With Made in Dagenham currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer, we repost Lindsey German's review
Films which describe working-class people actually doing things are rare indeed. Even rarer are those which show them doing their work. And there are a tiny number which sympathetically portray strikes that win. Made in Dagenham scores the hat trick. It is also a well made and enjoyable film.
The film tells the story of the 187 women sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant who went out on strike in the summer of 1968 in order to get their work graded as skilled. It shows the way in which the women grow politically, the real difficulties encountered by the strikers and their families and the ambiguous role of the union officials in the dispute.
The strike is now famous as the equal pay strike which heralded the British women’s movement. It didn’t start like that, but as a result of the women’s indignation at being treated as unskilled as they worked on sewing the seat covers for the company’s cars. We see them machining the awkward shapes needed for the covers with what used to be described as ‘dexterity’ by those who sought to separate ‘women’s skills’ (nimble fingers) from the more highly paid ‘men’s skills’ on the production line.
As is the case with many women’s strikes, once the women decide they have a grievance, they don’t hold back. They vote unanimously for an overtime ban and one day strike, keep the picket line going all day, and walk out on all-out strike when they get an arrogant letter from the company.
Their sympathetic union deputy convenor, Albert, is amazed at their enthusiasm and encourages the heroine, Rita, to become a shop steward and to find her voice. At every stage when compromise is urged on the women in the film, they reject it.
The usual problems of family and the strain of striking are handled well. Rita’s husband, a Ford worker himself, supports the strike but increasingly feels the strain of being at home with the kids as she becomes the key strike organiser.
The film deals with political issues in a sensitive way, with the union officials supporting the women up to a point but not wanting to go too far, especially once Ford lays off the whole plant. But, importantly, the union conference addressed by the women actually does vote to support them. The reaction of male workers is not in principle against the women, but they don’t like losing their wages when the whole plant is laid off as a result of the women’s action.
The arguments that women don’t really need to work (still extremely common in the 1960s) surface, but in another scene Albert explains his motivation in supporting the women was that his mother had to work to support her family - thus stating the truth about many working women.
Class hatred comes to the fore as you watch this film, not just against the Ford bosses but also the snobbish and sadistic school teacher of Rita’s son. The scenes where Rita becomes friendly with Lisa, the wife of a Ford manager, were some of the most unlikely (I have no idea whether there is any truth in them). Whether it's borrowing a Biba dress to visit Barbara Castle, or when Lisa appears on Rita’s council flat balcony to tell her that she’s ‘making history’ this little bit of cross-class solidarity strikes one of the film’s few false notes.
The film is described as ‘feel-good’ which isn’t really accurate. It isn’t like the two very good feature films about the miners, Billy Elliott and Brassed Off which were set against the background of the strike’s defeat. The strike’s (partial) victory makes this film different. But it is portrayed in a realistic way and personal issues intrude, especially in the case of Connie and her husband George, who was destroyed mentally by his experiences of the Second World War, a still recent memory for all but young people in 1968.
Barbara Castle, the left-wing Labour government minister who meets the women, gets an easy ride from the film. In reality, she was the first to introduce anti-trade union legislation, and her Equal Pay Act fell far short of what was needed. But these problems do not detract from the enjoyment of the film. It ends with Castle in real life comparing them to the spirit of the suffragettes, and we hear from some of the surviving strikers.
It's the best part of a generation since a film like this has been made. In the 1970s, Hollywood made some similar films about women - Norma Rae about a factory worker who forms a union, and Nine to Five about women office workers. Their inspiration came from the 1960s.
With working-class women under threat from recession and cuts, this film - and its message that you can win - couldn’t have come at a better time.
Made in Dagenham is available to watch on BBC iPlayer
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
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- Privatisation is the engine of cronyism and corruption – weekly briefing
- The price we pay for the prince – weekly briefing
- The Individual and Collective in Women's Liberation - video
- Police bill: the protestors aren’t for turning – weekly briefing
- Vaccine bounce or Starmer slump? – weekly briefing
- How do we end violence against women? - video