Last month, Made in Dagenham: The Musical made its debut on the West End stage. Based on the 2010 film of the same name, this production tells the story of a 1968 strike by female machinists at the Ford factory in Dagenham. It’s an upbeat tale of women overcoming the prejudices of their family, management and political system in the fight to be recognised as ‘skilled workers’ and obtain equal pay with their male counterparts. Historically, trade unionism has had an at times difficult relationship with women’s rights, but here the story is of clear success.
Yet, while the musical and the film it is based upon are undoubtedly critical of the British establishment’s resistance to equal pay policy, the writers’ reflection of other major social trends has been questioned by the critics. Susannah Clapp has described the musical’s outfits as ‘in equal measure swinging and very dodgy’. One reviewer suggested that the film’s engagement with themes of fashion and sex were more typical of 1970s ‘Carry On’ film caricatures than realistic historical drama. So why have these modern adaptations taken an approach that, as far as a modern audience is concerned, appears to undermine the key messages of female empowerment?
Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting the National Media Museum’s archive of photographs from the Daily Herald. As a working-class, pro-labour newspaper, the Herald, which by 1968 had been rebranded as The Sun, reported extensively on all-female strikes and demonstrations. These photos replicated the musical and film’s portrayal of young, fashion-conscious and vivacious women, very much in line with the Sun’s target audience. The growing number of female strikers, often dressed in mini-skirts and high heels, were clearly encouraged to smile and pose for the media’s cameras. For some demonstrations, I have found series of photographs where young women have been encouraged to step away from the crowds to pose with their banners. There is no reason to assume that the women’s dissatisfaction with their working conditions might have compromised their interest in Britain’s new consumer culture, particularly without links to explicitly political feminist groups. After all, 1968 was a year of radical, youthful protest. While some scenes from the musical and film involving painted midriffs and bathrobes seem a little off the wall, a look at the contemporaneous newspapers would suggest they are not as wide of the mark as some you might think.
Dagenham, however, was unlike the majority of all-female strikes. Like industrial editors and journalists, the film-writers have ‘compressed’ the experiences of a striking group into specific trailblazing figureheads, as typified by Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins in the film, Gemma Arteton in the musical). However, the women at Dagenham were mainly middle-aged, certainly older than the thirty-something Arteton and Hawkins depict. Although other female strikers during the 1960s and 1970s were photographed revelling in public attention, the women of Dagenham stood out at the archive for being conservatively dressed, despite warm but not unusually hot weather in June 1968. Thus, unsurprisingly, the film’s account of machinists stripping to their bras (which has been left out of the musical version) has been firmly rejected by the machinists, who say they wouldn’t have felt comfortable working without clothes, particularly with young men around. While the musical and film have successfully captured the general mood amongst many young women of the period, it was erroneous to assume that every strike reflected such trends.
However, the musical and film’s greatest failing lies in their conclusion, a point that many critics have either overlooked or excused. In their desire to deliver an upbeat ‘Hollywood ending’, the writers have produced an ending that is disconcertingly neat and tidy. Contrary to the film’s triumphant ending on the streets of Westminster, the strike at Dagenham did not provide straightforward conclusions. The dispute took place in 1968 but the heralded Equal Pay Act took a further two years to draw up, following further political pressure and a national march in 1969. It didn’t come into force until the very end of 1975, seven years after Dagenham. When the act came into place, many employers flouted the law (and continue to do so) and in 1976 there was a 21-week stoppage by female workers at Trico’s wiper-blade factory over equal pay. Even in 2014, equal pay is not the reality that the film assumes and Dagenham was certainly not the end of the story. If the writers intended to ‘inspire people who are struggling today’, perhaps more should have been done to remind society of the on-going struggle for equal pay.
Lucy Bell has recently completed an MA in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She has recently started her PhD exploring the British media’s representation of trade unionism between 1945 and 1979, with a scholarship from WRoCAH.
Featured image is a product image from Made in Dagenham (2010) on http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfilms/film/made_in_dagenham