The Dagenham girls: Meet the four women whose crusading work inspired a new film
By MAUREEN PATON FOR MAILONLINE Daily Mail On-line
UPDATED: 19:01 GMT, 11 September 2010
Maureen Paton meets four friends whose pioneering fight for equal pay in the 1960s sparked a workplace revolution – and inspired a celeb-studded new movie
Four lifelong friends are getting ready for their YOU magazine close-up, laughing as I tell them to imagine that our baby-faced photographer is the naked man who once streaked through the women’s workshop at the car factory where they worked in the 1960s. ‘I don’t think anyone got a good look at him because he was so quick – we didn’t see his dingle-dangle,’ recalls Eileen Pullen, chuckling at the memory.
The streaker who raced past their sewing machines was a fellow worker, doing it for a
bet with the other men at what was then the biggest Ford car plant in Europe, where men outnumbered women by 54,813 to 187. But as the men were to discover, the women were not the type to be embarrassed or intimidated. ‘Because we were all women together, we could be more relaxed. And if a man came in, he had to run the gauntlet of our jokes. It was getting our own back, really, because there were far more of them than us,’ explains Eileen.
And in an even bolder display of female bonding, the women machinists who stitched together the car covers on those sleek Cortinas and Zephyrs rolling off Ford’s production line proceeded to change the course of British history by going on strike in 1968, demanding the same wages as the men and paving the way for the 1970 Equal Pay Act. Yet the world had almost forgotten these modest heroines – most of them grandmothers now – until this year and the release of Made in Dagenham, a sparky new feature film that dramatises their story 42 years on. Which is why I’m standing in Vera Sime’s immaculately pretty garden in Elm Park, East London, hearing four of the original strikers – Vera, now 76, Eileen, 81, Gwen Davis, 78, and Sheila Douglass, 74 – relive their moment of fame.
Back in 1968, the working-class motor-town of Dagenham in East London seemed to inhabit a different planet from Carnaby Street and the Swinging 60s. Although fashion and pop filtered through to the factory workers, the Dagenham revolution was not about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, but about women’s wages. When their work was reclassified by Ford’s new grading system to ‘unskilled’, and they found that teenage boy floor-sweepers earned more than they did, the women were furious.
‘We were automatically started on a low grade – even though we had to have a minimum of two years’ experience of machining – whereas the men were put on the skilled grade,’ says South African-born Gwen, who had previously worked as a bespoke tailoress. ‘We were downgraded because we were women,’ claims the outspoken Sheila. ‘The idea that women’s wages didn’t matter was such an insult! And no one expected us to go on strike.’Read more
But down tools they did, coming out for three heady weeks in May in the first female strike at the car plant. After winning over hostile male workers at their union conference, marching several times on Westminster and enlisting the support of Employment Secretary Barbara Castle, they ended up with 92 per cent of the men’s wages – although they didn’t get full grading equality until 16 years later, in 1984. ‘That still riles me – I didn’t think we should have gone back to work without it,’ says Sheila, as Eileen shows me a photograph of the women alongside Mrs Castle at her offices in St James’s – all big, backcombed hair and retina-dazzling, multicoloured 60s frocks. A small delegation of them was ushered into the minister’s inner sanctum, where she opened her drinks cabinet and filled their glasses at the end of their meeting.
When film producer Stephen Woolley heard some of the women reminiscing on the 40th anniversary of the strike in Radio 4’s The Reunion series, he realised it would make a classic tale of self-empowerment in the cinematic tradition of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine. And that’s how Vera, Eileen, Sheila and Gwen found themselves advising the film-makers on everything from the bikes they rode to work – they couldn’t afford to buy the new cars whose seats they stitched – to the buckets they put out to catch rainwater from the leaking workshop roof. With Sally Hawkins and Geraldine James as fictional strike leaders Rita and Connie, Miranda Richardson in a splendidly spirited performance as Barbara Castle, Bob Hoskins as the supportive union organiser Albert and Dagenham-born 60s pop star Sandie Shaw (who used to work at the plant) singing the theme song, Made in Dagenham is inspirational enough to make us all want to (wo)man the barricades and strike a blow for freedom.
Shot by Calendar Girls director Nigel Cole, it captures a close-knit community where extended families and friends rallied round to help out the strikers. Their mothers, and sometimes even reluctant husbands, took over the childcare while the women took turns on a 24-hour picket at the factory gates. The women’s ‘sheer spirit and infectious humour’ was what Cole wanted to capture. ‘Their stories really helped set the scene. And we used a lot of locals as extras because I wanted that authentic East London voice – I grew up nearby and a lot of my schoolmates’ fathers worked at Ford. We filmed the domestic scenes in a 60s block on Dagenham’s Mardyke estate, where many of the Ford workers lived and which would have been considered very modern and trendy.’
Although the characters in the film are composites rather than based on individual stories, Vera, Eileen, Sheila and Gwen – who saw it at a special advance screening in Romford – gave it a thumbs-up for authenticity, except for the scene in which the women strip down to their bras during a heatwave.
‘That was a bit degrading – no way would our bosses have allowed us to show our underwear,’ maintains Gwen. ‘You weren’t even allowed to wear shorts, so the scene where Jaime Winstone’s character turns up in hotpants wasn’t right either.’ But as Sheila points out, ‘The film-makers were trying to make the point that it was a sweatshop. It was very hot in summer under that asbestos roof. We would fry in summer and freeze in winter.’ And the ladies’ loos had to be reached across an outdoor yard in all weathers.
They’ve only met one of the stars so far: Sally Hawkins, who came to visit them for research before the shoot. ‘I didn’t recognise her in the film, because her hair was different,’ confesses Sheila. But now they’re looking forward to putting on their best frocks and mingling with the cast at the UK premiere in London’s West End. And international stardom is also on the horizon, since the producers plan to fly the four ladies out for the Rome opening in late October and New York in November.
‘It made me realise that women can fight for their rights just like men’
What all four most liked about the actors on screen is that they looked like real Dagenham people, especially lorry-driver’s son Bob Hoskins as the union rep, and Essex-raised Daniel Mays as Rita’s husband Eddie. ‘I thought Daniel was very convincing because of the way he was all for the strike at first – and then backtracked when he had to do the childcare and the cooking and the washing-up,’ says Sheila.
The youngest of the four, Sheila was 32 at the time of the strike and into the latest fashions – including miniskirts, which meant she ‘always had to be careful bending down at work’. But she insists that ‘there was no sexual harassment. One of the mechanics was a bit fresh with me sometimes, but nothing to complain about. We used to laugh with him, in fact. The atmosphere was a bit like a hen party sometimes – or a girls’ school.’
Like actress Jaime Winstone’s character Sandra, Sheila wasn’t a very fast worker. ‘But we all looked out for everyone – women would help those who were a bit behind with their machining,’ she explains. And her status as a single girl meant, quaintly enough, that the married women would protect her from the more risqué banter (imagine that happening today – it would probably be the other way round). ‘If a joke was a bit too near the mark, the others felt they couldn’t repeat it to me. They would say, “We can’t tell you such-and-such, Sheila, because you aren’t married.” And I would say, “Go on, tell me! What am I missing?”’ As a singleton with no boyfriend to placate, Sheila was in theory more free to strike than her married colleagues who had families to support. Yet she regularly looked after her sister’s children and her wages were important to her mother, with whom she lived, so she too took a financial risk in stopping work.
Despite all the badinage, there was an innocence about these rookie campaigners. When they stood in front of the Houses of Parliament, and the banner that should have said ‘We Want Sex Equality’ actually said ‘We Want Sex’ because it hadn’t unfurled properly, they didn’t realise at first why passing cars were hooting at them. As Eileen says wryly, ‘We were carrying it, not looking at it!’
And after the strike had ended and the television cameras had gone away, they went quietly back to their workbenches and resumed their family lives. Yet all four women feel that the experience changed them for ever. ‘It made me more confident; it made me realise what I could do if I put my mind to it,’ says Gwen, who has coped with widowhood twice since then. ‘I had three children, and the eldest was only eight at the time, so my mother looked after them while I was on the picket lines. My first husband, Lionel, was very supportive, even though we needed two incomes for our mortgage. And it made me realise that women can fight for their rights just like men. I definitely wanted a better life for my daughter.’
Vera, an identical twin who, as a child, would sometimes get the blame for her sister Joan’s pranks, had always thought of herself as the quintessential good girl. ‘Before the strike, I never thought I was a strong person. But I had to be, because my husband Tom was really ill with sciatica and off work for several months with not much sick pay.
‘Our mothers had to have the meals on the table when their men came in from work,’ she recalls, ‘but I vowed I would never do that – I was as good as a man and I’ve worked all my life. I wouldn’t have a man telling me what to do, no way.’ Luckily her houseproud husband Tom was, and continues to be, as liberated as Vera. ‘He was a New Man before his time,’ she says. ‘He would often suggest I go to the pictures with a girlfriend while he did the dinner and looked after the kids.’
Eileen’s late husband Donald did his bit at home during the strike too, but her two brothers, who were also working at Ford, weren’t so pleased by the women’s stoppage – which led to lay-offs among the men. As she explains, ‘They had families to feed, so they said to me, “Hurry up and get back to work because we want our money.”’
What carried the women through was their camaraderie. At work, they seized every opportunity for fun to offset the physical hardships of a strictly timed job where huge machine needles ‘as big as nails’ sometimes pierced their fingers and had to be removed by the first-aid nurse. They listened to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra on their little portable radios while they worked, made fashionable patchwork PVC shopping bags out of the leftover fabric scraps they smuggled out of the factory, and went on ferry trips together to Ostend in Belgium – with Eileen recalling ‘a special night out together at the end of 1968 to commemorate the strike’.
As Sheila explains, ‘If you were miserable at work, it made the job 50 times harder. So we always had a laugh, despite the conditions, and we’ve stayed friends ever since.’ And there was a holiday atmosphere on the strike marches as well. ‘It was like a beano,’ recalls Eileen. ‘I used to leave a note for Donald saying, “Gone Marching”. So he had to get his own dinner, although my son John would eat at my mum’s instead.’
The movie, says Sheila, has made her feel ‘very nostalgic for the old days’, especially as it’s harder for the women to get together socially since Ford sold their pension-club site a few years ago to West Ham United for a training ground. And while the struggle for equal pay isn’t over yet, the Dagenham ladies did us proud. Endearingly, they still don’t see themselves as heroines, even though they’re about to become world-famous all over again. As Vera admits: ‘I never thought that all these years later we would be talking about a film made about us.’
Made in Dagenham will open in cinemas nationwide on 1 October
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