethlehem line, though not for the 6:30 a.m. trolley Althea took every weekday from her south Allentown home at Sixth and St. John streets.

Althea wore suits she made herself and carried a thermos bottle of cold milk and a bag lunch that her mother, Stella, had packed for her. A 45-minute ride that included other stops brought Althea to Broad and New streets in Bethlehem. From there, she walked the eight blocks to the main plant entrance at Third and Fillmore streets.

Along the way, she might have passed stores selling clothing and some big-ticket items other than refrigerators and washing machines, which couldn't be produced under the government's wartime restrictions.

A Victory gas range sold for $49.95. A complete bedroom — a bed with mattress and box spring, a chest and a dresser or vanity ''just as you want it … in neat waterfall walnut veneers'' — sold for $119.

Among clothes, a hot accessory for women in the spring of 1943 was the Montgomery beret. It was inspired by the jaunty headgear of the famous British Gen. Bernard Montgomery, victor over German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in North Africa. It cost $2.95 and came in black, brown, navy, red, kelly, turf, pecan, gray or brown.

Hess Brothers in downtown Allentown, north of the Little Lehigh Creek from Althea's home, was offering Nunn-Bush Oxfords for $10.85 and women's felt slippers for $1.69 — ''These slippers not rationed,'' an ad noted. Summer dresses were selling in Hess's bargain basement for $2.69.

But Althea couldn't dally at storefronts; to be on time, she had to be inside the steel plant by 8 a.m. There was, and still is, a clock on the wall above the main gate at Third and Fillmore.

The company sought to keep employees from bunching up at entrances, hallways and elevators by having them report at 20-minute intervals. Althea had to be at her desk on the second floor of No. 4 Machine Shop by 8:20. Once inside the plant, she and many others had to wait for trains and vehicles to pass in the yards, and stood in lines as they made their way to their workplaces.

Lunch breaks also were staggered, and Althea's was at 12:30. She ate at her desk, usually a sandwich of ham or peanut butter and jelly, an apple, a banana and some cookies, and went for a stroll. Then it was back to work until her 4:40 p.m. quitting time.

One rainy day, while walking through the plant on her way to the machine shop, a blast furnace ''spouted off.''

''All this soot came down. When I went in the office, they laughed,'' says Althea, now a trim and cheery 83-year-old grandmother who lives in Allentown. ''I said, 'What's the matter?' They looked at me and said, 'Look in the mirror.' I went in the ladies room and saw that my face, my navy blue coat and white collar were all black. My boss said, 'You try to get cleaned up.' But we didn't have hot water, and there wasn't much you could do with cold water.''

About six months later, when the new, six-story plant office opened on Third Street beside the Fillmore Street gate, Althea moved there and worked in an office on the first floor. She didn't have to walk past the blast furnaces anymore.