When The Sewing Machinists Took On The Auto Giant: The Modern Movie That Taught Us A Women’s History Lesson

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Made In Dagenham Movie Poster
FilmHistoryPolitics 4 Comments

This post could be considered long overdue. But, we all know it can take a busy woman some time to hear about a movie that’s worth watching. Then tack on the additional time it takes her to actually sit down to watch that film. But, as soon as she does, she wants to tell everyone about it. So, at long last, we want to tell you about Made in Dagenham, an independent British film from Director Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls) that was released in the U.S. in November 2010 and that we just got around to seeing. It’s a period docudrama with moments of comedy that tells the fact based story of a pivotal moment in British history involving the all-American Ford Motor Company and 187 female sewing machinists from Dagenham, England, who wanted equal rights and equal pay. This small group of ordinary women started a big fight in 1968 with a titan of the auto industry and achieved something extraordinary in the UK, which had ripple effects around the world for women’s rights.

In 1968, the Ford Motor Company was one of the largest single private employers in the United Kingdom and had one of its auto factories in Dagenham, England. Among the 55,000 men employed at that factory, there were also 187 women sewing machinists. These women made the seat covers for Ford cars. It was a “skilled” job, but because it was done by women it wasn’t viewed or “graded” as such by Ford. Skill grading was the basis for a Ford employee’s pay in those days; Ford had a skilled male rate, a semi-skilled male rate (C grade), and an unskilled male rate (B grade). There were two problems for the women of Ford under this system:

  1. The women were being placed in the B grade of unskilled workers when men who did the same level of work as the women were placed in the semi-skilled C grade.
  2. In addition to being misgraded despite their skill level, the women were given a different pay rate all their own, which was 85% of the pay of the unskilled men who swept the floors.

This grossly unbalanced, discriminatory pay system was not isolated to Ford at this time; it was common practice for UK companies to pay women less than men, regardless of the skill level involved. As if their grading and wage issues were not bad enough, Ford’s women machinists put up with harsh working conditions. While the movie shows what seems like an almost sorority style atmosphere in the factory, in actuality the women machinists had to sew 30 seat covers an hour, while being watched over and timed. They worked long hours in a dilapidated asbestos aircraft hanger with holes in the roof and sewed without guards on the machine needles, so injuries were common. Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it?

Dagenham Ford Women Sewing Machinist Strikers 1968

Dagenham Ford sewing machinists 1968 Photo: Pat Mantle/TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University

The women were disgruntled and fed up, so they took their demands – equal pay and regrading of their skill level – to Ford, who quickly brushed them off like crumbs on a table. Confronted by their employer’s refusal to right either wrong, the 187 women sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant, represented by machinist Rita O’Grady (played by Sally Hawkins in the movie) and supported by their male union shop steward Albert Passingham (played by Bob Hoskins), walked out on June 7, 1968 and went on strike. They were followed by 195 women machinists at Ford’s Halewood plant. The strike lasted for three weeks. In that time, Ford’s seat cover stock ran out and brought the automotive giant’s entire UK car production to a standstill. Fellas, wouldn’t it have been smarter and less painful, not to mention appropriate, to just give the women the pay and skill grade they deserved? We know… hind sight is 20/20, right? Wrong. Foresight would have been a better power to rely on in this case gentlemen. But, it seems you got what you deserved. The strike ultimately led to…

Since we don’t want to give the whole movie away to anyone who is not familiar with the outcome of the real story, which the film follows, we will leave our history lesson at that. But, we do want to note that we think Barbara Castle (played brilliantly by Miranda Richardson), who was Secretary of State for Employment in the male dominated House of Commons at the time of the sewing machinists strike, is an admirable and gusty woman, especially if her role in the strike was as bold as the movie makers portrayed it to be. Without completely blowing the ending for you, we can tell you that the spirit behind the Dagenham Ford women’s strike gave a huge impetus to other women’s movements around the world.

We’re thankful we now know about this important moment in women’s history, even if it took watching a movie to get the education we were lacking. Made in Dagenham definitely entertains, while being informative and inspirational. Beyond the compelling story, the parade of late 1960’s style throughout the film is a veritable catwalk of fashion history. We wonder if Janie Bryant has seen the film? Be sure to hang in for the closing credits… some of the actual women strikers, who are now in their 60s and 70s, give a few sound bites.

  • Anne J.

    WYSK, after reading yesterday’s post, I borrowed “Made in Dagenham” from my local library and watched it with my husband. It is definitely worth watching. The story rings true for any woman who has been up against the “establishment”. These women were gutsy and stood their ground. These are women you should know.
    P.S. My husband also thought it was a good movie, so watch it with your significant other! They may learn something about women.

  • Moondog

    Good movie.

  • Gargouille

    On my list!!!

  • Hanz_bluejacket

    I want to know if anyone ever worked in a factory with a guard of their machine needles? I have been working in factories for the last 6 years sewing and when you run a needle through your finger you pull the needle out and put a bandage on it. It has happened to me plenty of times, and not a size 18, like one of those thick leather needles and it hurts less than you might imagine.

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