Made in Dagenham: The women who changed history

Posted on: 29 September 2010 by Mark O'haire

Made in Dagenham, starring Sally Hawkins, tells the story of the women Ford workers who changed employment history in 1968 by striking for equal pay. Rita lives in Dagenham and, like many local women, she works at the Ford plant stitching together seat covers. It's intricate work carried out in sweltering conditions. So why, she wonders, are the workers paid the same as unskilled labourers? Is it because the work is unskilled? Or is it in fact because they are women?

Made in Dagenham shows how, at some expense to their family lives, in a country already crippled by strikes, and with a little help from colourful political firebrand Barbara Castle, the Dagenham women managed to overturn an age old hypocrisy.

“At the time, the Ford factory in Dagenham was the largest factory in Europe,” explains director Nigel Cole, who thoroughly researched the history of the strike for Made in Dagenham.

“It’s hard to believe just how huge it was, with some 55,000 men employed there, making half a million cars a year. In 1968, there were a small number of women employed in the factory as sewing machinists, sewing the car seats together. They had recently been downgraded in their pay structures as ‘unskilled’ and they were furious about it. Understandably so, as they were more skilled than many of the men. So they went on strike. And the strike grew and grew and, because they weren’t producing the car seats, it got to the point that Ford couldn’t make cars anymore. They ended up bringing the entire factory to its knees. Thousands of men were laid off and it became a huge national crisis.”

Now that we know how the story ended, it’s easy to see how important the strike was. But, at the time, the women must have struggled with the enormity of what they were doing, especially when they lost the support of their husbands, fathers and sons – most of whom also worked in the factory.

“Initially, they had the men’s support,” says Cole. “Although the men were amused by the whole thing at first, as the women hadn’t been on strike before. And, in those days, as indeed it is to this day, women’s work was considered less important than men’s work. But, as it got more serious and the men got laid off, some of them turned against the women. They felt as though they should just stand aside and let the men get on with their jobs.”

Of course, ultimately, the women’s actions changed not only their conditions within the factory, but women’s rights nationwide.

“It got to a point where Barbara Castle, the leading female politician of the day, got involved,” continues Cole. “She negotiated the settlement with the women and out of that came the Equal Pay Act 1970. So these ordinary women, who had never been involved in anything political in their lives, suddenly found themselves at the Houses of Parliament negotiating with a senior politician and bringing about a revolution in rights for women. It is an inspiring story and it’s so great to feel like you’re telling a story that needs to be told."

50connect members can see the film for free courtesy of Paramount and Apollo Cinemas. For more information, please click here.

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