During the 2014 TEDXCoventGardenWomen conference the writer Laura Bates gave a talk titled Everyday Sexism. In this talk Bates revealed that out of 573 commemorative statues in the UK only a staggering 15% celebrate the achievements and lives of women. In light of this, Sheffield’s Women of Steel statue becomes even more poignant.
This bronze addition to Sheffield’s landscape is a collaboration, borne out of love, between leading sculptor Martin Jennings and the very women it represents. It stands in Barker's Pool, a stone’s throw from Sheffield City Hall, where it was unveiled on 17 June 2016 to a crowd of over 100 surviving women of steel and around 3,000 proud locals. Sheffield City Council leader Julie Dore described the women as "inspiration to us all, and a reminder of the grit, determination and guts of this city". And, seeing as how the statue was paid for primarily through public donations and the generosity of local businesses, it seems Dore's statement is the overwhelming consensus.
During the first and the second world wars, thousands of women from across South Yorkshire were conscripted to aid the war effort by taking jobs in the factories and steel mills whose male workers were away fighting. Prior to this, a woman's sphere very rarely deviated from the domestic. But these women – many of them in their teens and early twenties – took on the roles formerly open only to men; roles that were physically demanding and often dangerous. And they did all this alongside providing for their families and fulfilling their other, traditionally "womanly" duties.
At the end of both wars these women workers were dismissed, expected to comfortably assimilate back into the lives they led before the international conflict. For many years the vital role they played in the war effort was erased from our national consciousness, their inspiring stories sidelined.
Luckily for us, these women of steel refused to allow their stories to be forgotten forever. In 2011 four of the surviving women, Kathleen Roberts, Kit Sollitt, Ruby Gascoigne and Dorothy Slingsby, took action. With the support of journalist Nancy Fielder (now editor of The Star), they came forward on behalf of all their fellow steelworkers and made the case for their hard work, stamina and bravery to finally be publicly acknowledged. It was time for the women of steel's incredible tales to be heard.
The Women of Steel statue is not only a testament to these women's inner strength and unwavering resolve, but is also a welcome step in redressing the gender imbalance in historical statues that Laura Bates referred to. Councillor Dore said the women wanted their statue to "reflect the friendships that they created while working together". Two steelworkers, standing arm in arm – the Women of Steel statue is a powerful symbol of solidarity between women, one that will no doubt remain a source of inspiration for generations to come.
- Words by
- Holly Hinchcliffe
- Images by
- Nigel Barker