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.