Saturday, April 23, 2011


In 1968, 179 east London machinists walked off the job and changed history. The machinists weren't complaining about having to work long days in an airless room that quickly became unbearably hot. They objected to being classified as unskilled workers when  their work - making seat covers for Fords - required a great deal of skill. They also objected to being paid considerably less than fellow workers who were less skilled than they were. And they objected to, year after year, being patronized, lied to, and eventually ignored by union officials. The 179 machinists, of course, were women.

Made in Dagenham is funny, sassy, infuriating, and occasionally moving. Watch it for an evening's entertainment, or watch it to remember - or to learn - what life was like only 43 years ago. 1968 was the year when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. It was the year of the Tet offensive and the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Student protests, especially in France, were huge. The Beatles sang about Lady Madonna ("wonder how she manages to feed the rest?"). They might well wonder - women earned less than 60% of what men earned, and it didn't look like things were going to get better anytime soon.

Of course women should have equal pay, some of the more enlightened men-in-charge told us. But these things take time. You can't expect things to happen overnight. Making demands will get you nowhere. That's what the same enlightened men-in charge-had been saying about civil rights for people of color just a few years earlier. And that's what the weaselly union and business leaders told the women machinists in east London.

Fortunately, the women machinists didn't agree.

In 1968 I taught history and French at a small private high school. The pay scale had three levels: married men earned approximately $7000 a year; single men earned about $6000, and women earned about $5000. The English teacher, the German teacher, and I thought this was not quite fair. All the married men had working wives. We, however, though women, were all married to students and were the sole support of our families. Why shouldn't we earn as much as the married men?

We wrote a polite letter of inquiry to the people responsible for our paychecks. We made no threats; we merely asked for an explanation. Immediately our principal got a terrified phone call from his board chairman. "What's this I hear about a teacher's strike?" the man wanted to know.

Unlike Rita O'Grady, the spunky heroine of Made in Dagenham, we didn't strike. We didn't do anything, in fact: we were nice girls. Those were the days, my friend. I'm glad they finally ended.


Anonymous said...

In many professions women still earn less. I had a lot of education but couldn't get hired in my field readily because it was male-dominated and still is, most places. I worked under men fresh out of college, who were inexperienced and hadn't a clue what they were doing. Later, I took secretarial and business school and corrected the grammatical errors of male bosses who couldn't construct a sentence. I also spent a good deal of time correcting their poor public relations as well. We are making slow progress.

dr. darrell a. harris said...

Janet and I rented this spunky little charmer a couple weeks ago, It delivered on every account you list: we were entertained, we remembered and we learned. Thanks for the engaging recap~