Made in Dagenham: A 1968 strike led to equal pay for women

The protest by female Ford machinists – helped by Fred Blake – means there is relative equality today. A film recalls their struggle.

They set out to fight for a fair deal for themselves; they ended up changing the world of work for generations of women. Now the 187 women machinists from Ford's flagship factory in Essex are to be celebrated in
Made in Dagenham – starring Miranda Richardson and Bob Hoskins – which opens in cinemas across the UK this month. This weekend the man who worked behind the scenes as history was being made spoke, in a rare interview, to the IoS about the part he played in it.

The former transport union official Frederick Blake, now 91, recalled: "When the girls came down to see Barbara Castle [then employment minister] I was asked to sit in a separate room because she wanted to see them on their own, which is fair enough." Mr Blake was described by newspapers at the time of the strike as "the leader of the new suffragettes".

"Although I was in charge of the union for the Ford factory I stayed in the background because I didn't want people to think that a man was leading the women," he added. "I was asked by the bosses to tell them to go back to work so we could keep negotiating, but I wouldn't do that until we had a good settlement because there were men doing the same job as them being paid more. It wasn't fair."

Mr Blake explained that he was an advocate of women's rights long before the strike that made history: "When I came home after fighting in Burma in the Second World War and saw the damage that the bombs had done to the country, I thought, 'Why don't the women get medals for what they've had to put up with, too?' That's what first made me think about equality."

When women machinists at Ford's Dagenham factory downed tools in 1968 in protest at the fact that they were classed as unskilled workers, while male colleagues doing the same job were thought to be skilled and paid much more for their efforts, they couldn't have imagined the ramifications.

The three-week strike brought production at the factory – which was the focus of the UK car industry at the time – to a standstill, and the dispute was resolved only when Barbara Castle was brought in to negotiate a settlement.

The Ford machinists went back to work after agreeing to be paid 92 per cent of male machinists' wages, and the strike speeded up the introduction of the Equal Pay Act of 1970, which made it illegal to have different pay scales for men and women.

The new film which dramatises these events has been compared to the modern British classics Billy Elliot and The Full Monty. With the Calendar Girls director, Nigel Cole, at the helm, the film stars a clutch of high-profile British performers, including Rosamund Pike as the factory boss's rich wife, and Sally Hawkins as the strike leader.

However, some of the women workers who took part in the strike have accused the film-makers of "sexing up" their story.

"At the beginning of the film they strip off on the factory floor; we weren't allowed to strip off, and we had too much pride to do it even if we were," said Gwen Davis, who was a 35-year-old worker in the Ford factory at the time of the strike. "It is very exaggerated, but still good."

The women on the picket line in 1968 endured jeers when a photographer snapped one of their banners declaring "We Want Sexual Equality" partly unfurled, so that it read "We Want Sex".

The machinists were also supported by the union representative Bernie Passingham, and many had the backing of husbands who worked in the factory. At the time the practice of women being paid less than men for the same jobs was widespread – a tradition that hasn't entirely died out. In 2010 women working full time in Britain still earn on average 16.4 per cent less per hour than men working full time.

"After the strike lots of people came up to us and said that they'd started their own fights after hearing about ours," said Mrs Davis. "Women do have an easier time of it now, but you still hear some of the same grievances."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Sheeran arrives at the 56th annual Grammy Awards earlier this year
musicYes, that would be Ed Sheeran, according to the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Dynamics CRM D...

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor