Made in Dagenham

In 1968, Ford Motors employed around 40,000 British in their UK factories, including one in Dagenham (Essex). Apparently, while General Motors tried to work with unions, Ford constantly looked for skeezy ways to pay workers less, and this led to strikes in which the men would stop work for a day and so on, shutting the plants down to force Ford to negotiate with the union.

Then one day, the women – sewing machinists who put together the upholstery in the cars – did the same thing, and all hell broke loose. Made in Dagenham is based on their true story. Like A League of Their Own, it even ends with some interviews of the actual women who were involved.

The basic story is a matter of history, so I’m going to spoil it for you. Ford had pay grades, and one day, they downgraded the sewing machinists’ grade from C to B, and informed them they’d be paid 15% less than men in Category B. It was standard procedure in those days to blatantly pay people with vaginas less than people with penises, for the exact same work or level of effort and training. Nowadays, companies have to be sneaky and find other ways to pay women less. Woohoo? The pay gap has narrowed considerably since then, but it hasn’t proven a full solution.

(Side note: it’s interesting that the US had an Equal Pay Act allegedly ensuring same pay regardless of gender, but Ford – a company that’s always branded itself as super patriotic American – eagerly took advantage of the UK’s lack of such a law.)

The women have one ally – a union man who advises them on the ways of union negotiations (the women do all the work; he just familiarizes them with the unfamiliar strategies and helps them assess the union’s responses). He and his siblings were raised by their mother, alone, who was paid less than half what the men got paid for the same work as she did, so he’s always been sympathetic to the needs of women in the workplace. He explains to them that it’s not about the pay grades: it’s about paying women at equal rates to men.

At first, the men in the plant – some of whom are husbands of the seamstresses – are neutral or supportive. Until the assembly line runs completely out of finished seat covers, and the plant shuts down. Then it’s time to blame the women, of course. Do the other unions join with the women in solidarity? Not at first. Stock footage shows real men – white and black – complaining that of course men should be paid more because they’re breadwinners (once again, female breadwinners get erased from the social landscape), and therefore they don’t support the women in their strike. Men’s strikes are perceived as important for labor; women’s strikes are just a bit of fun, since their jobs are just a bit of fun.

But the women refuse to come back to work. They go – uninvited – to speak at the Union meeting where a vote will take place to decide whether the unions of male workers will support them. They speak at the meeting. Well, that is to say, one of them loudly calls one of the speakers on his bullshit from the back row, and when the speaker politely tells her to shut up, one of the union men says he’d like to hear what they have to say. One of the women speaks, and the vote goes in their favor.

Barbara Castle, the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, is given the job of ending the strike. She assures the women they will get what they want in time, but for now they must return to work. They stand fast, insisting they need some kind of guarantee. They also remind Castle that she is a working woman, too. They walk out with their pay raised to 92% of what the men are getting. By 1970, Britain passed an Equal Pay Act of their own.

That’s the history, and it’s a rollicking good story, with working class (white) women at the center of it, doing their part to make the world a better place. There are a number of great characters here, with various personalities and conflicts, and while I could talk about how well written they are in detail, you’ve heard it all in other reviews. Something that particularly jumped out at me about this movie was how it treated allies to the cause.

One of the great scenes comes when Rita, the leader, is off to yet another meeting. She’s hardly home anymore, leaving her husband to look after the kids. He’s endured it all silently so far, but as she’s trying to get to her train, he follows her and insists she hear his grievances. He says neither of them have been perfect in all this – that’s fair enough. Then he reminds he he doesn’t screw around on her, doesn’t gamble, doesn’t have a drink problem, and has never raised a hand to her or the kids.

“That’s as it should be!” she explodes. Those things are “rights, not privileges.” She’s not “lucky” that he’s none of those things, just because so many men are. Sadly, this is a point society still refuses to grasp: husbands are entitled to betray and hurt wives, and if they don’t, that’s mighty generous of them. Like men are not required to have anything to do with the children they spawn, so if they do change a diaper or something every two years, gosh, aren’t they a hero.

The male ally in this story does not get extra credit for being such a swell guy that he’d even stoop to help women. He’s there, he’s supportive, but he only provides the women with the knowledge of how the game is played. They do the playing themselves.

I really like how this movie explores the conflict between the men and women. Mainstream Hollywood movies have this belief that you must maximize conflict in every scene and every relationship, and they haven’t yet noticed it makes movies painfully predictable and unrealistic. In this movie, yes, the men are fine with the women’s strike until it affects their wages, as you would expect of men who’ve been taught all their lives that making a living is not only their right, but their somber responsibility. But they don’t start beating their wives or blowing up cars or anything I’ve come to expect/sleep through at mainstream movies; they’re uncomfortable. They want to lash out at the women, but they realize how hypocritical it would look. They’re conflicted. They’re not sure what to do. So they complain to the women. They respond to the media with politely worded non-support. And once they realize that not having their union back the women’s union is tantamount to colluding with management against another union (or at least that’s my take on why the vote ultimately went the way it did), they do the right thing, whether they like it or not. That’s real-life conflict, and it’s dramatic enough.

There are two other wonderful allies in this story: Barbara Castle and Lisa Hopkins, both upper class women. Barbara Castle is the politician who ultimately ends the strike, and Lisa Hopkins is the upper class wife of the manager of the Dagenham plant. Their roles are, like that of the other ally, important but not central. Lisa and Rita have children in the same school getting beaten by the same teacher, and Lisa organizes a successful letter campaign (in which Rita participates) to get rid of him. Later, Lisa recognizes Rita from a picture in the paper and realizes what she’s doing with the union. She goes to Rita at a point where Rita most needs some support, and gives that support. Later, she lets her borrow a dress so she’ll look nice for her meeting with Barbara Castle. That’s it! Lisa helps and cares and supports, but she doesn’t become the Great White Helper.

Neither does Barbara Castle. After all, ending this strike is merely one of her many accomplishments. Her role is treated as important, as indeed it was, but after all, she only used the power she’d been granted to do the right thing – that, as Rita said, is as it should be.

As they leave Barbara Castle’s office to speak to the press, Barbara asks Lisa if her striking dress is by a particular designer. Rita confirms this, but adds that she has to give it back at the end of the day. They chuckle, and then Lisa asks if Barbara’s lovely suit is C&A (a budget clothing retailer), and Barbara confirms it is – “Why pay more?” Rita says she has the exact same suit at home. I love this hat-tip to common ground between two sensible women of radically different backgrounds.


  1. says

    I went to request the movie from Netflix and this is the description they have up:

    Sally Hawkins stars in this cheeky dramatization of the landmark 1968 labor strike initiated by hundreds of women who rebelled against discrimination and demanded the same pay as men for their work in a London automobile manufacturing plant. During one march, a banner that reads “We Want Sexual Equality” inadvertently becomes shortened to “We Want Sex.” Nigel Cole directs this film that co-stars Miranda Richardson and Bob Hoskins.

    What the fuck does the bolded part have to do with anything? It’s a complete non-sequitor. And I might be reading too much into this, but I don’t think I am: is it coincidence that the description for a movie about the struggles of gender equality focuses on sexuality and silliness? I don’t think so; I think it was consciously or subconsciously an attempt to undermine the movie’s credibility.

  2. says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    I noticed that too, and started to write about it. But then I discovered it’s actually how the movie was marketed. It appears on a lot of the movie posters, some of the DVD covers. So, whatever it was, it came from the people marketing the movie, and not Netflix specifically.

    Maybe it was an attempt to undermine, or maybe they thought a movie about women striking would sound too heavy and depressing (an “issue” movie), and this was a way to let people know it was more enjoyable than that. Whatever the intent, it just doesn’t work.

  3. says

    You know, in that article by Roseanne Barr that Maria recently included in LoGI, she said no woman in film/TV has any power – and neither do the men, unless maybe they work in marketing. That’s not the first time I’ve heard someone suggest that who really controls the entertainment industry is the marketers. This makes sense: the marketers are the ones who need to present ad buyers and investors with confident-sounding “logic” like, “Female eyeballs are worth less than male” and “The audience won’t accept mainstream movies featuring women – sorry, gals!” Because if they admit they don’t know what people want or why some movies do well and others don’t, they’ll lose everything they’ve built.

  4. Søren Løvborg says

    Glad to hear that there is more to this film than the trailer (which I just saw today) would indicate, because the trailer is just… horrible. Besides the aforementioned “we want sex” banner clip, the whole trailer had a creepy subtext of “The true story of how we got equal pay, and abolished gender inequality forever on!”

    (It would seem that the focus on “equal pay for equal work” is once again conveniently used to gloss over the fact that men’s work and women’s work is far from equal, explaining e.g. why, in the EU, men earn 17.5 % more than women on average, despite “equal pay” being part of the EU founding treaty.)

  5. says

    Søren Løvborg,

    I really really hate “equal pay for equal work” being used as shorthand for the entire feminist movement. That is one facet of the discrimination women face. Rape culture is another. Media exploitation of women’s bodies is another. I could go on for paragraphs. And even if equal pay should magically happen tomorrow, women still wouldn’t get equal treatment in the workplace. Women aren’t given equal opportunities for high paying jobs (I think 3% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies?). Parental leave is biased against women, with one study showing maternal leave delayed a woman’s promotional prospects by five years. Etc.

  6. says

    No kidding. That’s why I love “9 to 5”, which I really must review one of these days. In it, the women get everything they’re after but equal pay, which is kind of backwards to reality, but it functions really well as a list of some of the many things the workplace needs (and not just for women – it challenges lots of old-fashioned misconceptions about productivity rates), with a stark reminder that we’re so not done, and there’s a lot more to do.

    It sounds like all the marketing was abyssmal for Made in Dagenham, which is really a pity – it’s a very good movie with lots of thinky points, but it never gets ponderous.

  7. says

    We watched this last night. (We had to turn on the subtitles since my mom couldn’t understand the British accents, though.) Great movie.

    One of my favorite scenes is near the beginning, the first time the machinists meet with management. At that point they still thought it was about skill level, not gender. Rita is arguing that their job should be considered semi-skilled, as it used to be, and not unskilled, as it is now. She pulls out the pieces of leather that they have to sew together and invites the manager to try to fit them together. Of course he can’t and he doesn’t even try. It was a brilliant way to illustrate her point that their job can’t be done by any unskilled worker, it takes knowledge and experience to do it properly.

  8. Sally says

    “Mainstream Hollywood movies have this belief that you must maximize conflict in every scene and every relationship, and they haven’t yet noticed it makes movies painfully predictable and unrealistic. … But they don’t start beating their wives or blowing up cars or anything I’ve come to expect/sleep through at mainstream movies…”

    That’s Hollywood, Jennifer — luckily other countries that make films either never had the same formula or are trying to move on.

    The sign-thing was actually true. The women had not yet got the sign stretched out when a mucky little paparazzo snapped the photo — Rupert Murdoch was a grubby muckraker long before he decided that he wanted to dodge Australian taxes and become a US opinion-moulder, reckoned that it was a great way to trivialize the strike.

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