The Labour of Love: Made in Dagenham, Silvia Federici, and the on-screen Working Woman
In Made in Dagenham, manual and emotional labour go hand in hand for working women. Liz Hew explores the unbalanced fight for equal pay via film, academia, and feminist understanding.
“They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.”
— Silvia Federici, Wages Against Housework (1974)
In Made in Dagenham, Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) gazes out of the window overlooking the rest of her East London council estate, cradling a cigarette in the morning light. Mildly hungover following a night of dancing with her co-workers from the factory, Rita steadies herself in her cramped kitchen as she calls her sleeping husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) down for breakfast. With an apron at her waist, she serves beans on toast for her two young children before assuming her position behind the ironing board. Their home is cluttered with knickknacks and utensils, the mise-en-scène showcasing the domestic interiority of a working-class family in 1960s Britain.
It is a scene that has become familiar to many, revealing a working woman in motion, weaving together her multitasking duties as a mother, housewife, spouse, and manual factory worker. It also reifies what Marxist-feminist scholar Silvia Federici labelled ‘the naturalisation of housework’ for the woman at home, juggling several roles at once within the performance of a traditional gender role. For Rita, ‘labour’ is multi-faceted — she is an agent of unpaid labour that is emotional as well as domestic, as she tends to the wellbeing of her family, while also participating in a capitalist economy through her waged labour as a machinist.
Based on real life events in 1968, Nigel Cole’s 2010 film is focused on the lives of the women employed at Ford Motors’ Dagenham factory, of which there are only 187 compared to a workforce of 55,000 men. Responsible for carefully stitching together leather seats for Ford’s vehicles, the women machinists face a relegation in the assessment of their labour, as their senior management moves to regrade the women as ‘unskilled’ workers, resulting in reduced pay. What ensues is a complete shutdown and strike against Ford Motors Company for equal pay; a female-led campaign that gains national traction, eventually culminating in the landmark Equal Pay Act of 1970.
In the filmic depiction of these grassroots efforts, Made in Dagenham juxtaposes the inner domestic lives of Rita and her fellow co-workers against the toil of their public activism — a distinction that Federici explores in ‘Wages Against Housework’. Labour, or the division of labour, is unbalanced through the lens of gender: ‘productive’ labour of the male factory worker for example is remunerated, but the female ‘reproductive’ labour of the domestic space is not. Rita’s work at home, in cooking and feeding her children and husband, washing their clothes, maintaining the household, and tending to the family’s emotional needs, goes unpaid — as is the emotional labour performed by older colleague Connie (Geraldine James), who ardently cares for her husband George (Roger Lloyd Pack), a PTSD-stricken war veteran.
‘The demand for a wage makes our work visible, which is the most indispensable condition to begin to struggle against it,’ Federici states — and here, it is set in motion when Rita holds a unanimous vote amongst the female machinists for ‘an immediate 24 hour stoppage’. This initial strike makes their physical work visible, highlighting the extent to which their significance is unacknowledged in a male-centric industry.
There are other instances where Rita and the women are shown to be systematically neglected; the audience is given an early glimpse into their abject working conditions, where rain often leaks through the factory roof, and umbrellas are suspended from wires at the ready. A passing male porter remarks, ‘me and the boys were saying we’d have gone on strike just having to turn up in a pig hole like this’, a passing comment that infers the silencing and invisibility of women. Such models of treatment do not go unchallenged, however, and when Rita and Connie accompany their management to a strike negotiation meeting at Ford HQ, Rita defiantly breaches her orders to remain silent, and interjects when the meeting is nearly sabotaged.
When she produces swatches of leather from her handbag, Rita demonstrates the physicality and materiality of her labour : ‘We have to take these different pieces and work out how they go together’, Rita asserts, ‘Because there ain’t no template, is there? We have to take them and sew them all freehand into the finished article… that is not unskilled work, which is how you’ve regraded us’. A galvanised Connie nods in agreement, to the visible discomfort of the men in the boardroom. Directly challenging the means and conditions of their productive labour, Rita’s demands for ‘no more overtime, and an immediate 24-hour stoppage’ results in a hefty financial blow to the plant operations. When Rita declares ‘we’re entitled to “semi-skilled” and the wages that go with it’, she echoes Silvia Federici’s rousing statement, ‘we want to call work what is work’ — and just as the men at Ford HQ are left stupefied by Rita’s dissent, so do Federici’s words come to mind, that only when women collectively uprise, will they ‘be scared and feel undermined as men’.
Where Federici is preoccupied with the domestication of women’s labour, and the role of the woman at home, so does Made in Dagenham depict the shift in attitudes towards the housewife. There is a common assumption that pervades much of patriarchal thought that housework is not actually real work, and this is illustrated in Eddie’s relative lack of concern when Rita tasks him with looking after their home and children during early industrial action. However, as Rita’s campaign takes her to cities across the nation, scenes of her rousing public speeches and growing press attention are interspersed with scenes of Eddie’s incompetence — he curses frequently and sets cooking pans on fire, filling the kitchen with smoke as the children wait for their food. Eddie struggles to maintain normalcy as stacks of unwashed plates materialise, and his demeanour sours while his wife’s political work flourishes.
Once supportive (albeit in a rather condescending manner) and devoid of domestic responsibility, Eddie’s failure to manage the housework only makes Rita’s previously invisible labour visible, and this is exacerbated when the rest of the male labourers at the Ford plant, including Eddie, are laid off due to a fall in production. ‘This is me last one’, he resignedly tells Rita one morning, gesturing to his shirt. She apologises for forgetting to do the laundry; a reminder that it is still considered her job, and that Eddie’s substitutive role as a house-husband is unnatural. These examples affirm that gender roles in the film, and in wider society, are performative — theatrical even.
When Eddie is at the pub and has to go home early to pick up the children from school, his friend teases him, ‘Get your apron!’. Housework, or even sharing parental duties, requires a costume. The problem with housework, Federici argues, is ‘[men] assume that it is a “woman’s thing”... they presume that housework is easy for us, and that we enjoy it because we do it for their love’. Aside from bringing to light the problems with gender essentialism (the notion that gender identities somehow exist inherently and naturally, instead of being socially constructed), Federici also points to the emotional labour performed out of ‘love’ in a marriage.
When George is unable to cope with his PTSD and emotional dependence on his often absent wife, he commits suicide; an act that Connie bitterly blames on herself. ‘I should have been there’, she says in anguish. She cannot help but perceive his death as a result of the negligence of her duties as a wife and carer, that her role in subverting social gender roles makes her a failure of a woman. Her guilt is a product of years of social conditioning that women are often careened to internalise when putting their needs above those of others. Domestic duties, and the emotional labour of the doting mother and wife have traditionally been framed in Federici’s words as ‘a natural attribute of our female physique and personality’. Combined with the pressures of a capitalist patriarchal society, it is an emotionally taxing ideology for all involved.
As the strikes gain the attention of Barbara Castle, the British Secretary of State for Employment, the perseverance of the Ford women sets in motion the political steps towards pay equality for women. It is fitting then, that Ford Motors is the establishment that becomes the site of resistance and negotiation, as the company linchpin of capitalism and a Fordist economy. The women of Ford, whose bodies have been so mechanised in their productive labour of producing car seats and in their reproductive labour of the domestic setting, are effectively ‘sources of value-creation and exploitation’.
That domestic work is treated as a personal service, as in the case of Rita with her family, and Connie with her husband, enables these capitalistic practises to proliferate. In the same visual language as the mechanised repetitions of monotonous tasks seen in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, domestic chores are so naturally attributed to womanhood, so much so that Silvia Federici writes ‘when we struggle for wages for housework, we struggle unambiguously and directly against our social role’. The two are entangled, almost impossible to isolate. When Rita and Eddie fight at the apex of the industrial strikes, she reminds him of a time when the women came out in support of their men on strike. But the stakes are entirely different.
The privilege of negotiating for better wages and working conditions is entitled only for the male worker — for it does not challenge his social position. For Rita, on the other hand, just as it was for the real-life working women of Ford Dagenham, the act of striking becomes not just a political statement against working conditions, but it foregrounds the need to reassess the culture of housework and the labour of the domestic. It is all but a labour of love.
Liz (@_lizhew / @lizhew) is a freelance features writer, having written for Dazed, Hello Giggles, gal-dem, and Ravishly. She is a devoted cat mum, occasional baker, and a huge fan of French cinema and everything ‘90s. She longs for her life to be soundtracked by Sofia Coppola films.