New novel explores wartime challenges faced by Sheffield's Women of Steel - including a sexist male crane driver

A Sheffield writer who has told the real story of the city’s Women of Steel has released the first of a trio of novels based on their experiences.

Tuesday, 27th April 2021, 9:10 am

Freelance journalist and University of Sheffield journalism lecturer Michelle Rawlins is celebrating the release of historical fiction work The Steel Girls, which follows on from her 2020 book Women of Steel.

She said: “The characters are a figment of my imagination but they are all steeped in history and fact. I couldn’t have written these books without doing the research for Women of Steel first.

"I couldn’t have envisaged these women’s lives accurately enough to create a historical fiction series. The readers will know if it’s too much poetic licence.”

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Sheffield-based author Michelle Rawlins with her new novel The Steel Girls. Picture Scott Merrylees

When she was approached about the novels by publishers Harper Collins, Michelle said she jumped at the chance: “I wasn’t ready to let the Women of Steel go.”

She added: “It’s been such a lovely process. It’s nice to be able to have a bit of fun with the characters but know they are all based on real people.”

Michelle said there was a lot of Kathleen Roberts, who started the Women of Steel campaign, in Betty: “She comes from a slightly better background and is quite prim and proper. She’s quite shocked by some of the behaviour and attitudes of the time when she walks into the factory for the first time.”

The cover of Michelle Rawlins' book. The Steel Girls

The youngest of the three main characters is Patty, who just wants a boyfriend: “She is 17 and wants to have fun and is fed up of working at Woolworth’s”.

Nancy’s husband is away at war and her two children are looked after by a neighbour. “She needs to keep her mind busy, she’s sick with worry about her husband. She needs to bring in extra money and has to balance that with guilt for leaving her two children.”

The trio “come together and form an unbreakable bond of friendship that gets them through”, although they wouldn’t be friends in normal times.

Nancy has to deal with a sexist male crane driver, while Betty’s male workmate thinks she is fair game for sexual harassment.

“Patty ends up in a terrible pickle and has to grow up very fast,” said Michelle. “It’s very indicative of what these women experienced when they first joined and the attitudes and behaviour and problems they endured and the mindset they had to get into.”

Dorothy Slingsby’s son told Michelle his mum “shot up those ladders like a whippet” to show she could become a crane driver.

In the book they are championed by foreman, Frank, who realises he can’t meet orders without women replacing men who have joined up.

Michelle said: “Sometimes I pinch myself and I think my god, I never expected to be writing novels. I’m incredibly grateful to the Sheffield Star Women of Steel campaign. Without that, none of this would be happening.

"I always make sure whenever I’m talking about the books or the Women of Steel and I always put it in book notes that this all started because Kathleen Roberts rang the Sheffield Star.

"We wouldn’t have known these women’s stories if it wasn’t for the campaign.”

The Steel Girls is published by HQ Stories, price £7.99. Michelle’s website is michellerawlins.co.uk or follow her on Facebook for updates.

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