Women still make only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes nearly 30 years after the Equal Rights Amendment passed through the United States Congress (it failed ratification by the states). No one bats an eye when it’s said that women still do most of the housework and child rearing, but that wage gap still astonishes because it proves that the work of women, regardless of whether it’s in or out of the home, is still considered less worthy than that of their male counterparts. A little known success in the early fight for equal pay went down in the late 1960s when the women machinists of the Dagenham Ford plant in the London suburbs went on strike and eventually won a wage increase. Made in Dagenham, directed by Nigel Cole and starring the wonderful Sally Hawkins, is their inspiring and tearjerking story.
Rita O’Grady (Hawkins) is a young mother of two children, Sharon (Sian Scott) and Graham (Robbie Kay), and wife of Ford worker Eddie (Daniel Mays). She’s also an unimposing machinist at the Ford plant, where she works in a congenial room full of old and young women, who sew the interior upholstery parts for cars rolling off the lot. When it rains they put umbrellas up and buckets down and when it heats up they open up their housedresses and sit in their bullet bras. Rita and the other women have been working with their union representative, the fatherly but never condescending Albert Passingham (played by the eye-twinkling Bob Hoskins), whose determination is not taken seriously by the union higher-ups; neither is the women’s work, which is deemed unskilled labor and accorded a lower wage.
When Passingham announces a meeting with the labor union, he wants to take another worker in addition to the ladies’ representative, the older and stoic Connie (Geraldine James), and for some reason he selects Rita. She’s loved by her co-workers and enjoys a bit of fun, but as evidenced in an earlier scene with Graham’s teacher, she’s not one to speak up. But it’s Rita who can’t help arguing against the union’s willingness to sleep on the women’s grievances. She demands equal pay for skilled work, and her unflinching sense of its importance to both unionized men and women is astounding for its simplicity.
And so they strike, and their effort runs through the gamut of put-upon worker emotions. Their solidarity moves from set determination and hope at an outdoor sit-in and political gabfest to a soggy and sad unattended party in the rain. It eventually becomes seriously frightening when their actions affect their every relationship, whether it’s their war-torn husbands resenting the distraction or figuring out where to get the money to feed their children. Three weeks is a long time to go unpaid, and although the women, including the adorable brunette Brenda (Andrea Riseborough), band together, the blonde in hot pants Sandra (Jaime Winstone) dissents momentarily to follow her dreams of becoming famous.
Pro-labor employment minister Barbara Castle (glorious Miranda Richardson) battles her own gender equality fight as the men who work for her barely listen as she repeats every plan, statement, and strategic move navigating a strike that eventually halts the production of Ford autos everywhere in Britain. With sensible low heels and a daily broach, Castle embodies a woman working harder than her counterparts to be taken seriously in male-dominated politics. Richardson’s lined and expressive face smiles and her eyes dart, yet she’s quick to flash a look of displeasure, and her solid figure formidably moves from around her desk to point out that these striking women must be taken seriously.
News footage of the real rebel machinists rolls during the end credits, and it’s unsurprising that they don’t have the glamour of the actresses portraying them—even a good, solid British movie tarts up the working class—but the performance by the petite Hawkins, whose features are almost too big for her face, feels real. Her Rita becomes an unlikely leader, who overshadows neither the voices around her nor her own humility. When Lisa Hopkins (the statuesque Rosamund Pike)—the rich, gorgeous, and educated wife of a powerful man—encourages Rita, it’s from equal footing as a woman not given the credit she deserves: a subtle acknowledgment that gender inequality runs up and down the class ladder.