For their bravery and resilience, a group of English women who famously went on strike against labor conditions at Ford’s Dagenham plant in the 1960s were honored Thursday night at the Women in the World London Summit.
“Women in England have always possessed a righteous sense of their place in the world and few inhibitions when it comes to pushing against the limits imposed on them — never more than now,” founder and CEO Tina Brown said in her remarks, introducing Gwen Davis, Sheila Douglass, Eileen Pullen, and Vera Sime to the crowd.
The strikers, 187 in total in June 1968, were sewing machine operators, responsible for assembling car seat covers at Ford Motor Company Limited’s Dagenham plant in London. When they learned that their work was to be classified as “unskilled” — leaving women’s pay a full 15 percent below their male counterparts — they staged a walk-out. The strike, which lasted three weeks, put all car production to a halt. During that time, the Dagenham women were joined by 195 women from Ford’s Halewood plant in Merseyside. Unapologetic Ford refused to budge despite the impact of the strike on company profits, instead laying off 9,000 workers and putting 40,000 jobs in total at risk.
“Some of the men said: ‘Good for you girl’, but others said: ‘Get back to work, you’re only doing it for pin money’,” Pullen told The Guardian.
Representatives from the movement were asked to meet with employment secretary Barbara Castle, to whom they proposed equal pay for equal work. They returned to work when their wages to raised to 92 percent of what their male colleagues made, and their brave stand resulted in the 1970 Equal Pay Act. The events inspired the popular British comedy film and, later, stage musical Made in Dagenham.
At Women in the World, Brown recalled a humorous moment in 1968 when a banner failed to unfurl completely, leaving the strikers holding a sign that read, “WE WANT SEX!”
“Of course, the full banner they unveiled read: ‘We want sex EQUALITY’,” she explained. “Classic British sauciness, sauciness in the service of a better society by women everyone here knows as The Dagenham Girls.”