Femme autoworkers strike for equality in entertaining ‘Made in Dagenham’
Even women who have never worked in a factory will find something to cheer about in Made In Dagenham. Yes, this fiction film tells the true story of working-class women employed at a Ford Motor Company satellite plant in industrial England in 1968 who went out on strike to demand equal pay for equal work. But the issue of sexual inequality is painted in much broader strokes in this entertaining portrait of uppity women daring to do the unthinkable —stand up themselves—in a pre-feminist era when the old boy network still ruled every facet of society.
On the face of it, Made In Dagenham doesn’t stray far from the familiar narrative of other femme-activism movies like Norma Rae or North Country. Still, director Nigel Cole and scriptwriter William Ivory do an admirable job of not only sketching in the hierarchy of males the women are up against (husbands, co-workers, Ford execs, even their own union bosses), but in crafting a milieu of subtly ingrained sexism stretching from the workers’ subsidized housing all the way to No.10 Downing Street.
Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) brings her fun-loving demeanor and piercing intelligence to the role of Rita O’Grady, a fictional heroine invented to represent the journey the Ford women took from complacency to cosciousness. She’s one of 187 women machinists who stitch together interior upholstery for the Ford plant in Dagenham, which turns out 3000 new cars per day. They have their own shop, leaky in wet weather and a sweltering inferno in the summer. Most of them strip down to their bras at the worktable; if a male ventures down the long staircase into their shop, someone yelps “Man!” and they all cover up.
They’re a cheeky, boisterous lot, content enough with their jobs. The trouble starts when their union rep, Albert (the delightful Bob Hoskins) tells them that management has declined to upgrade their labor classification to “skilled” (which would mean more money), and suggests they threaten to walk out in protest. The women have elected a leader, Connie (Geraldine James), as their union liaison, but with Connie preoccupied with a fragile husband, Albert impulsively invites Rita to join them at a meeting with the Ford brass.
Nervous that her clothes aren’t “posh” enough and that she’s out of her league, Rita nevertheless refuses to sit idly by while her old-school union boss tries to cut a back-room deal with the sleek Ford plant owner (Rupert Graves) acing “the girls” out of their rights. Rita calls their bluff and the Dagenham women walk off the job, trading their sewing machines for picket signs. It’s all a big lark at first, but the repercussions are huge.
There are predictable tensions with Rita’s supportive, but neglected husband (Danny Mays) and kids, as well as with male co-workers, especially after the plant shuts down because there aren’t enough upholstered seats to fill the cars. But when Albert tells Rita that skill ratings have nothing to do with wages—that companies pay women less based on gender alone, because “that’s how it’s always been done”—their local strike mushrooms into a nationwide crusade for equal pay.
The film reveals the social order of the day in the way Rita’s message resonates with her diverse allies. The plant owner’s wife (Rosamund Pike), an educated beauty who says her husband treats her “like a fool,” cheers her on. Albert tells of his single mum raising three boys on half of what a man would earn in the same job. And the divine Miranda Richardson plays Barbara Castle, Britain’s first female Secretary of Sate, as a tough, sardonic political animal with the brains and the savvy to do the right thing.
Judging by vintage newsreel clips at the end, the real Dagenham women were neither as young nor as glamorous as their movie counterparts—which somehow makes their achievement all the greater. A cast of middle-aged matrons might have given the movie extra gravitas, but it’s a satisfying crowd-pleaser all the same.
MADE IN DAGENHAM
★★★ (out of four)
With Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, and Miranda Richardson, Written by William Ivory. Directed by Nigel Cole. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 113 minutes.