We See Chick Flicks: “Made In Dagenham”

Starring Sally Hawkins, Miranda Richardson, Rosamund Pike, and Bob Hoskins

We all know what 1960s America looked like for white-collar professional women like the ones on “Mad Men.” While Joan and Peggy were fighting off handsy account men in New York’s office towers, women in working-class towns like Dagenham, England, were doing hand-to-hand combat as well — only against the entire Ford Motor Company. “Made In Dagenham” is based on the true story of 187 women who sewed car seat upholstery for a Ford plant in Britain and what happens when they banded together to fight exploitation by their bosses. Their classification as “unskilled” laborers and the fact that they earned a fraction of the male employees’ paychecks led these strong, brave ladies to launch a history-making 1968 strike.

I promise you, for the rest of my life, I will watch every single movie that Sally Hawkins appears in.

The Lowdown: Sally Hawkins (“Happy Go Lucky,” “Never Let Me Go”) stars as Rita O’Grady, a fictional heroine meant to represent a composite of the real-life Dagenham ladies. Rita is a young mother of two married to a fellow Ford employee, a good guy who clearly loves yet under-appreciates her. The O’Gradys are thoroughly post-war working class Brits who live in inexpensive “council estates,” carry their lunch pails and ride bicycles to the factory. Rita sews car seat upholstery every day in an all-female branch of the factory and in the evening she works a “second shift” at home, cooking dinner and washing laundry for her family. Her subordinate place in society — both her gender and her lower-income class status — is quite clear when she asks a jerky male teacher at her son’s school to stop whipping the students and he laughs her off as a “hysterical” mother who couldn’t raise her child right.

Busy bee Rita doesn’t have any labor organizing aspirations. (How could she? She has barely any free time!) But a union representative, Albert, played by Bob Hoskins, sees a light in her eyes and pushes her to take a stand. The women of the Dagenham factory are classified as “unskilled” laborers, which comes with lower pay, though the women know sewing the car seats together is actually a highly skilled craft. Rita and Albert meet with union representatives — male, of course — to see what can be done about changing their classification. The slippery union guys are actually kowtowing to the Ford execs — who spout b.s. that Ford women can’t be paid equal to Ford men or the company will go bankrupt and everybody will lose their jobs. They tell Rita they’ll deal with the women’s concerns “later.” Rita yelps, “Bollocks!” and organizes a strike.

At first the strike is cheerfully full-speed ahead: The women of Dagenham hold signs outside Ford’s doors and Rita appears on TV newscasts and the front pages of all the papers. (Despite the fact that the media trivialized their cause by calling them “Revlon Revolutionaries.”) As days go on, though, the Ford factory really does screech to a halt. Without any car seats, the company can’t make any cars and men at the factories get laid off — including Rita’s husband, who had been supportive up until the point the family’s fridge was re-possessed for unpaid bills. Rita’s hubby cannot wash his own laundry, cook dinner without starting a fire, or braid his daughter’s hair. He would like his wife back, please! Except for Albert, whose mother died too young from being exploited as a factory worker, Dagenham’s dudes are pissed. Somewhat surprisingly, some Ford guys say they don’t want women to be paid equally because they like being their family’s breadwinners. Rita’s spirits are really dampened by all the nastiness, but she soon learns one of the Ford exec’s wives, Lisa, played by Rosamund Pike (“An Education“), is also cheering her plight on from an upper-middle-class vantage point.

In time Rita and the female strikers of Dagenham are invited to meet with Barbara Castle, Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, played by Miranda Richardson. As a woman working in a stuffy, all-male British government, Castle knows a thing or two about not being taken seriously at work. But she’s also got American executives from Ford threatening to pull their business from post-war Britain if she allows this equal pay nonsense to go on. I won’t ruin the ending for you … but I bet you can imagine how it ends.

The Verdict: Loved. LOVED.

Despite enjoying books about women’s history, I’m not usually a fan of actual rah-rah-rah women’s history movies — like, I’ve never seen “Norma Rae” or “A League of Their Own.” But “Made In Dagenham” doesn’t make you feel like you’re watching some boring movie in 9th grade history class. Even though Sally Hawkins is the star, it’s really an ensemble cast and there are lots of little sub-plots — one factory worker is a Twiggy-esque model-wannabe, another has a husband still badly damaged by World War II — that I enjoyed. Plus, there’s the contrast between Lisa and Rita’s marriages. It’s not a preachy movie, yet it still brought tears to my eyes.

I promise you, for the rest of my life, I will watch every single movie that Sally Hawkins appears in.

(And I need to watch the critically acclaimed “Happy Go Lucky,” immediately.) She’s such a deft, fluid actress that New York magazine’s film reviewer aptly described her thus: “It’s hard to do justice to Hawkins’ acting because you never actually see it. Her Rita simply is.”

But one more thing: I have no idea why this movie earned an “R” rating. There are a few cuss words and a couple scenes where old ladies’ bras are visible (for comic effect). But that’s it. No sex and no violence at all.

Hmm, maybe the MPAA thinks equal pay for equal work is a dangerous idea for children?

Image via IMDB.com