Over the past Easter holiday I was dragged to the theatre by my mother to what I was expecting to be a particular dry dramatisation of how a group of female factory workers become empowered to demand equal pay for women in post-war Britain. I was sceptical as to how such a dense topic could be deemed appropriate for a musical, but my Mother claimed it was a stellar production, and thankfully- albeit somewhat annoyingly- she was right.
I was not alone in my scepticism as I later read that numerous critics also had a host of reservations, acutely aware that a plot surrounding ‘ the issue of equal pay’ was vulnerable to earnestness creeping in. But with a director as gifted with the visual flair as Rupert Goold and a writer as wittily inclined as Richard Bean, Made in Dagenham was anything but dry. The pastiche of sixties rock and pop, glam, glam costumes and the edgy industrial set leant more to sustaining what the Guardian referred to as ‘a feel-good factor - larger-than-life meets tongue-in-cheek’, than to anything else.
The fictional heroine, Rita O’Grady, played by former Bond girl Gemma Arterton, with her fine singing voice and beauty, combined to create a commanding presence on stage. Arterton succeeded in highlighting the shameful treatment of women in the form of unequal pay in a wonderfully humorous way. The backdrop to the storyline was the hesitancy of the hilarious, all-singing, all-dancing - and pipe-sucking - Harold Wilson to challenge the unions; the legendary Labour bigwig Barbara Castle reconceived as a lung-busting diva and the brash, jingoistic Mr. Ford jetting in from America to quash the strike – complete with cowboy hat, tank and machine gun.
The story of the landmark strike by the female sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant in 1968 – protesting the sexist and penny-pinching decision to classify them as lesser skilled workers - has gained renewed interest. The issue of equal pay - which their dispute supposedly helped to settle once and for all in 1970 - grimly rumbles on, yet I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I had not before heard of the triumph of these beautiful, brave, working class, warriors before, and I am unsure as to why? I remember spending a large proportion of my history classes earlier on in the school focusing on the trials of the upper-class suffragettes and their battle to win the vote.
My aim is not to detract or in anyway downplay their mighty achievement – I am keen to utilize my right to vote in the next general election- but rather question, why the Dagenham girls are not held with equal regard? I for one, felt far more inspired by the courage shown by these ‘everyday women’ than I did the more uppity, political moves of the predominantly upper to middle class suffragette movement, still plagued with racism and classism.