BBC Two’s new documentary series shines a light on the inequalities working women faced in the sixties, and highlights how some stood together to demand change.
SHEROES IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Dagenham Ford factory machinists
SHERO STRENGTH: Unity
I had the chance today to catch up on the first episode of Back in Time for the Factory which sees a group of women head back to the 1960s to experience life in a Welsh clothing factory.
The show immersed the women in sixties life, from the hairdos to the home, and drew into sharp focus the inequalities women of the time had to deal with. At home, this meant that after a full working day at the factory, mum Emma spent another three hours doing the cooking and housework, while her husband put his feet up. Thankfully, this couple explained that in their modern day lives they share the chores, although we know this can’t be said for every family today. Another shock came when one of the women was sacked because she was six months pregnant. Again, even though we have a great deal more protection for pregnant workers today, inequalities sadly still abound.
However, the most stark difference between the women and their male colleagues was, not surprisingly, their pay. Female factory workers, even those completing complex tasks, were not categorised as ‘skilled labourers’, and across the board were paid significantly less than men. Archive footage in the programme showed how popular opinion backed the idea that women should be paid less and were not as ‘skilled’ as men.
Enter our band of sheroes stage right: In 1968 the sewing machinists from the Ford factory in Dagenham made national headlines when they went on strike to demand fairer pay. If you’ve seen the brilliant Made in Dagenham then you know what I’m talking about and perhaps also get the same lump in your throat and mist in your eye. Fed up after their jobs making car seats were categorised B (unskilled), instead of C (skilled) – and the gaping difference between the male and female workers’ pay highlighted, all the machine workers walked out on 7 June 1968, led by baddass sheroes, Rose Boland, Eileen Pullen, Vera Sime, Gwen Davis, and Sheila Douglass.
Nearly 200 women went on strike, refusing to return to their jobs for 3 weeks, and bringing production at the factory to a halt. Their actions drew the attention of the government who sent in Labour MP and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, Barbara Castle to aid negotiations. Eventually a compromise was reached, the women were granted 92% of the men’s pay, and it was agreed that the categorisation of their jobs would be re-examined. What’s significant though, is that most consider this a pivotal point in the steps toward the 1970 Equal Pay Act, which Barbara Castle subsequently introduced to Parliament.
The Ford factory workers teach us an important lesson: there is strength in unity. Every single machinist walked out of that factory and stood together in the strike. They were not the first group of women to do this of course, they joined the long and glorious legacy of courageous women who have used the power of collectively downing tools to protest conditions or pay. From the London matchgirls strike (1888), to the Cradley Heath chainmaker’s strike (1910), to the bus & tram driver strike during the First World War.
Women striking at these times faced ridicule from the press, opposition from friends and family, loss of pay and jobs. Yet they stood their ground, and they stood it together. When I learn about these groups of women, I see their courage and their unity. It’s scary to stand up against a system stacked against you, it’s less scary if you’re not alone in doing so. Change comes when we stand together, when we have each others’ backs, when we embrace unity and the power of raising many voices in one cry.
So, as you set about your sheroic journeys, whatever they may be, remember the lesson of the Ford factory workers. There is strength in unity; there is power in togetherness. Keep an eye open for the sisters who will stand with you and strengthen your resolve , and in turn look out for those who need you to stand with them, side by side in solidarity. Remember, sheroes stick together.
Find out more:
The Striking Women website is a fantastic resource about women, work, unions and the power of collective action.