They were extraordinary women. When war broke out, the young women of Sheffield stepped in to keep the city’s steel industry going while the men were away fighting.
Last year author and journalist Michelle Rawlins celebrated the lives of these feisty unsung heroines in her excellent non-fiction account Women of Steel.
She spent two years researching the book and interviewing the few still surviving members of that resilient band of sisters. Now she is retelling their story in fictional form with the publication earlier this month of her debut novel The Steel Girls.
“I knew after I finished Women of Steel that I wanted to do something else with the material and I wasn’t sure what,” she says. “I just knew I wasn’t ready to let them go – I had spent so much time researching and interviewing the women and writing up their stories, I felt like it had been such a big part of my life for a couple of years.
“Then I was approached by Harper Collins and they asked me if I would be interested in writing a series of novels about the women of steel. It was such a wonderful opportunity and it is almost like the stars aligned. To be honest I was slightly nervous – I have been a journalist for 25 years and we deal with facts so I was a bit anxious about writing fiction but then I thought it is just another type of storytelling. It was actually really enjoyable – I was allowed to run with my imagination.”
The Steel Girls is steeped in fact and Rawlins’ protagonists – housewife Nancy, former legal secretary Betty and shopgirl Patty – are inspired by the real women she got to know. “It is lovely because as I was developing the characters, I was remembering my conversations with the women I interviewed – and some of the things my characters do I could imagine their real-life counterparts doing.”
Like many women who went into the factories, worked the land or volunteered for frontline emergency services during the Second World War, Sheffield’s female steelworkers had to wait a very long time to receive the recognition they deserved.
“There are so many women who were part of that history who have been forgotten and not been given their rightful place in the history books,” says Rawlins. “If it wasn’t for one of the women, Kathleen Roberts, making a phone call to the Sheffield Star, their stories might have been lost which feels like such a sacrilege. Several of the ladies I interviewed for Women of
Steel have since passed away. The sacrifices they made and the dangerous situations they were put in needs to be acknowledged.”
Accidents were frequent and the women had to deal with resentment from their male co-workers. They had to prove themselves over and over again. “Many of the women said to me ‘we entered those steelworks as young girls and we came out as grown women’.
“I feel very lucky and privileged to have been part of the process that led to those women finally being recognised and I will keep writing and talking about them for as long as I can.”
The Steel Girls by Michelle Rawlins, published by HQ, is out now priced £7.99.