2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the famous strike by women sewing machinists at the Ford motor factory in Dagenham which inspired the Equal Pay Act. The 1968 strike was a major milestone in the fight for equal pay and has become a symbol of 20th century women’s activism, as well as a source of local pride in the borough of Barking & Dagenham and in east London more widely.
However, there’s an untold story of working women’s activism which can be traced back from that event over the previous five decades, to the end of the First World War and another women’s rights milestone: the Representation of the People Act, which awarded women over 30 the right to vote. Our project focuses on women’s factory histories in Barking and Dagenham and explores the threads connecting the suffragettes to the Ford strikers.
Starting with suffragette equal pay campaigns and the wartime ‘munitionettes’ who found themselves pushed out of ‘men’s jobs’ in 1918, there is a visible pattern in this 50 year window: women factory workers were hailed as heroic in wartime, but in peacetime met intense pressure from politicians, employers, and union leaders to go ‘back to the home’. It didn’t matter if it was their home or someone else’s; in 1920 benefit sanctions were introduced for women who turned down a job in domestic service.
Although women contributed to the war effort in the 1910s and the 1940s as engineers, chemical analysts, and industrial physicists, in peacetime they were steered away from skilled, technical, and management roles towards dull, repetitive work on the assembly line, routinely faced sexual harassment and discrimination (which was even worse for women of colour), were expected to resign or were dismissed when they got married or became pregnant, and were paid half a man’s wages to boot.
Despite this, factory work offered successive generations of young working class women freedom and camaraderie, as well as opportunities to agitate for better pay and conditions.