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It’s such an important story, she wonders why it has not been told on screen before, Sally Hawkins, star of Made in Dagenham, tells Sue Williams.

Back in the late 1960s, the Ford car plant in London’s north east was the biggest factory in Europe … and its women workers were labelled among the most militant in the world.

To today’s eyes, their demands hardly seem unreasonable – that they receive equal pay with men for equal work – but back then, that they dared go out on strike for nine weeks and, marching on Westminster while rallying the country behind them, was considered by many an absolute scandal.

And the repercussions were felt around the world. Bringing the mighty Ford empire in the UK to its knees, those sewing machinists on car seats at Ford’s, Dagenham, eventually won their battle, and succeeding in enshrining the principle of equal pay in the British constitution. At the same time, their action set off parallel revolts around the world and, eventually, led to similar legislation in most developed countries too.

"women being thrust into the limelight and rocking industry to its core "

“It was an incredible time: women being thrust into the limelight and rocking industry to its core and stopping the country in its tracks, sticking up for their rights,” says British actor Sally Hawkins, who stars as Rita O’Grady in Nigel Cole’s Made In Dagenham. “It’s such an important story, you wonder why it’s never been told before.

“It was such a big deal at the time, and such a great victory. But, in the end, it still took them many more years to actually attain equal pay – and it’s a battle many women are still fighting around the world.”

Hawkins, last year’s Golden Globe winner for her bittersweet performance in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, was thrilled to win the lead role as the main female agitator in the comedy drama, which was originally named We Want Sex, a reference to the half unfurled banner they carried during one march, the last word, ‘Equality’, hidden.

"passionate, feisty housewives"

So many women in the UK still revere the actions of those 850 women, who were probably the least politicised group ever to steal the headlines for industrial action. “They were passionate, feisty housewives, fighting an almost 1940s mindset in the factory,” Hawkins said when the movie was first announced at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

“While it might have been the Swinging Sixties in fashionable parts of London at the time, this was Dagenham we’re talking about, and there was nothing swinging about that part of the world.”

It’s hugely ironic that 40 years on from the Equal Pay Act 1970 which those women helped bring into being, the battles for actual equal pay are still far from won almost everywhere in the world.

In Australia, for instance, equal pay was, in theory, awarded to all women by the Arbitration Commission two years later, in 1972. While that applied to all women under federal awards, however, that only covered 40 per cent of women in the workforce. A series of campaigns were then launched by various unions to have the principle extended to State awards.

Yet today, women workers and unions are still striving for equality in real rates of pay, says the organisation, Business and Professional Women Australia (BPW). Census statistics show that the gap between men's and women's earnings changed by less than one percent from 2006 to 2007, narrowing only slightly from 76.9 to 77.8 percent.

They point out that some women in CEO and finance positions earn less than half of their male equivalents, the pay gap for women key management personnel is on average 28.3% -- 11% higher than the national average gender pay gap – and the average superannuation payout to a woman is projected at $150,000, half of the average payout to a man in 2010-11.

“We are still fighting for some of these same issues as we were in the early days - like pay equity and universal paid maternity leave,” says BPW President Marilyn Forsythe. “Our aims are still as relevant today as they were in 1940 when they were first declared.”

The lack of equal pay is an issue that still deeply worries Prime Minister Julia Gillard, too. She quotes the case of a study of the top 200 companies in Australia which found female chief financial officers and chief operating officers earned half the amount their male counterparts. "It is concerning when you see data like that,” she said.

"an inspirational and feelgood experience"

But Made In Dagenham is still an inspirational and feelgood experience, co-starring Bob Hoskins and being directed by Nigel Cole of Calendar Girls fame. “As filmmakers, our own challenge is to create the events, both hilarious and tragic in turn, that led to a groundbreaking law,” says Elizabeth Karlsen, of producers Number 9 Films. “That [law] enabled the empowerment of women around the world, although the challenges for women today remain as prevalent and constant as they did then.”

Even more bizarrely, nowhere is the inequality of pay between the genders more evident than in the movie world. In Australia, for instance, according to BRW, the highest earning actor for 2009 was Russell Crowe, with an estimated fortune of $25 million. Hugh Jackman isn’t doing too badly, either, at $16 million. But Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett, revered as one of the best female actors in the world, could only manage $15 million, and Nicole Kidman scraped home with just $11 million in her pay packet, despite a 2007 bonanza of $35 million.

Internationally, the story’s much the same. The world’s top-earning female actor, Angelina Jolie (earning US$27 million between June ’08 and June ’09 according to Forbes magazine), earned only the equivalent of the tenth best-earning male, Johnny Depp. The next three, Jennifer Aniston (US$25m), Meryl Streep (US$24m) and Sarah Jessica Parker (US$23m) go weep.

Meanwhile, the top men powered on through unimagined wealth. Top of the list was Harrison Ford (US$65 million), Adam Sandler (US$55m), Will Smith (US$45m), Eddie Murphy (US$40m) and Nicolas Cage (US$40m). Jolie’s husband Brad Pitt could only scrape into ninth place at US$28m.

"It’s sad, that fairytales about equality only exist on the screen"

It’s sad, that fairytales about equality only exist on the screen, and not even in those movies. “Yes that’s very true,” laughs Londoner Hawkins, 33. “We’re still fighting those same fights, in every sphere of our lives.

“Women are paid much less then men in film, and we still have a shortage of female directors. It’s sad to consider where we still are in 2009. The world can still be a scary place for women. But without these women back in 1968, it could be much worse. They started something for us that women everywhere still have to finish.”

Published October 28, 2010

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Sally Hawkins

... as Rita in MADE IN DAGENHAM

... as Poppy in HAPPY GO LUCKY

Sue Williams is an award-winning journalist and columnist. Her latest book 'Outback Spirit', about a group of people who pour their love, time and energy into helping the outback and those who live there, was published in October 2010.

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