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Event Review: Women of Steel

Written by: Amber O’Connor

Kathleen Roberts, Kit Sollitt, Ruby Gascgoine and Dorothy Slingsby are the names of four remarkable women whose stories deserve to be heard. They were part of the thousands of women estimated to have worked in Sheffield’s steelworks during the First and Second World Wars – the Women of Steel. Now, thanks to Michelle Rawlins, the efforts of these and many other Women of Steel will be recorded in the first book devoted entirely to their stories.

With the increasing recognition given to the Women of Steel in recent years – thanks to Kathleen, Kit, Ruby and Dorothy, and their campaign with the Sheffield Star – a Women of Steel statue has been installed in Barker’s Pool to commemorate these women, and awareness of their efforts has increased. Michelle’s book, and this event celebrating it, will also help ensure the women’s contribution to the war effort continues to be recognised. This accomplishment has been made possible by Michelle’s expertise as a journalist, which has allowed her to find and record previously unheard stories. As Michelle explained, many of the women and their families ‘desperately wanted’ to share their experiences, and she has been able to aid in the telling of them.

Off the Shelf’s talk featuring Michelle in conversation with Nancy Fielder, who both spearheaded the Star’s campaign and acts as the paper’s editor, offered a brilliant afternoon of reflection. The women onstage continually focused their conversation around those who could not be there. The event offered interesting insights into Michelle and Nancy’s projects; for example, Michelle was prompted to write the book after searching to read one and realising none existed, and Nancy started the initial campaign after a phone call from Kathleen, but the primary focus of the afternoon was celebrating the Women of Steel. Both women recounted several of the touching stories they have helped to uncover, detailing the sacrifices made by the Women of Steel. When men were called to fight, women volunteered to work the dangerous machinery needed to supply the frontlines; women died, and those that did get to go home often returned with injuries, some which persisted for their whole lives. Out of such conditions came friendship and camaraderie, meaning the stories that Michelle and Nancy shared were uplifting and inspiring too. As Nancy pointed out, there are striking parallels between then and now, and pulling together within our communities can help us get through difficulties again.

This event was focused on the past, but through its connection to the present and the future. In telling the stories of the Women of Steel, Michelle has furthered the work of the campaign that sought to achieve recognition for these incredible women. The talk was therefore a celebration of this book, and the rising awareness of these women’s efforts. The audience for these stories is still growing, and Michelle has signed a triple book deal for a series of fictional novels inspired by the Women of Steel. Thanks to Michelle, Nancy, Off the Shelf, and most significantly the Women of Steel themselves, the bravery of these women will not be forgotten.

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