Emma Hollingworth: Fitting tribute to Women of Steel

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I REALISED with horror last week that I was definitely on the old side – in my children’s eyes at least – when I heard the age-old phrase “what was it like in your day Mummy?”

I thought I was doing the right thing by being helpful to my elder daughter as she battled with her history homework.

Admittedly it was about the ancient Greeks and at least she didn’t have the audacity to think I might have lived then and could give her an eye witness account to help her along with her narrative piece.

History is a pet love of mine. I am no history graduate – unlike the other half who inwardly groans whenever I try to claim I know anything about anything - I am more of an armchair historian, if there is such a thing. I love to read or watch anything which has an element of history in it.

In particular I have a passion for reading about the Tudor times and the lives of the great, good and bad from those times. Historical novels are a particular favourite, much to the other half’s absolute disgust.

“They are not real history,” he seethes at me. “They are just made up dramas like Mills and Boon stories in corsets.”

He also sneers at my love of costume dramas on TV – like Downton Abbey, which he equates to “Coronation Street for the middle classes”.

The fact that it is expertly written and crafted, and that the acting is some of the best on TV for a long time – in particular Dame Maggie Smith, whose very presence alone acts everyone off the screen, makes little difference with his majesty.

For me the element of history which really appeals is the true-life stories. Especially those of women – who overcame many, many hurdles placed upon them by their mere sex alone.

Take, for example, Elizabeth I. Born to “lowly” Anne Boleyn who clawed her way to being Queen of England despite being little more than the King’s mistress, only to have her head chopped off just a few years later because she couldn’t produce a boy. Her fall from grace resulted in Elizabeth being left out of the succession and it was only through fate (the deaths of her younger half brother and elder half sister who left no offspring) that she came to the throne at all. Before Tudor times it was unheard of for a woman to rule alone. Even her sister Mary I had taken a husband (Phillip II of Spain) – not that Protestants liked this much.

But despite all the odds being stacked against her, rule she did – and we still talk about the Elizabethan era and how it changed our country’s history to this day. It might not all be about individuals, but if she had not been a strong woman who was able to resist all marriage proposals, we might never have had that history in our books. She may very well have died in childbirth shortly after getting hitched. Such were the perils of the day – with more women dying in childbirth than men on the battlefield.

In the next couple of years it will be a centenary since the start of the First World War. I really hope my children get to learn about this – not just the strategies and battle tactics taken by men, (yawn) but the mark left on our country to this day from the true life dramas that this period of our history dictated. Take, for example, the abundance of women left after the war literally decimated the male population and how this led to women finally getting the vote. Sadly there are no longer men and women left from that era who could bring this to life.

But there are still veterans from both World Wars. In particular there are still women and their fascinating stories. Stories which have only really come to light in recent years, like the Women of Steel. These were the women who worked in the factories and steel works while the men were away fighting. Many were conscripted and it changed their lives. Not only did it give them a sense of independence and financial freedom, but some realised they could have careers outside the home.

Sheffield City Council is at the forefront of plans to mark the efforts made by these ladies – in particular with a permanent memorial in the city.

World-class artist Martin Jennings has been commissioned to create a figurative memorial in recognition of the women of Sheffield. He will work with the Women of Steel and the wider public to produce a model for the work by the end of July 2012.

Updates will be posted on the Council’s website at www.sheffield.gov.uk/womenofsteel from next week.