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Remember This? 'Algoma's Amazons' at the steel plant

Remembering when they had 'welfare' rooms with bunks in the steel plant and women required employment permits to work there

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

The Second World War was a galvanizing factor in the fight for a woman’s place in the workforce. This was especially true in Sault Ste. Marie, the home of Algoma Steel Company.

As was the case in World War I, during World War II most able-bodied men left their jobs to go fight overseas. However, World War II lasted much longer and consumed vastly more raw materials and arms. This increase in demand and shortage of workers led to the hiring of women into new positions - many in professions traditionally occupied by men.

Algoma Steel began hiring women shortly after the first men shipped out overseas. For the first time, women were allowed jobs in the industrial parts of the plant. Before this time, women were not allowed to work in the industrial sectors of factories and plants. To accommodate the influx of women at the steel plant “welfare rooms” specifically for the women were built housing showers, toilets, washbasins and half a dozen bunks.

The hiring of women to work in industrial areas was established through The National Selective Service. Prime Minister Mackenzie King created the National Selective Service (NSS) in 1941. The significance of the service’s establishment was that it selected both male and female civilians for employment. With most of Canada's male population participating in military jobs and fighting in the war overseas, the Canadian economy was experiencing a huge crisis that threatened the efficiency of industrial production, especially essential during a time of war and of major concern here in Sault Ste. Marie. There was a mass shortage of labourers and the NSS, a service that regulated the recruitment of civilians, provided a perfect solution to fill the labour shortage: start recruiting women.

At first, women were required to have an employment permit to seek a job at Algoma Steel Co., but by 1945 they could apply without first having a permit, though they would still have to register with The National Selective Service and when they got the job, their employer had to send a permit to NSS within three days.

Recruitment was initially focused mainly on women who were young, unmarried and without children, but soon the doors were opened to married women without children and later even to those with children. These women filled vital industrial jobs essential to maintaining the war effort and civilian life.

In June of 1943, the Chromium Plant here in Sault Ste. Marie had 60 women on their payroll and Algoma Steel had 350, all industrial jobs. This number would steadily increase as the war raged on and by Nov. 2, 1945, there were approximately five hundred women employed at the steel plant.

As recorded in a news account from November 1942, for the first time in history the women members of the United Steel Workers Association, Local 2251 “burst onto the social field with a gala entertainment in aid of the Navy League of Canada. Funds raised at the gala, being held at The Thompson Street Hall, will go to the Women’s Naval Unit to help pay for Christmas boxes and the Merch - and Marine. Both organizations operate under the Navy League of Canada. The Women’s Naval Unit is packing approximately 170 boxes for Soo lads on the high seas.”

The women of Sault Ste. Marie, now given the opportunity to prove they occupied the jobs that until then had been for men only, were not only keeping Algoma Steel functioning, they were also raising funds to aid the soldiers and the war effort. In 1943, the women employees of the steel plant raised over $10,000 dollars to aid the war effort in a few days of canvassing and selling Victory Bonds.

World War II and the creation of the NSS resulted, unintentionally, in breaking the stereotypes of women not being able to do the jobs that men could in the workplace. Women here in Sault Ste. Marie were able to prove their ability to work in the steel industry, paving the way for women to fight for more permanent and substantial places in the working force in the future, not just during the war’s shortage of male labourers.

In a photo appearing in The Sault Star on Nov. 7, 1942, the accompanying caption says it all: “Sault Women Prove They Can Work Like Men.” It continues underneath the photo: ‘Women can take it. In an experiment, Algoma Steel Co. has employed women steelworkers who do the work of men and they have come through with flying colours. Above a group of the girls are clearing coal away from the tracks where the locomotives refuel. This is a hardening test for the girls - a job that has to be done in all kinds of weather.”

The Toronto Daily Star also found the women working at Algoma Steel noteworthy, posting in their paper on Nov. 5, 1942, multiple photos of women working throughout the plant. They captioned the photos: “Algoma Amazons Replace Men in Tough Steel Jobs.” The Daily Star goes on to say, “Women steelworkers who do the work and receive the pay of men, employed “as an experiment” by Algoma Steel Co. at Sault Ste. Marie, have come through with flying colours.”

Many of the accompanying photos have ‘colourful’ captions that highlight the women’s skills while still managing to showcase various stereotypes about a woman’s place in that world. One such caption reads, “Pride of the yard is powerful Mary Bodnar of Kirkland Lake who handles a railway tie as easily as the average woman wields a broom. As good-natured as she is strong, Ms. Bodnar maintains that she can swing an axe with any man, but her challenge has not been taken up yet - even at Algoma, where the men are as tough as the wolves are gentle.”

There was an issue that cropped up eventually during this time period, with local merchants closing their stores on weekends or shortening their hours overall and curtailing delivery services, making the working women of the Sault’s jobs even more difficult. Merchants were short on stock and help due to the war and keeping to regular shop hours was considered unfeasible. With so many women now, essential workers they had limited time to shop for groceries and other sundries needed in their households. Women were doing double duty as they worked to keep the factories and plants running and still run their homes. An article appearing in The Sault Star on April 1st, 1944 showcased their frustrations:

“As women on day work, working six days a week, find that on leaving our job at 4 p.m. and going to our homes, find we can’t get down to shop with the stores closing at 6 p.m. We feel the Council and Board of Trade over-stepped the mark when they closed the stores without considering the working public. … We would like to see the grocery stores and meat markets remain open until 9 p.m. We would also like to say, we are working long hours, putting eight hours in the plant and then keeping our end at home. Signed, More War Workers From Algoma Steel”

As the war drew to a close, a questionnaire was sent out to the former Algoma Steel Corporation and most of the Sault Ste. Marie men who were serving in the military responded that they would be returning to the Sault and planned to return to their jobs at the plant. Thus, most of the women returned to their pre-war lives outside of the steel plant, but their fortitude and hard work helped not only the war effort but also the struggle for equal rights of employment, not just in Sault Ste. Marie, but all of Canada.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provide SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more "Remember This?" columns here.

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