Women in the Ironworks

Kropa factory department for machine-made shoe nails, 1920. Iron Forging Museum Kropa, Radovljica Municipality Museums

Though it was rare for women to do waged labour in late 19th-century Slovenia, the ironworks as an important industry at the time also employed women.

Nail making is part of the heavy (iron) industry and is, as such, usually not associated with women. As historical accounts of nail makers are written in the masculine form, one could assume that the workers were exclusively men. This, however, was not the case according to a poem by Oton Župančič who, after visiting a forge in Kamna Gorica pri Kropi in 1920, wrote that nails were hand-forged “by all boys, men, girls and women”. Furthermore, a photograph from the same year shows a Kropa factory department with only women standing by the machines. A single man in a suit and tie stands among them – most likely the foreman.

Ironworking and nail making in Kropa and Železniki date back at least to the 14th century and lasted until the industrial revolution when manual nail work was replaced by machinery. The decline of ironworks in the late 19th century in the two towns was the result of insistence on manual labour and distance from the railway. When the furnaces finally stopped burning, the surplus workforce moved to Jesenice to work for Kranjska industrijska družba (the predecessor of the Jesenice Ironworks), which employed women from the very beginning. The oldest facility, the nailery, first employed six “packers” or wire-nail wrappers, with new ones joining later. Although the wages were low and the work was hard – every day they hand-packed and stacked 25 tonnes of nails on wagons –regular income gave them social security, economic independence, self-confidence, and a new space to socialise. Many of them started working when they turned 18, some even at 14 years of age. The youngest girls worked as “runners”, carrying packages in large bags, which made the male workers tease them: “Hey, bag, where are you going with that girl?”

Between the wars, most of the female workforce were single women, widows, and single mothers as, until the end of World War II, it was believed that a married woman belonged in the kitchen, not the factory. Ironworkers only made enough to buy the very basic necessities; they rarely secured some bacon and sugar, while coffee and spices were out of their reach. During the Great Depression, the conditions deteriorated further. By 15 March 1932, Kranjska industrijska družba, heavily hit by the crisis, had to stop production and fire all 2,186 workers. This was followed by protests and a strike in which the central role was assumed by the Union of Working Women and Girls. In March 1932, its members stood guard at the factory for 12 days, 4 AM to 10 PM, in snow, rain, and cold, preventing the pickup of products and the arrival of strike breakers. Under pressure, the management agreed to negotiate and resume operations. 

“Hey, bag, where are you going with that girl?”

During World War II, the factory worked for the German arms industry. Due to the lack of the local workforce, German authorities introduced forced labour. In 1944, 143 female workers joined the unfree labour force, mostly single girls from Ukraine and Russia. Because of them, but particularly as a result of local female hires, the percentage of the female workforce increased to 13 percent. After the liberation, Yugoslavian authorities encouraged the employment of women, who responded in such numbers that, by the 1970s, they represented a fifth of all employees. However, they mostly did poorly paid jobs: office work, analyses, material control, machinery maintenance, communication, and kitchen work.

Most of the workers from the Jesenice Ironworks are now retired. They receive low pensions and point out that they deserve more for the hard work they put in at the factory. In 2015, the Jesenice Upper Sava Valley Museum honoured their memories of the ironworks in the exhibition Women Workers in the Ironworks. The exhibition and the accompanying catalogue attest to the fact that the “generic” masculine form should not always be trusted as it can conceal the presence of female workers in industries associated with men.

Jesenice Upper Sava Valley Museum

The museum’s permanent exhibition on the way of life of ironmaking families is housed in the late-Baroque building of Kasarna from the end of the 18th century, one of the oldest preserved examples of shared housing for workers in Slovenia. It is located in the ironworks settlement of Stara Sava, a cultural monument of national importance that also showcases the technical heritage of the Jesenice steel industry. The two exhibitions are accessible for persons with reduced mobility.