Gender Equality at Work’s progress to date researching the critical junctures towards gender equality in the workplace have brought us to some of the representations of women striking in popular culture – in TV, film and even musicals.
During the week of International Women’s Day, we’ll look at three key examples in detail: Made in Dagenham, Business as Usual and Leeds – United!, all films which are based upon real-life industrial action taken by women.
On Tuesday 8 March, International Women’s Day, we will publish a blog by Professor Hazel Conley, looking at the realities and misconceptions around the 1968 Ford Dagenham dispute, brought into the wider public conscious by the 2010 film, Made in Dagenham.
On Wednesday 9 March, Professor Louise Jackson, will discuss Business as Usual, a 1987 film with a stellar cast including Glenda Jackson, John Thaw and Cathy Tyson, based on the real-life case of Audrey White, who fought for reinstatement after reporting sexual harassment at a chain of Lady at Lord John boutiques. The film was unique for its time (and unusual even now) for its female direction and production team.
Finally, Dr Frances C. Galt will write for us on Thursday 10 March about Leeds – United! – a 1974 Play for Today depicting female textile workers in Leeds, fighting for equal pay, but undermined by their own trade union.
These are just a few of the screen depictions of women’s industrial action. The disputes have seeped into popular culture in everything from musicals to soap operas.
Coronation Street: Businesses in Corrie have faced strikes by the women of Weatherfield several times over its 62 year history. In one notable story line in 1978, fan favourite Vera Duckworth organises a picket against Mike Baldwin’s factory for their treatment of colleague, Hilda, as shown in this clip from the show.
The Rag Trade: This BBC sitcom ran from 1961-1963, following the fictional exploits of women machinists at Fenners factory, with their leader, Paddy (Miriam Karlin) calling women to strike regularly, with a call of, “Everybody out!” Despite its comedic intentions, it raised public awareness of the growing women’s rights movement.
Strikes in documentaries
Women-led industrial action has also captured the interest of documentary makers, and there are several notable examples of storytelling of real-life disputes, several of which feature in our research timeline.
To Be a Woman: Jill Craigie’s 1951 short film is an essential watch for anyone with an interest in the history of women’s equality. It highlighted the multitude of women’s very real and important roles beyond the home and marriage in the post-war environment. The film fizzes with indignity at the discrimination faced by women equally talented and capable as their male counterparts.
Nightcleaners: The Nightcleaners series of films was originally conceived by the Berwick Street Film Collective in 1972 as a campaign video to highlight the case of women office cleaners who were paid low rates for overnight work. The film shows in stark detail how overworked and underpaid the women were, the poor conditions they faced, and their fight to unionise.
So That You Can Live: This documentary is part-biography of Shirley Butts, a union convenor fighting for equal pay at the GEC factory in south Wales. The film follows the Butts family over five years showing the impact of post-industrial development.
Timeshift – The Grunwick Strike: This BBC documentary, part of the popular Timeshift series, covered the key Grunwick dispute, a two-year period of action against the film processing plant in Willesden. The dispute became a focal point for trade unionism at the time, and resulted in high levels of police violence and arrests on the picket lines. The predominantly Gujurati Hindu female strikers were led by Jayaben Desai. This is also excellent background reading on the case https://journals.openedition.org/rfcb/1790
Voices from the Workplace: Film directors Sarah Boston and Jenny Morgan were commissioned by the TUC to make a series of 10 films about the fight for equal pay. The films form a cross-sectoral examination of key equal pay disputes between 1968 and 2000, and are available at Winning Equal Pay: the value of women’s work (unionhistory.info) along with transcripts and background notes.
Have you come across other great examples of women-led strikes on screen? Comment below or come join the discussion on Twitter