I saw ‘Made in Dagenham’ last night – a ‘feel-good’ film about female machinists at the Ford Dagenham car plant striking in 1968 for equal pay. It was great to wallow in 1960s nostalgia, and to cheer at the end, glancing round at the men sprinkled amongst the audience. The acting was great, the impersonation of Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson) was sparkling and the excess of glamour in what must have been a grim context was forgiveable.
So what was I cheering? The triumph of a principle, certainly: that a wage should reflect the job done, not the gender (or colour or religion or anything else) of the worker. And the palpable self-respect that the women gained through fighting for their cause. And a step on the way to a more open, just and reasonable society.
But it was the central character that I applauded most: Rita O’Grady, mother of two, wife of a husband whose loyalty was taxed to the limits (played by Sally Hawkins, who will soon appear as Bernadette Devlin in The Roaring Girl). She became a leader almost by accident, and somehow had the gift of putting into words the essence of the cause. She always spoke briefly, to the point, and with an extraordinary restrained passion. Somehow, she made you feel that you already knew what she said, but hadn’t heard it said before. And that since it was true, there was no need to faff around – get on with making it happen!
But she revealed the uneasy tension between a ruthless idealism and relational concern. Not just with her husband, but with one of the girls who was torn between the strike and a chance to launch her career by modelling for Ford. Rita sat by her, not condemning, but enlarging her vision to greater career breaks than Ford. Maybe it’s not a tension, but just good leadership. How do you hold together the cause and the people who own it and will make it bear fruit?