On 1 October, the Equality Act 2010 came into force, exactly 40 years after the very first piece of anti-discrimination legislation, the Equal Pay Act 1970, was passed. The Equality Act will standardise and strengthen all the current disparate and piecemeal discrimination legislation. How fitting then, at this time that the inspiration for the Equal Pay Act – the women’s machinists strike at Ford, Dagenham in 1968 – has been made the subject of a film, Made In Dagenham.
The film, directed by Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls), tells the story of the 187 female machinists relegated to the lowest pay rates at Ford owing to their classification as “unskilled workers” and their strike and ensuing campaign for equal rates of remuneration as men. My male neighbour is a Ford enthusiast, constantly renovating a Mark 1 Cortina; having witnessed him making upholstery covers in the same way as those machinists I can vouch that more skill is required than you can imagine!
England in 1968 is lovingly recreated with the fashions and music of the age, with Biba dresses, the Small Faces and authentic décor and technology all contributing to an evocative period feel.
Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky) leads a wonderful ensemble cast as Rita O’Grady, the reluctant and unlikely leader of this group of women of disparate age, but common background. Her performance is a convincing mix of nerves and brassiness and she is ably supported by Bob Hoskins and Geraldine James as her fellow union campaigners. Miranda Richardson excels as a determined Barbara Castle, and John Session’s turn as Harold Wilson includes the famous quip “You’re the best man in my cabinet”, delivered with all the irony and earnestness that Wilson originally intended.
Attitude of the times
The story is not, however, a simple tale of “women strike, law is changed, thank you and goodnight”. The women initially start their industrial action against a management structure convinced they will back down. When forced to continue striking to the point where no cars can be made (because there are no upholstered seats) and the male assembly line workers are laid off, they find they have opponents among their own colleagues. The general attitudes of the 1960s are encapsulated in the angry man who tells a striker he can’t do without his wages as he is “the breadwinner” of his family.
Whilst there are some clear parallels in storytelling and approach between this film and Calendar Girls, there is still enough originality, pace and inspiration in this film to make it thoroughly enjoyable. If you do go and see it, however, remind yourself that even today, the gender pay gap according to the government’s Equalities Office is still 22 per cent. I doubt that Rita and her brave fellow machinists would approve.
Snigdha Nag is a barrister and senior lecturer at City Law School