by Rosamund Hunter & Kate Wadkins
Based on the true story of the 1968 strike of women working at a Ford plant in Dagenham, England, Made in Dagenham is a story of working women on a mission to receive fair and equal pay. The film’s protagonist, Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) —a young, married mother of two—is a fictional character meant to represent many characteristics of the real-life sewing machinists. The machinists successfully took on not only the Ford Company, but the male-dominated labor unions and the state itself. What began as an ambitious attempt to have their work re-classified as “skilled” rather than “unskilled” quickly became a radical move to get equal pay for women. The repercussions of equal pay had huge implications for Ford: If one plant paid women the same amount as their male counterparts, then all would have to follow. The real-life strike ultimately culminated in Britain’s Equal Pay Act of 1970. What follows is a conversation about the film between Kate Wadkins and Rosamund Hunter of the RE/VISIONIST editorial team.
KW: While Made in Dagenham is quite upbeat, struggle and pain are prevalent throughout the film. Rita’s character is based on the lives of many of the actual Dagenham workers, leading her pain to represent the strife shared by so many activists. The fluidity between the personal and political is immediately evident when Rita begins fighting for the rights of the Dagenham machinists.
Rita and her husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) live in the “estate,” housing provided for the autoworkers employed by the Ford factory. At home, Eddie flounders as he tries to balance his work life (also at the factory) and the now-undone domestic work, previously his wife’s duties; part of the film’s strength is that this kind of tension is subtle. “Invisible work,” domestic labor, gradually becomes visible, never really culminating in a blowout argument. The women machinists eventually strike, and as time goes on, it becomes impossible for the men workers in the other departments to continue working. Rita is confronted by her husband at home and hounded on the street for keeping men out of work and without wages. When it comes to her husband, she defends herself by commenting that women workers supported the men on their strike; he ends the conversation by turning out the lights.
RH: That scene is particularly powerful and represents not only the conflict and tension that can arise within the home, but also how issues of gender can divide working-class interests. The machinists face opposition from union leaders who are supposed to work for fair pay for all union members. Once Ford can no longer employ the men as a result of the strike, Rita faces harassment from the other workers. This is a recurring threat to activists in the real world—that the individuals who go up against the system are blamed for the fallout. Even though Ford is at fault for the unjust treatment of its machinists, the machinists themselves are demonized. Made in Dagenham does a brilliant job of showing the incredible difficulties in claiming individual rights and also makes clear the financial sacrifices of going on strike. Not only does Rita’s family have their refrigerator taken away because they cannot make payments, there is a scene that shows the women dividing food donations among themselves. Many activists find it impossible to strike because they risk not being able to feed their families.
KW: You touched on something very important: the fracturing of the working-class over gender issues. This film also illustrates what may be the other hand in this phenomenon, which is people uniting across class to privilege gender issues. Perhaps my favorite character in the film, Barbara Castle, England’s Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, is the perfect example of this. Castle (played by Miranda Richardson) is a sassy and clever leader, making fools out of her two male underlings for the entire film. She embraces being called a “fiery redhead” and when her two assistants deliver the news that the (male) Prime Minister is not happy with Castle’s choice to lend credence to the machinists’ cause, she eloquently shoots them down: “My, their cause already has credence!” elaborating that, “equal pay is common justice.” Castle proves to be an ally to the machinists on and off the screen, eventually leading to the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1970.
Similarly, Rita finds an ally in Lisa Hopkins (Rosamund Pike), wife of Ford executive Peter Hopkins, whose son is in the same class as Rita’s. Upon discovering Rita’s identity, Lisa calls on her at home (out of the view of Mr. Hopkins) to offer her encouragement. She then confides that her upper-class lifestyle has put her in the position of trophy wife, leaving her intelligence untapped. In a touching scene, Lisa explains that her fascination with history is in its makers, and names Rita as one.
RH: What is surprising about Made in Dagenham is not the representation of cross-class alliance—which is not uncommon in major motion pictures—but its favorable portrayal of organized labor and Marxist ideas. In a climate where labor unions are demonized and where politicians’ favorite way to undermine their opponents is by calling them “socialists,” it is refreshing for a film to make its audience root for working-class rights. In one scene, Albert (Bob Hoskins), a sympathetic union representative, argues for the cause of the women. After a leader shoots him down citing Marx, Albert responds, “Didn’t the same Marx say the progress of a nation could be judged on the status of the female population? Or was that a different Marx? That was Groucho, was it?””
Overall, though, the film does not claim class as the primary form of oppression, especially given the cross-class alliances among the women. While Rita and the other machinists find an ally in Albert, the factor that unites is gender. The film does manage to address issues of intersectionality in its juxtaposition of Rita’s working-class life with Lisa’s upper-class domesticity (although prepare to suspend disbelief that their sons go to the same school), yet it fails to introduce the issue of race. Every single character in the film is white and there are no people of color—men or women—at any of the union meetings. Were only white people employed at the plant in Dagenham? Was it a predominantly white community? Did the filmmakers write people of color out of the script? Unfortunately, the film leaves these questions left unanswered.
KW: I cannot remember the last time I saw a contemporary film that included both pro-Marx sentiment and a cast of strong women characters. So why now? I am not surprised that we are seeing a major motion picture release that features a win for the working-class in 2010, when unemployment is at 9.6% nationally and shows no sign of easing up. In times of economic downturn, like these, there tends to be a questioning of and subsequent scramble to define masculinity. Perhaps our economic concerns and distrust of Wall Street can be soothed by the Dagenham machinists and their progressive fight for labor justice; maybe stories about women are more palatable to the public when masculinity remains a touchy subject.
A subplot related to these fears in Made in Dagenham is that of Rita’s relationship with her husband Eddie; after all of the grief he gives her about her political work (“You can afford to have principles… you ain’t the fucking breadwinner,”) he eventually comes around. After watching his wife address a room of union officials, winning their confidence, he apologizes for his brutish behavior and recognizes his awe in light of her power.
RH: One critic blasted the film for making Eddie a sympathetic character. But I think the filmmakers did a nice job of showing the complications posed by gender conventions within male-female marriages. Eddie was not sympathetic through much of the film, as we saw him through Rita’s eyes; it was painful to see how he treated her and belittled her activism. Yet changing a lifetime of conditioned masculinity—especially during this time—would have been enormously difficult, and Eddie’s resistance to change as well as his ultimate acceptance of it is quite believable. And hopeful.
Made in Dagenham is now playing in select cities. ▢
Rosamund Hunter and Kate Wadkins are editors at RE/VISIONIST.