By Joanna Horton
‘Equal work for equal pay’ continues to be one of the most widely discussed issues in the feminist movement. In fact, I’ve found that it is very often referenced by idiots people arguing the point that feminism is no longer needed. Technically, yes, women are paid ‘the same’ as men. However, as many feminists point out, this ignores the significant wage imbalance between male and female-dominated industries. The fight against this form of pay inequity continues today – earlier this year Fair Work Australia handed down a pay rise to the (predominantly female) community sector after the Australian Services Union’s long and forceful ‘Equal Pay for Equal Work’ campaign.
‘Made in Dagenham’, however, goes back to the beginnings of the fight for equal pay, re-enacting and dramatising the 1968 sewing machinists’ strike at the Ford plant in Dagenham (at the time one of the largest private employers in the United Kingdom). The film focuses on Rita O’Grady, a 1960s working woman with a husband, two children and a job assembling car upholstery for Ford. She and the other sewing machinists (all women) want a pay rise, but upon meeting with their (male) union representative, they realize that they’re being paid a fraction of men’s wages across the board, simply because their work is ‘women’s work’. They decide to strike for pay equality, and Rita is suddenly thrust into the role of strike leader.
Watching how the fight for equal pay unfolded in the public eye is, of course, always fascinating. However, another facet of the film explored how the struggle occurred in the private lives of the men and women involved. I found this particularly interesting as it gave rise to explorations of gender relationships, family responsibilities, and men’s role in women’s liberation.
For instance, the boyfriends and husbands of the women strikers in ‘Made in Dagenham’ initially support their cause. They’re all good unionists and most of them work in the automobile assembly part of the Ford plant. However, as the strike stretches on, many of the men become fed up with the lowered household income and the increased family responsibilities being placed upon them. This particular kind of man is what I like to call a ‘brogressive’ – a supposedly progressive dude except when it comes to feminism (i.e. a movement that threatens his privilege; that threatens the lifelong knowledge that his dinner will always be on the table). My favourite scene in the film is one where Rita’s husband tries to tell her what a great guy he is because he takes care of the kids sometimes and doesn’t hit her. Cool, do you want a medal? Rita lets him have it. “Rights, not privileges!” she tells him. “It’s that simple, it really bloody is.” (I may have pumped my fist at this point.)
This statement, of course, shows how the struggle for equality in public mirrors the struggle in private. As feminists are so fond of reminding everyone, the personal is political. Many opponents to equal pay tried to tell women that they were lucky to have jobs at all – why bother making trouble by demanding equal pay? Well, for the same reason that women should ‘make trouble’ when their husbands aren’t being supportive: We’re people, and deserve to be treated that way.
As you can probably tell by this point, I liked ‘Made in Dagenham’. It’s funny, moving, thought-provoking, occasionally tear-jerking AND feminist. I recommend seeing it with other feminists for a maximum-solidarity viewing experience. (I went with a friend to see it in the cinema, and we got a Couples Combo at the candy bar and made incessant jokes about being on a feminist date and accidentally touching hands in the popcorn bucket. Which was even funnier because we accidentally attended the senior citizens’ showing in the middle of the afternoon and were surrounded by octogenarians.) Not only is it a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience (worth it for the 1960s hair and outfits alone) but it’s guaranteed to get you fired up about equal pay and feminist issues in general. Maintain the rage!
Fun factoid: ‘Made in Dagenham’ was released in Germany as ‘We Want Sex’.
~ Joanna Horton
You can find this movie review in the current herstory issue of wom*news.