FILM REVIEW: Made in Dagenham
In 1968 three struggles by working class women in Britain helped inspire the formation of the women’s liberation movement there: Hull fishermen’s wives fought for better safety on trawlers, despite being told by the bosses to keep quiet; London bus conductresses rebelled for the right to become drivers; and women machinists at the Ford motor company’s giant plant at Dagenham went on strike for equal pay.
The Ford women’s strike led to the National Joint Action Committee on Women’s Equal Rights, a union-based group focussed on equal pay and women’s rights at work.
Over four decades later, the Ford strike has been dramatised, and partly fictionalised, as a film: Made in Dagenham, directed by Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls), produced by Steven Woolley (The Crying Game, Scandal, Interview with the Vampire) and partner Elizabeth Karlsen (The Crying Game, Hollow Reed, Sounds like Teen Spirit), written by Billy Ivory, who wrote for TV series such as Minder and Common as Muck, and starring Sally Hawkins as strike leader Rita, Daniel Mays as her husband Eddie and Bob Hoskins as Albert, the shop steward for their area. The theme song is sung by 60s British pop star Sandie Shaw, a former Fords Dagenham punch-card operator (albeit several years before the 1968 strike).
The film does a good job in portraying working class life in England in the later 1960s and the sense that was in the air at the time that things didn’t have to be that way, the kind of “sixties spirit” which spawned so much rebellion and social change. At the same time, however, the film’s producers have been involved in making some subtle and not-so-subtle changes of their own. For instance, in an interview in the Telegraph, Woolley said, “We could have tried to make a Ken Loach-style film. But we knew we didn’t want to make a political movie. We wanted a populist piece.” Karlsen added, “And we tried to avoid making class a major issue. We worked hard to make sure that issues crossed class barriers” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmmakersonfilm/8007335/Made-in-Dagenham-interview-with-producers-Stephen-Woolley-and-Elizabeth-Karlsen.html). Thus MacleansUSA site reviews it as “a purely feminist film” (http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/09/09/made-in-dagenham/).
This attempt to declass the movie simply makes it weaker and doesn’t even work stylistically. For instance, it leads to a bizarre sub-story in which the wife of one of the Dagenham bosses befriends Rita and, at a lowpoint in the struggle, turns up at the O’Gradys’ flat and tells her to keep going, saying “Don’t let me down” as she flounces off. Yet this posh woman provides no money for the strike fund, no food for the strikers and their families and no support on the picket line. It’s one of the parts of the film that seems most incongruous and odd. Another quibble with the film would be that the government’s minister of employment, Barbara Castle, is presented first as a bit of a conniver but then as a bit of a heroine who backs the women, helps settle the dispute by meeting wioth the women against prime minister Harold Wilson’s instructions and offering the women 92% of the pay of men in the factory as a settlement, although she does open the bidding with a miserly 75%. And, as they walk out to meet the press, Castle declares she will bring in equal pay legislation in the next few months. In fact, in 1968 Castle was no friend of working class women. In that year she brought forth the In Place of Strife proposals which aimed to hold down already-depressed real wages and suppress unions and strikes. By the time the Ford women went on strike, workers – male and female – had been subject to four years of attempts by Labour to lower their horizons and undermine pay and union rights in order to revitalise the stagnant British industrial sector.
Harold Wilson, however, is portrayed simply as a two-faced, devious fox. While that’s more believable, the portrayal of Castle as a fiery woman of some principle surrounded by devious men who are generally her intellectual inferior, is more a product of the producers’ desire to play down class and play up gender solidarity.
There is also a whiff of British nationalism. For instance, Fords gets portrayed as ugly Americans and in one scene the strike is portrayed as a continuation of World War Two’s supposed fight for justice. (A smaller quibble would be that one of the bosses asks which revolutionary group Rita belongs to: the Socialist Workers Party, the Workers Revolutionary Party or the Revolutionary Communist Party? However the SWP was the International Socialists until 1976; the WRP was the Socialist Labour League until 1973 and the RCP wasn’t formed until 1981.)
What the film does succeed much better in capturing, however, is that mood of the times - that 60s sense of change being not only necessary but possible - the exuberance and determination (and humour) of the women and also the cynicism and perfidy of the trade union officialdom. For instance, while Albert, the immediate shop steward (or delegate) is totally for them and encourages the strike, having been brought up with four siblings by a solo mother who worked in a factory earning less than half the pay of men doing the same job, all the union officials above Albert try to do sweetheart deals with the bosses, patronise the women and do their damnedest to sell them out. Some of the scenes of this dirty work, and the women besting them, are among the funniest and most heartening of the film. The sell-out officials are also portrayed as being members of the Communist Party, which also rings true. One of them even tries to quote Marx at Albert to justify not supporting the Ford women, but Albert fires back a Marx quote to support the women. (Actually I think Albert’s Marx quote may be Trotsky rather than Marx, but the point of the quote is well-made and leaves the bureaucrats speechless.)
The film also does a good job in portraying factory conditions. As the same Telegraph article cited above records, having spoken to some of the Ford women who had just seen the movie:
What the film did get right, they agreed, was the tyranny of the sewing-machines, which left them all with the arthritis-ridden hands they ruefully hold out to me. Hawkins and the rest of the female cast were taken to the London Sewing Machine Museum in south London to see authentic versions of the machines that were used. ‘They were quite terrifying beasts for one woman to control,’ says Andrea Riseborough, who plays Brenda, a ribald character firmly based on ‘Effing Eileen’. ‘My grandmother worked in a factory,’ she says. ‘And she often used to mouth things without actually saying them. She’d got used to making herself understood through the noise with exaggerated lip movements and lots of hand gestures.’
The dire conditions in the factory were also praised by the original machinists as being authentic. ‘When it rained it flooded and in summer we had to have salt tablets and lime juice it got so hot in there,’ Sime says.’It wasn’t a brick building, it was made of something like asbestos,’ Pullan puts in. ‘It was just a heap of jerry cans. You couldn’t look up in case a bird did something in your eye. Sometimes they’d get caught in the wires in the roof and they’d hang there for months,’ Sime says.
Yet Fords was a mega-rich company, one of the biggest in the world at that time.
The film is also quite good in portraying the highly-gendered division of labour, both within the factory and the home. These are low-paid working class women bearing the double burden of paid employment and all the housework. In the film the men in the factory are portrayed as being at first somewhat sympathetic, but then when the whole factory has to shut because there is no upholstery for the cars, many of them become more hostile, In reality, however, there was some more solid support for the women from the men in the factory. Unfortunately, the movie chooses to use a film clip from the time only showing those men who were not so supportive. Again, the desire to present it in a feminist light and de-class the struggle leads to distorting the actual history. More positively, Eddie, who has become somewhat resentful of the women’s strike shutting the factory and of Rita being away raising support for the strike, in the end swings back to strongly support her. This rings true with changing social attitudes of the time – for instance, a 1965 poll found that two-thirds of husbands approved of working wives and only 6 percent felt women’s place was purely in the home (Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat: a history of Britain in the swinging sixties, London, Abacus, 2007, p695). The strike has transformed not only the women but changed men like Eddie as well.
Overall, this is an inspiring film. This was the first strike by women workers in Britain in 80 years, so it would be difficult for it not to be inspiring. While I enjoyed it immensely and would recommend it, I also left the cinema wishing Ken Loach had made it. It would have been truer and even better.