Made in Dagenham—a spirited film about women’s rights, as workers and human beings

On February 11, Filmworks will show a film about a unique kind of strike, one for the benefit of women and led by women. It’s called Made in Dagenham, and it dramatizes events that occurred from 1965 to 1968 at a Ford plant in Dagenham, England. Before the strike women at the plant were paid much less than the men. They were permanently classified as “unskilled labor” when in fact they did very skilled work: cutting and sewing together pieces of auto upholstery for snug fits.

The film calls to mind Sally Field’s Oscar vehicle Norma Rae (1979) but is kinder and gentler.

Norma Rae was in real danger organizing (or working with a professional organizer) in the deep South where unions have long been vilified and toughs beat up picketers. But this might have been box-office enhancements. No one beats up the Dagenham women; in fact the whole film casts an amusing mode over the antics of the women, especially their leader, the unlikely wisp of a woman named Rita O’Grady, played by the winning Sally Hawkins.

The 186 women who sew and fit upholstery work in conditions so stifling they choose to remove most of their clothing. Men never enter their unventilated workplace except for a brief drop-in by Bob Hoskins, the ineffectual, embarrassed union steward—yes, a union exists, but it’s run by Ford, not the workers. Hoskins does nothing to improve working conditions or get more money for the women.

Director Nigel Cole doesn’t make much of the near nudity, which doesn’t venture much past a little cleavage. It’s a sexless way to show a grievance. (Cole also directed the much more suggestive Calendar Girls, reminiscent of The Full Monty, in which women, including Helen Mirren, allow themselves to be photographed nude for charitable purposes.)

At first the women strike for just one day. Their husbands support them. But the women stay out, eventually for months and months. The plant closes. Now their husbands are not so supportive. Dirty laundry is piling up.

Like Rae, O’Grady picks up steam and confidence. She talks to groups of women. She talks to industry leaders. She goes on TV. When a reporter asks her how can she possibly succeed, Rita comes back with, “Because we are women.” O’Grady is not a professional organizer or active union person. She gets the usual girly-girl treatment: Why don’t you just lay off this nonsense, go back to work, and take care of your family? Rita has to learn the ropes—getting into local papers, gathering other exploited women around her, appealing to the men who run the plant. Finally she stirs up enough trouble to make the national press and attract the attention of government.

If Rita is a bit reticent at times about getting in the face of men, her closest followers are not. These women are mouthy and assertive, and add an extra dimension to the story. They are not as well mannered as Rita; Rita needs their boisterousness from time to time. One of the women aspires to be a model. When she gets a gig modeling bikinis, she comes down the runway with “Equal Rights” painted on her tummy.

The darkest moment in the film has to do with a Ford exec, flown in from Dearborn, who threatens to yank all the Ford plants out of England and thereby throw the U.K. into a deep recession if the women don’t behave themselves. But O’Grady and her army plunge on. Soon the government, specifically the Ministry of Labor, feels it has to step in and put and end to the nonsense. This might work except the Minister happens to be a woman, a sympathetic woman.

It’s a pleasure to watch the complex Sally Hawkins work in this film. You may recall her as Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), a school teacher with a knack for spreading joy while also seriously tending to business. One reviewer said of her, “Poppy is one of the most difficult roles any actress could be assigned. She must smile and be peppy and optimistic at (almost) all times, and do it naturally and convincingly, as if the sunshine comes from inside. That’s harder than playing Lady Macbeth.”

This state of contradiction, of an actor playing against outward type also informs Made in Dagenham. How could somebody not especially charismatic or physical inspire thousands of underpaid, underappreciated female factory workers to strike for their rights? Blame it on good acting, good directing, and a good story.