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Made in Dagenham

January 16, 2011

Made in Dagenham

The United States is generally under the impression that it guaranteed equal pay for women in 1963.  A female electrician, for instance, must make the same wages as a male electrician doing the same job.  So that’s all very well and good, now, isn’t it?

But what if an automobile factory made a point to rate seamstresses assembling car seats as less-skilled labor, while applying exterior paint counted as more-skilled?  And if even within the less-skilled tasks, car seats were only paid 85% of the normal for that category.  There aren’t many women doing the painting, and men are generally not to be found at the sewing machines.  Both tasks are comparably essential to making the cars, but the net effect is that women are paid less for doing comparable work.  This is exactly what led to the 1968 sewing machinists’ strike at Ford’s plant in Dagenham, England.  And this strike led directly to the the United Kingdom’s Equal Pay Act of 1970.

Made in Dagenham tells the story of this strike, looking back forty years after the act went through.  It starts with the machinists’ foreman, Albert (Bob Hoskins), and the shop steward, Connie (Geraldine James), discussing an upcoming “industrial action” with the seamstresses.  They need an extra woman to come along to a meeting with management, and Albert picks out Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins).  And an astute choice she is, as when the factory’s head union representative (Kenneth Cranham) seems less than enthusiastic she speaks right up, accelerating the process rather than slow-walking it as the larger union would prefer.

The strike quickly grows beyond a single day’s stoppage, and Rita becomes a figurehead for the women’s concerns.  With Albert’s encouragement she finds her own voice to speak out, and to enlarge the strike from a small matter of regrading a single task to a push for truly equal pay overall. Of course there’s push-back.  Strikes are not easy on workers, and as the stock of finished car seats runs out the entire plant — the economic engine of the whole city — grinds to a halt.  In particular, there is a moving side story about the effects on Rita and her husband (Daniel Mays) as the household finances dwindle, and how he comes to understand.

The screenplay also gracefully weaves the story into a wider tapestry of women’s place in society at the time.  From the way that women and men interact, to Albert describing his own Mother’s difficulties during the war years, to an abruptly honest vote of confidence from the wife of the factory’s head, we get a clear picture of how women were regarded, and what was considered their place.

The final push comes from a small, but vital performance by Miranda Richardson as Barbara Castle, the secretary of state.  It’s between Rita’s still-hesitant pleas and her fiery stridency that we see the full spectrum of women calling out for people to finally stand up for what’s right; to make things the way they out to be.  Four decades later, some are still waiting.

Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: pass.

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