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24 April 2018

Made in Dagenham (2010)

Directed by: Nigel Cole
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, 
Daniel Mays, Geraldine James, 
Jaime Winstone, Miranda Richardson, 
Richard Schiff, Rosamund Pike, 
Rupert Graves
Should women be paid less for doing the same job as men, because… they are women? Shouldn’t the pay-scale be based on the job, not on the gender of the employee? It seems like stating the obvious, but corporations often re-graded women as ‘unskilled workers’ so they could be paid less. A glaring fact that was overlooked both by the unions and the governments. 

However, in 1968, in a London suburb, a quiet revolution was underway. Women workers in Ford’s Dagenham factory went on strike demanding equal pay as the men. The three-week walkout caused a furore on both sides of the Atlantic. Between Ford’s threats of moving their factories elsewhere and the women’s fight for equality pitting them against the union bosses, and their own husbands, the strike became not just the news of the day, but also a political landmine for Harold Wilson’s Labour government.

This is the story that Made in Dagenham seeks to tell.

Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) is one of the 187 women machinists in Ford’s Dagenham factory, where a steady Connie (Geraldine James – Jewel in the Crown) is the unanimously ‘elected’ spokeswoman. (The movie begins with the workers, both men and women, bicycling their way to the plant.) They stitch the automobile seat covers for all of Ford’s models in the UK. Their workroom is hot and uncomfortable and the women cope by stripping down to their smalls while working.
When shop steward Albert (the inimitable Bob Hoskins) makes his way down to the floor, a warning cry of ‘Maaaaan!’ echoes through the room. He, on his part, averts his eyes, giving the women the chance to cover up. The roof leaks when it rains, but the women cope with that as well. (A well-placed umbrella does the trick.) 

The women are incensed when they learn that they have been demoted from ‘semi-skilled’ to ‘unskilled’, a management move aimed at increasing corporate profits. (The women had asked to be graded up to ‘skilled’.) Albert wants to talk to the union bosses and the management; he proposes a one-day strike and a ban on overtime to protest the recent cut.
The women are on board. That leads to the management calling for a face-to-face, and Albert is glad when Rita accepts to be the ‘fourth man’ at the meeting. 
She’s not a natural rabble-rouser, but he knows gentle, unassuming Connie is conflict-averse. What’s Albert’s motive, asks Rita, as she is manoeuvred into assuming a leadership position. ‘I got brought up by me mum,’ explains Albert. ‘Me and my brothers. She worked all her life and it was hard, especially as she was getting less than half than what the blokes at the factory was getting for doing the same work. And there was never any question that it could be any different. Not for her. Someone has got to stop these exploiting bastards getting away with what they've been doing for years.’ 
Rita, dismissed by her son’s snobbish and bullying teacher, and unconsciously being taken for granted by her loving husband, Eddie (Daniel Mays), is soon discovering an inner strength. Faced with pompous management representatives, she isn’t about to meekly ‘sit down, be quiet, and let me do the talking’ that Monty Taylor (Kenneth Cranham), the obsequious Union boss demands. He ‘works with the management’ and assumes that ‘the women’s demands will be the management’s first priority’ will assuage the women workers.
He is shocked when it is not so. ‘Bollocks!’ says Rita as she pulls out leather cuttings from her handbag. "We have to pick all these different pieces and work out how they go together. Cause there ain't no template is there? We have to take them all and sew them one by one into the finished article. That is not unskilled work! Which is how you've regraded us!" If the bosses cannot assure them of equal pay, she says, well, they aren't going anywhere. 
Back in the factory, Rita stands up on a chair and announces that the management has rejected their demands. What does everyone want to do? The women are clear and enthusiastic in their response. Well, then. ‘Everyone out!’ she says quietly, but confidently. The strike is on.

At first a source of amusement and then cautious support from the other unions, the women are steadfast in their objective. Until finally, the Ford plant itself (not just the women’s division) shuts down because the warehouse has run out of automobile seat covers. Then, it affects the men and leads to frayed tempers as the men come to terms with being out of work.

As one of them angrily confronts Rita – ‘It’s alright for you! I have to work if I have to pay my bills.’ His anger arises from fear. So, too, Eddie’s increasing frustration at having to deal with the changes in his life as his wife turns activist. At one point, when she’s going to a very crucial meeting, Eddie stops her – ‘Christ, I like a drink, but I ain't out on the beer every night or screwin' other women, or... Ere, I've never once raised me hand to you. Ever. Or the kids.’   
Rita looks at him in frustration. ‘Christ,’ she responds. 'Right. You're a saint now, is that what you're tellin' me, Eddie? You're a bleedin' saint? 'Cause you give us an even break? That is as it should be.  ...You try and understand that. Rights, not privileges. It's that easy. It really bloody is.’ 

Yes, it really is about rights, not privileges. Rights that men take for granted by virtue of being men. Eddie is not a bad man; like other men and women, he is just used to the status quo. Initally supportive of his wife's activism, he doesn't quite know what to do when she refuses to go back into the box she belongs. He feels slighted. 
Other men, however, don't see women as good for anything other than looking pretty and cooking dinner. For example, there is one scene where Robert Tooley (Richard Schiff), the American representative of Ford comes to dinner at Peter Hopkins’ (Rupert Graves) house. There is a subtle condescension in the way he says to Hopkins’ wife, Lisa (Rosamund Pike), ‘You must have quite a head on your shoulders. Your husband says you read History at Cambridge. What do you think of our little problem at the factory?’ And is shocked when she actually has a well-reasoned response.
As Hopkins looks aghast at her temerity at having an opinion, Tooley patronises her: ‘Well, that’s quite a progressive point of view.’ The slight emphasis on ‘progressive’ is damning, as is Hopkins’ directive to Lisa to get the cheese and the grapes.
Sally Hawkins’ ‘Rita’ is an amalgam of several real women who fought the good fight. (Some of them can be seen in tantalising cameos in the closing credits, narrating their experiences during that historic period.) 
Barbara Castle (far right), then employment secretary, 
shares a cup of tea in 1968 with the leaders of 
the female machinists' strike from the 
Ford plant in Dagenham, including 
Rose Boland (far left). 
Photograph: Wesley / Getty Images / Hulton Archive
She doesn’t ‘act’ on screen, she just becomes ‘Rita’, the unassuming women’s mouthpiece who, nevertheless, will not back down, whether she’s facing the union bosses, the management, or even the Secretary for Labour. Rita is not political. She's just a woman who's slightly surprised by the way her life is changing, but learns along the way to not only speak to her bosses like she is their equal but is also willing to go against them to fight for what is right. 

It helps that the tone of the film is unassuming, not the rah-rah stridency that is usually associated with the word ‘feminist’. It also helps that there are feminists of the male gender in the film – Albert, who’s seen his mother work herself to the bone for lesser wages than a man made for the same job; Eddie, Rita’s husband, who is confused, supportive and even resentful as he tries to make sense of his wife’s new role and her increasing assertiveness, of how to dress his daughter’s hair, and even how to do the laundry.
They are surrounded by a cross-section of strong women: Sandra (Jaime Winstone), the blue-collar bombshell with ambitions which set her at cross-purposes with the women's cause; Lisa, who’s tired of being snubbed for having a thought in her pretty head, or expressing an opinion (‘I'm Lisa Burnett, I'm 31 years old and I have a first class honours degree from one of the finest universities in the world, and my husband treats me like I'm a fool.’); Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), the opinionated Secretary of Employment, who finds an unexpected kinship with these working-class women You’re a working woman, same as us,’ says Rita, in one decisive scene. 
Back in the 60s, corporations paid women less not because they were less productive, but because they could. Even in countries where workers were unionised, women didn’t really matter – the unions were run by men, for men. The Dagenham strike was a decisive moment in the history of women’s rights. This historic protest was the first time women in industry had gone on strike since the Bryant and May match girls in 1888. It resulted in the precedent-setting Equal Pay Act of 1970. Ford became known as a 'Best Practice Employer'. Yet, things haven’t changed much in the intervening 6 decades really; statistics show that even today, women are paid 80.5 cents to a dollar, a difference of nearly 20 per cent. Director Nigel Cole takes an appealing route to examine why it is so difficult to pay a worker a fair wage, irrespective of gender. 

Made in Dagenham is a pleasantly entertaining look at history that is uplifted from the predictable by its sparkling performances. It is the story of women's fight for social justice, showing us that well-behaved women can also make history if they are determined to fight for what is right. Quoting Connie's husband, George: "Well, you've got to do something, haven't you? ...Cos it was a matter of principle. ...You had to do what was right. Cos otherwise you wouldn't be able to look at yourself in the mirror."  

'When did we as a country stop fighting?' asks Rita. Yes, when did we? And when did 'wrong' become the norm? This is not about gender or race or religion. As Rita says, 'We're ...only [separated] by those who are willing to accept injustice, and those like our friend George who are prepared to go into battle for what is right." 

History will judge us by when we remained silent and what we chose to fight for; we will judge ourselves by whether we did something, anything, in the face of injustice.

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