Worldwide acclaim for Sheffield’s women of steel

Women of Steel memoirs. Florence Baker COPY PIC
Women of Steel memoirs. Florence Baker COPY PIC
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Word is spreading about Sheffield’s Women of Steel as their influence goes global. Nancy Fielder reports on a new Canadian link

OUR city is still immensely proud of its international reputation for steel. Now word is also spreading of The Star’s successful bid to get recognition for the women who kept the foundries producing during the wars.

Since our campaign started three years ago it has been given the thumbs-up by Downing Street and Buckingham Palace as well as official recognition in Sheffield and the promise of a statue honouring the women.

It has also sparked interest in Canada where they are hoping to follow in our footsteps and get thanks for their own Women of Steel.

Hamilton is one of the most industrialised areas of Canada and produces 60 per cent of the country’s steel.

Its biggest employers are Stelco and Dofasco, with the latter boasting approximately 7,300 staff at its plant – producing more than four million tons of steel a year.

Known as the Steel Capital of Canada, it has seen its fair share of battles for gender equality in more recent decades but The Star’s campaign has also left residents asking questions about their city’s past.

Filmmakers Colina Maxwell and Thea Faulds headed over to Sheffield recently to meet up with Kathleen Roberts, who sparked the entire Women of Steel campaign with a call to our editorial office.

They also interviewed other leading campaigners, now all in their 90s, to find out as much as possible about Sheffield’s history and how it compares with Hamilton’s past.

While the similarities are obvious the pair believe that Sheffield has managed to progress more quickly from its dirty, steel reputation and celebrate its crucial role in the industry.

“We were quite surprised at Sheffield. We thought it would be like our town,” Colina said.

“Being a steel town, a lot of our identity is wrapped up in steel but often in a negative way – they refer to it as the armpit of Canada because steel is dirty, smoky and bad for the environment. It is a love-hate relationship.

“There seems to be more of a sense of community and pride in Sheffield. Everybody has been really helpful and wanted to tell their story.”

The battle now for Hamilton is encouraging people to share their tales and celebrate the importance of the roles they did, or continue to do.

The pair, who work for artist-run Centre3 for Print and Media Arts, are making a documentary and hoping to record the women who were given temporary steel jobs during the war.

Colina said: “A lot of the women had to deal with major harassment from the men.

“They didn’t keep them on the same contracts, the clothes didn’t fit them, it was poor conditions and a real battle for these women.”

In fact there are many likenesses with the situation facing Sheffield women who found themselves working on bullets, guns, shops and plane parts.

Colina believes our campaign can provide inspiration for their own residents to seize their past and pass it on.

Work has started to change Hamilton’s negative stereotype including several art projects and school initiatives.

One of them is Steel Kitchen – playing on cooking links, whether iron ore or meat stew.

“When one thinks of knitting or cooking one thinks of a woman pursuing domestic tasks and expressing her femininity.

“When one thinks of building, developing or making steel one thinks of men, ‘market forces’ and hard labour.

“Steel Kitchen a new body of work fuses documentary and drama in one video piece. This piece includes interviews from former Hamilton female steelworkers from the late ’70s interwoven with historical references of women and steel, interlaced with a subverted Betty Crocker cooking in the kitchen.

“Four women in Hamilton known as the Women Back into Stelco filed a discrimination complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 1997 and conducted a major public campaign to get Stelco to hire women for production work in the Hamilton mill.

“Learning of their story piqued my interest to research other women in steel stories. I discovered the Sheffield Women of Steel who fought for 60 years to receive public acknowledgement for their wartime work in the steel mills.”

As Sheffield steps up its fundraising efforts for its own Women of Steel statute, Hamilton is aiming to build on its own civic pride.

Although many miles apart, the similarities are stark and the pledge is to not only look back at the history of steel but also to the future.