How a bunch of women sewed up an industrial revolution

2011-01-24 00:00

THERE’S something a little ironic about a film set in a giant of British industry, the Ford Motor plant at Dagenham, long after the country’s automotive industry has collpased. Even icons like Mini and Land Rover no longer belong to Britain.

The film tells the story of how a strike by a handful of women ultimately led to a workplace revolution across the industrialised world.

In the 1960s, the Dagenham plant was huge, turning out cars for the rising middle class, and among the thousands of male workers were 187 women sewing the seat covers and door panel trim.

The catalyst for the action is the women being told their job has been graded unskilled, with implications for their pay. Two of them are chosen to join the male trade unionists to meet the bosses. There they are expected to sit quietly while the men do the negotiating, but when the conventions of trade union negotiation imply that they are being pushed to the back of the issue queue, Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) refuses to play her part and speaks up.

When the shop steward (Bob Hoskins) puts it to Rita that the real issue is the difference in the rates of pay between men and women, she agrees to give it a go and puts herself on a collision course with not only the English bosses, but the Michigan Ford bosses and the trade union bosses as well, not to mention the women’s husbands. What right do a bunch of “girls” have in bringing the huge Ford plant to a standstill? Who will make the meals while the women are out protesting?

The film is directed by Nigel Cole, who also made Calendar Girls. The touch is light, even comedic, the women a noisy, bawdy lot. Hawkins plays Rita as capable, cheerful and a bit overwhelmed by her class position. By widening the focus slightly, Cole shows the wage struggle in the context of gender roles more generally. The secretary of state for industry is a woman, Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), who is patronised by her younger male assistants. The boss’s wife Lisa (Rosamund Pike) is a Cambridge graduate obliged to hold her tongue, stifle her opinions and serve the cheese course. A sense of these women’s solidarity is introduced through clothes: for a meeting with the minister, Rita borrows a designer outfit from Lisa, and the minister comments on it, while confiding that she buys her clothes at an ordinary shop, one where Rita also goes. It’s a nice touch, whether it’s real or not.

The struggle did pay off, and two years later, Britain enacted an equal pay act, followed by most industrialised nations. At the end of the film, archive footage and interviews are used to introduce the real women at the heart of the struggle. They seem more ordinary, frumpier, than the film women, but they are there, proud of the role they played in an industrial revolution. ****

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