The film ‘Made in Dagenham’ tells the story of the 1968 Ford factory strike that paved the way for a national campaign demanding women’s’ right to equal pay and inspired women’s’ liberation movements across the globe.
In 1968 the Ford factory in Dagenham, England employed around 55,000 workers, of which 187 were women. When these female machinists were unfairly classified by Ford management as ‘unskilled’ workers, they decided to fight back.
Nigel Cole’s fictionalised account of this inspirational struggle focuses on the central character of Rita O’Grady, a woman caught in an era of both deeply entrenched gender norms and enormous potential and enthusiasm for social change.
Rita defies the will of both the Ford management and the hostile union leadership and leads the women out on strike for higher wages. The undervaluing of the role of women in the workplace mirrors their role in the home as primary caregivers and unpaid domestic labourers. On both fronts women in the 60’s were fighting for recognition, respect and equality.
The film follows the strike and the difficulties which the striking women and their families face. When the entire factory is shut down due to the women’s refusal to work under lesser conditions than men, relationships are challenged and assumed gender roles become a point of heightened conflict.
The story becomes one of strong, empowered women outsmarting and outmanoeuvring the chauvinist male relics of a bygone era. In doing so it paints a warped sense of exactly who the women were struggling against.
The film emphasises (and fictionalises) gender solidarity from ruling class women and largely ignores the examples of class solidarity the real-life strikers received from many working class men.
This was the stated intent of the filmmakers, who admitted they “tried to avoid making class a major issue [and] worked hard to make sure that issues crossed class barriers.” Producer Stephen Woolley explained; “We knew we didn’t want to make a political movie. We wanted a populist piece.”
Regardless of the filmmaker’s intent for the film to be apolitical, it is based on a true story of one of the most disempowered sections of the workforce engaging in collective struggle, calling for class unity, standing up to capitalists and collaborationist union bosses, and building the beginnings of a national campaign in the fight for wage equality.
Overall, the film is a stylized and sexed-up homage to the beginnings of an historic movement which, although initially modest, swept far and wide and led two years later to the legislating of equal pay for equal work in the Equal Pay Act of 1970.
This story should provide inspiration to all low-paid workers, particularly women who still earn on average 18% less than men, and young workers who can be paid as little as 45% of the minimum wage. The women in the Dagenham Ford factory proved if you fight you can effect change!
With striking workers seldom seen in mainstream cinema, and much less portrayed as the dynamic and triumphant protagonists found in Made in Dagenham, this film is certainly worthwhile.
If you support women’s rights and the right for all to a decent living wage, then Made in Dagenham is a movie for you!
An article from the July 1968 issue of The Militant (No.39), to see how our comrades in Britain reported on the strike at the time.
By Socialist Party reporters