Even as the right wing in both this country and Great Britain casually rip holes in the social safety net, it would do well to look back to just how short-lived some of the things we take for granted, equality-wise, actually are.
Gay rights, for example, have really only been a cause for legal battles for about 40 years. Instructively, that’s also about how long women have had legislated equality of sorts (though the comparative salaries of women and men still show obvious discrepancies). Not that it’s all peaches and cream: A woman’s right to choose came about only in 1972 with Roe v. Wade – and remains under constant assault. Meanwhile, the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated – by a right-wing force led by women (and their right-wing male cronies) in 1982. Some changes come harder than others.
It’s also been exactly 40 years since Parliament in Great Britain enacted legislation that eliminated laws that made it legal to pay women less than men in England, even for the same work.
That equal pay-for-women movement began in the British town of Dagenham – and is the subject of the funny, uplifting “Made in Dagenham,” a film by Nigel Cole (“Calendar Girls”). This charming little film tells an underdog tale with only its own story on its mind – leaving the larger implications of its plot for others to sort out.
Sally Hawkins and Geraldine James play Rita and Connie, two of a group of women who work in the seat-cover division of the Ford plant in Dagenham in 1968. But they’re upset about a provision of their newest contract, which classifies them as unskilled workers, while the men in the factory are classified as skilled and, as a result, are paid better. The women, after all, operate complex sewing machines and do complicated stitchery that’s far beyond assembly-line work.
They are encouraged to speak up by their shop steward, Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins). But when they take the issue to their union rep, a good old boy named Monty Taylor (Kenneth Cranham), he essentially caves to Ford management, uttering the kind of bromides and platitudes that women heard for years about men’s egos and men as householders and heads of family. Monty practically apologizes to management for taking up its time with these silly womens’ complaints.
So the women take the issue beyond Monty and go directly to the full union, invading the all-male sanctuary to make their pitch. Still, union support – male support of female colleagues – only comes grudgingly.
But the women decide they have to make a stand. Rita finds herself cast more and more as the group‘s spokeswoman, because she can lay out the issues simply in plain-spoken language that gets directly to the issues of fairness at the center of the dispute. The women finally call a work stoppage – then must face the pressure of the male workers (some of whom are their husbands or boyfriends) because the women’s strike closes down the whole plant.
Cole’s film takes us into the offices of the visiting Ford executive from America (Richard Schiff), who plays hardball with Prime Minister Edward Heath, promising to pull Ford out of England entirely if the women aren’t brought under control or if, worst of all, England actually dares legislate equal pay for women. But Barbara Castle (a very funny and tart Miranda Richardson), the secretary of state, takes up the women’s cause.
It’s the kind of David-Goliath story that paints the villains as greedy and paternalistic men who want nothing to interfere with their boys’ club approach to business. That may seem simplistic – except that, in fact, that’s how it was for a long time (and, some would argue, it still remains in many quarters).
So while the tension and drama in the story involves personal issues that arise because of the strike, the strike itself is and was a fact, a little piece of lost recent history that serves as a perfectly good vehicle for an entertaining and unprepossessing film. Cole doesn’t try to invest his images or his storytelling with any pretense to larger importance; he understands how basic the issues are here, and how matter-of-factly these women approached them: not as equal-rights crusaders, but as workers who just wanted a fair shake.
Hawkins has an infectious smile but also enough spine to play a woman who discovers that she is capable of doing things she never imagined. James has a nice reticence as her friend, less convinced of the cause. Rosamund Pike is wonderfully brisk as the wife of a Ford executive (Rupert Graves), who allies herself with the strikers. Hoskins alternates between avuncular and irascible as the union guy who sees the potential for getting back to what the union is truly meant to be: a tool to help the working person, instead of its well-heeled leaders.
“Made in Dagenham” is at once rousing and comfortable, a movie without pretension but with spirit and heart – and humor. See it for its ability to catch you up – and to remind yourself that the history of equal rights is recent and still being written.