Made in Dagenham

Whereas the Equal Pay Act passed Congress in 1963, Britain granted equal pay based on sex in 1970. The dramatic story of the British struggle is told in the film Made in Dagenham, directed by Nigel Cole. When the film begins in 1968, 187 women are sewing upholstering at the Ford Motor Company plant in Dagenham, which employs 55,000 men in other job classifications. Their union representative, Albert Passingham (played by Bob Hoskins) comes into the production room to announce minor concessions for the women. The following morning Rita O’Grady (played by Sally Hawkins) notices that her son Graham (played by Robbie Kay) is unable to use his right hand to eat because his secondary school teacher, Mr. Clarke (played by Andrew Lincoln), punished him for forgetting to bring a protractor to class, using a rod. When she confronts the teacher, he responds that such a measure is necessary because members of the lower classes must be corrected to become better adapted to the upper grades. (Universal secondary education was a recent innovation in England at the time.) The film implies that her deferential resignation to the teacher’s attitude is later sublimated into antipathy toward the Ford management, which refuses to grant women the status of semiskilled laborers—and the corresponding higher pay grade–, when she soon becomes the outspoken leader of the demand of the women, whom she inspires to go full throttle as strikers. She is opposed not only by Ford executives but also by those higher up the union hierarchy. Even Labour Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (played by John Sessions) is afraid to support the women. Rather than caving in, she expands the struggle to other Ford plants, and women throughout Britain increasingly demand equal pay if not respect, including Barbara Castle (played by Miranda Richardson), a member of Macmillan’s Cabinet who often berates her civil service assistants in a manner never seen in the 1980s television series Yes Minister! The film demonstrates the success of a trade union struggle that seems ages ago but has many lessons for the present, particularly how to confront those in power and how to mobilize support for a just cause. Although the struggle occurred at the time of protests against the American role in Vietnam, that context is not mentioned. Whereas Henry Ford founded his company on the premise that autos should be affordable so that Ford employees can own one, Ford executives in the film are not cognizant that both men and women in Britain must bicycle to work at Ford, something that would surely change when women received equal pay. Ending titles point out that Britain’s equal pay act soon spread to the rest of industrialized countries. The Political Film Society has nominated Made in Dagenham as best film on human rights of 2010. MH