Made In Dagenham – the Musical opened in the West End last night. It was an honour to meet four of the original Ford machinsts who launched the strike that resulted in the Equal Pay Act. They enjoyed the show and took its sentimental central fiction on its terms. In fact the show, much more than the film, is a magnificent celebration of working class community life, uncompromisingly feminist, with a deeply satirical absurdist vision of late 60s political culture stolen by the scenes between Barbara Castle and Harold Wilson and their bowler hatted minions from the Ministry of Silly Walks. Listen to Front Row on Radio 4 tonight or iplayer after for our review. But it struck me as remarkable that female ASDA workers are right now bringing a class action over exactly the same issue as the Ford Dagenham women.
As Michael Newman, one of their lawyers from Leigh Day recently told The Independent: “In the supermarkets the check-out staff and shelf-stackers are mostly women. The people in the warehouses are pretty much all men. And, as a whole, the group that is mostly men gets paid more…Our investigations suggest that the jobs are pretty much the same, in that warehouse staff are responsible for taking items off shelves, putting them on pallets and loading them into lorries. In the supermarket, they do the reverse: taking the pallets off the lorries, unstacking them and putting the items on the shelves. Where the jobs are not similar, we still think they are of equal value.”
Made in Dagenham’s star Gemma Arterton, who was visibly moved when the four Ford workers came on stage last night, has made the political connection with Asda in a recent interview. By contrast some male critics adopted a curious tone: “The equality seam has been overmined” according to Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail. While The Daily Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish on the one hand described the star only as a “former Bond girl” before claiming the feminist moral high ground bizarrely accusing the show of flashing “surprising amounts of female flesh considering it’s flying the flag for empowerment”. The women wear nothing shorter than normal period minidresses while an Austin Powers launch of the Ford Cortina is played as a strictly ironic parody of sexy women being used to sell cars.
There’s an argument regularly deployed by some male news editors, politicians and trades union leaders against women that they’re wrong to make a fuss about equal pay, treatment and legal process. In February it was deployed over the Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard and his refusal to apologize for alleged sexual harassment against four women; allegations which he denies.
In a piece headlined: “Lord Rennard case overshadows more serious issues of sexual politics”, the Guardian’s veteran political journalist Michael White wrote that while no one should have to put with harassment, he wished for more of the gumption of a generation of tough postwar women MPs such as Barbara Castle. They, in his view, ploughed through the challenges of the 70s cop-a-feel culture to stay focussed on passing important legislation on equal pay and child benefit that transformed the lives of millions of women. He argued in the conclusion to his piece that “Homophobia remains a lethal fact of life in many parts of the world…slavery, female genital mutilation and other horrors are still widely inflicted on women, even in Britain. A clammy hand on the knee is not quite the same.”
A number of prominent women in politics and journalism from a range of ideological view points objected on Twitter, including Beatrix Campbell who wrote: “You polarize economic versus culture. Feminists don’t.”
Michael White replied:
“We all have to choose. Today media (and you) have chosen this issue over ( say) Clegg’s speech yesterday on mental health issue.”
White was spot on in observing how Clegg’s enemies in the national press were exploiting the Rennard story to undermine him. But his claim of a lack of “proportion” in how the story was being reported, revealed the double bind of tackling sexual harassment and indeed sexual discrimination. How often they are pushed down the pecking order by this logic.
Here’s another example to consider in the light of Made In Dagenham: The news that Birmingham Council was selling the NEC (National Exhibition Centre). The headlines suggested a poor local authority besieged by greedy lawyers. The more complex reality is that the council had for years insisted on fighting a legal battle against thousands of its women employees – many of them dinner ladies and care workers — who were paid significantly less than men doing jobs on the same grade, in blatant defiance of the Equal Pay Act. The council eventually gave up and has been negotiating settlements with 11 thousand workers. From the start of the case though, the women were regularly accused of being “greedy” and of threatening their male colleagues’ jobs; both by the council and in some cases even by their own unions. It’s why some chose to pursue it via private lawyers; notably Stefan Cross, who, was dubbed in one newspaper profile The Most Hated Lawyer in Britain. He told The Justice Gap online magazine last year:
‘Throughout the entire period that we have been running these cases, that kind of bullying has been levelled at women to frighten them off…The worst of it has come from trade unions…In Leeds there were trade union officials going around kitchen by kitchen telling people not to put in claims. When we were organizing publicity, we were getting picketed by the unions. We had branch secretaries and stewards infiltrating meetings and bawling out our clients… They always want to protect the position of the men and they always keep that a secret.”
This is exactly what Made In Dagenham was about. Margaret Hodge and Caroline Flint and the young deputy leader of Dagenham council were among the female politicians at opening night. They enjoyed it immensely.
Barbara Castle, who pushed through the 1970 Equal Pay Act isn’t around to tell us what she thinks of either the Lord Rennard row or the ASDA and Birmingham Council equal pay battles. Or, for that matter, her transformation into West End diva in Made In Dagenham. But these stories of women making a “fuss” remind us to beware of who in politics and in journalism is defining the pecking order and the battles worth fighting.
This is updated and adapted from an article that first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine in February 2014