Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Nigel Cole (director) William Ivory (screenwriter), Made in Dagenham (2010)

Made in Dagenham (2010), directed by Nigel Cole and written by William Ivory, is a feminist and socialist film that celebrates an episode in British labour history when the 187 women sewing machinists among the 55,000 male workers at the Ford motors manufacturing plant in Dagenham on the outskirts of London went on strike in 1968 for equal pay.  Not only did they win their industrial campaign, but their strike served as a catalyst for the passing of the landmark Equal Pay Act of 1970.    This film celebrates what were ordinary working-class women who were not political activists but who became politically active upon becoming conscious of their exploitation and their need for collective action to change their situation.  Consequently, the film glorifies and promotes industrial action and left-wing political activism and conveys the message that ordinary people can (and should) effect progressive social change. 

Although initially focussing mainly on industrial action to achieve equal pay for working-class women, as the film progresses it widens its feminist message to show that upper-middle-class women and women in the political elite also suffer from sexism, having to continually deal with the impact of patriarchy in the socio-economic system, or in their homes, which prevents them from reaching their full potential.  The film argues for women finding happiness through having satisfying middle-class careers that reflect their education levels and talents, or for women who are in leadership positions not having to deal with male attitudes that are patronising and demeaning.  The film presents most men as unaware of the routine ways in which they demean or subjugate women or as having difficulty recognising the ways they will have to personally change in order to bring about a more equal society. The film therefore presents the struggle for equal rights for women as relevant to women of all classes and ranks in society.  The film also presents most men as needing to change to accommodate feminist principles in their workplaces and homes. 

The film originated with the unearthing of what had become an almost forgotten event in British labour history that was presented in a radio program that sparked the imagination of the independent film producer Stephen Woolley, who then hired William Ivory to write the screenplay and who, following that, asked Nigel Cole to direct the film.  All of these men were committed to the feminist and socialist ideals promoted in the film, as were many of the actors. 

The film is Marxist in the way it presents the working class as exploited by the middle-class, and in the way it presents the working class as having to become conscious of their shared condition of exploitation and of their need to recognise that they have to engage collectively in a class struggle waged through industrial and political action if they are to improve their situation.  The film promotes the value of working-class solidarity, especially during industrial disputes.  It also promotes the socialist belief that the management of companies should work cooperatively with the relevant trade union leaders to run their industries.  

While promoting feminist and socialist causes and trade unionism in general, the filmmakers also recognised the reactionary attitudes or corruption that can be found in the trade union movement among its leadership.  The striking women sewing machinists, despite the nobility of their cause, found themselves struggling against their union leadership as much as against the company management at Ford motors. While some of their union leadership resisted the women’s demands because they were stuck in old (patriarchal) ways of thinking or because they did not wish to complicate or jeopardise other industrial campaigns higher on their agenda, another union leader was depicted as enjoying the perks and privileges of office and as having developed a cosy relationship with the management of the company that led him to work against the interests of the workers when these perks and privileges risked being threatened by helping the workers.  This type of union leader was presented as an obstacle to reform and he was contrasted with a progressive union leader who championed women’s rights as inseparable from worker’s rights.  By implication, the filmmakers advocated in favour of progressive union leaders and presented the reactionary or corrupt union leaders as needing to change their beliefs or as unfit for office. 

While the film is primarily meant to serve as a tribute or victory parade for the striking women workers whose actions led to significant socio-economic reform, it also serves as a vehicle to glorify the political career of the Labour politician Barbara Castle who became a political hero of those on the Left of the Labour Party.  She played a significant role in pushing through the Equal Pay Act of 1970, and many on the Left thought she should have become the first female British Prime minister, not the Conservative Margaret Thatcher whom the Left despised.    Barbara Castle is depicted in the film as looking more capable, courageous, principled and prime ministerial than Prime Minister Harold Wilson was depicted. 

The film, set in 1968, is also a period piece, which overtly celebrates the fashion, hairstyles and music of ‘swinging London’ at a time of great cultural innovation and change.  The film dresses many of the characters and extras in the colourful fashions and hairstyles of those times and features many classic pop songs in the sound track.  In addition, the film also looks nostalgically back on the 1960s as the heyday of the Left, as a time when the Left was politically and culturally ascendant, ushering in changes that would do much to shape the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in ways that these politically correct left-wing filmmakers would approve. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2019 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Made in Dagenham meaning, Made in Dagenham themes, Made in Dagenham analysis, Made in Dagenham notes