When a 1974 federal consent decree opened the way for women to work alongside men in steel mills, Michele McMills landed a job at U.S. Steel's Homestead Works, where she shoveled slag, operated a jack hammer and became an apprentice motor repair technician.
In addition to the physical labor, she had to walk over two miles through the vast, now demolished, mill to find a rest room specifically designated for women. Those long walks helped to prompt an interest in workplace equity and led to a brief but influential career as a union activist and as an advocate for women's rights in the mills.
After the collapse of the industry in the 1980s, Ms. McMills, a graduate of Denison University in Ohio, resumed studies at the University of Pittsburgh Law School and began a second career as a corporate attorney. She had spent one year in law school before starting to work in the mill at age 22.
She was found dead in her Penn Hills home on Nov. 21 of a gunshot wound of the head. Her death was ruled a suicide by the Allegheny County coroner's office. She was 53.
Her friends from her days as a steel industry activist were stunned and baffled by her death as is a surviving brother, Mark C. McMills, an associate professor of chemistry at Ohio University.
"It floored me for two days. I couldn't get her face out of my mind. I just don't get it,'' said Michael Stout, a songwriter and Homestead print shop operator who was the head union grievance man for USW Local 1397 at the storied plant, now the site of The Waterfront shopping district.
Stout and others credited Ms. McMills for attracting steelworkers to get involved in the rank-and-file movement of the time. They said she was universally respected and admired even by those in the opposition.
"She was so popular,'' said Eileen Glickman, a former steelworker who helped to popularize the phrase "Women of Steel" for the group of women, including Ms. McMills, who were industry pioneers. "She was able to get along with everybody."
Ms. McMills was an unlikely candidate for blue-collar activist. Born June 17, 1951, in Palo Alto, Calif., she was the daughter of a former U.S. Steel executive, Chad McMills and Helen McMills, and had worked for the company as a corporate secretary during college vacations.
She was one of the first women to be hired in the mill following a federal consent decree that acknowledged discriminatory hiring practices for minorities and women.
Her co-workers from that time described her as an attractive individual who gained a reputation for speaking her mind about such issues as a clean place to have lunch and a more responsive grievance system.
Those issues brought her into union politics at a time when the United Steelworkers union was struggling with plant closings and internal affairs. She was elected to local union office and helped to coordinate the Western Pennsylvania campaign of union insurgent Ed Sadlowski, who ran against Lloyd McBride to succeed then-union president I.W. Abel. Sadlowski won the vote in Homestead but lost the overall election.
Ms. McMills founded an opposition union newspaper, the "1397 Rank and File," an irreverent journal that took shots at plant managers and union officials alike. It was popular among the plant's workers.
"It really was the most innovative and creative union newspaper maybe ever done. People used to run out of the mill to grab it like hot cakes,'' said Charles McCollester, professor of labor studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "It was full of cartoons and illustrations, most not printable in a family newspaper."
She introduced Local 1397 members to steelworkers from Youngstown, Ohio, Gary, Ind., and other steel regions. She helped to initiate the local's participation in the Tri-State Conference on Steel, a coalition of union and community activists who fought plant shutdowns. She initiated a fight at Homestead for union members to ratify their own contracts -- a right eventually granted in 1986.
"Michele was a smart and focused activist, whose steady determination and talent was an inspiration to other women steelworkers throughout the Mon Valley,'' said artist and filmmaker Steffi Domike, a friend who worked for U.S. Steel at its Clairton coke works.
Ms. McMills left union activism around 1981, partly because of differences over the direction of the newspaper she founded and the role in union politics of her then-boyfriend and future husband, Greg Klink, from whom she later divorced.
She lost her job in the mill that year as part of massive layoffs. Klink, who also became a lawyer, died in a house fire last January in Mt. Lebanon.
After losing her Homestead job, Ms. McMills, like so many others, had to find a new career. She returned to Pitt's law school, and, although her brother Mark said she initially thought about specializing in labor law, she turned to other issues.
Her career as an attorney was varied. Mark McMills said his sister worked for CNG, the natural gas company, Allegheny Power and for the Pittsburgh law firms of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott and Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. She was employed as a staff attorney for the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh at the time of her death.
A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4, at the Friends Meeting House, 4836 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside.
In addition to her brother, she is survivied by a sister, Megan Scannell, of California, and a companion, Kenneth Kapton, of Pittsburgh. She was preceded in death by her parents and a brother, Michael McMills.
There will be no visitation. Burial will be private. Arrangements are being handled by the Warco-Falvo Funeral Home. Contributions can be made to the Animal Rescue League of Pittsburgh.
Jim McKay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1322.