Did the Dagenham women's equal pay fight make a difference?
A new film portrays women's battle for equal pay at Ford's Essex plant in the 1960s. But as the pay gap between working men and women endures, how much difference did they make?
The spotlight falls on the women of the Ford car plant in Dagenham, Essex, this week, just as it did when they got up from their sewing machines and walked out on strike in 1968.
Their story is the subject of a new British film, Made in Dagenham.
It tells how 187 car-seat cover machinists challenged the accepted norm and took industrial action in the battle to get their work recognised as skilled and equal to their male colleagues.
It follows the women as they brought car production at the bedrock of UK car manufacture to a halt, prompted the lay-off of thousands of workers and was only solved with the intervention of then secretary of state, Barbara Castle.
It was action that fanned out across the UK and led ultimately to the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1970, which outlawed discrimination on pay and conditions between men and women.
For those who did not live through the social shifts of the 1960s, the period after the post-war settlement, but before the UK slid into the economic abyss of the 1970s, a look through the newspaper cuttings of the time is a window on to a different world.
It lets in breath of a febrile atmosphere of strong unions operating in a country based in manufacturing.
Whole sections of newspapers headlined "Labour News" describe strikes and planned absenteeism, not only at factories in industrial cities, but right down to the tranquil High Street stores of John Lewis or Selfridges.'No bra-burning'
But while the men were on the picket lines, as Jacqueline Scott, Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, says: "It was a time when people still thought a woman's primary job was the home and looking after the kids, and work was something secondary, largely pin money."
Until the feisty Essex women of Dagenham walked out, that is.
The women sitting together in the offices of a London PR agency giggle and gossip as old friends. These days, they inhabit a demeanour far from the dispute-weary striker.
End Quote Sarah Veale TUC
They moved the mountain but the tectonic plates were already shifting”
But Gwen Davis, Sheila Douglass, Eileen Pullan and Vera Sime, now aged in their 70s and 80s, were at the centre of the Ford dispute.
They say they never felt like trailblazers, at the forefront of the second wave of feminism
"We didn't burn our bras on the way," says Eileen.
The film conjures up a time of miniskirts and mopeds, but for them, there was no stripping off on the factory floor - one of the more "Carry On" aspects of the film.
Instead they were motivated by a sense of injustice, that their skilled work and therefore their pay, should be graded the same as male colleagues, not at the 87% of it they were paid.
"We were fighting for ourselves," says Sheila. "For what we thought was our due."
"It was because we were women and we were just paid less," adds Gwen.
Their action surprised their colleagues who were often their fathers, brothers and male friends and relatives.
They surprised their bosses, the country, and in Barbara Castle they found a politician who shared their feeling for fairness, culminating in the 1970 Act.
But the striking women voted to go back to work before they were granted equal pay, on a deal for 92% of male wages. So if the settlement fell short, how important were their actions in the equality fight?
"It was the catalyst, rather than the cause," says Sarah Veale, head of equality and employment rights at the TUC. "They moved the mountain, but the tectonic plates were already shifting".
As the 60s swung, she says, women working in factories were still lagging behind the middle class feminist movement. But as the female workforce grew and women became generally liberated in education and reproductive rights, there was a "growing feeling this was wrong".
"What made it rush forward was these women doing something about it," says Ms Veale. "To challenge the heterodoxy was massive."Persistent gap
Critics point out the women were led by a male union representative, but those there at the time say the impetus came from the women themselves. And, initially, they had to fight entrenched union sexism, out to protect male jobs and pay.
Today, while official discrimination based on sex is illegal, a gender pay gap persists.
The Office for National Statistics latest Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings puts it at 20.2%.
The tasks of the Women and Work Commission, set up by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2004, to examine how to narrow the pay gap, are ongoing. And despite the Equality Act of 2010, women are still waiting on a government decision on whether to make private companies reveal their pay gap.
And the film is released in a week where a woman as high profile as TV host Tess Daly tells the Observer Magazine: "This is a business that favours men as hosts without a doubt and they're often paid more for the same job, so I guess you could call that sexism."
"I've no idea [why], it's just a fact."
Commentators see a rainbow of reasons.
While women today find it easier to make a start in the labour market, Dr Leen Vandercasteele, a post-doctoral research fellow University of Manchester, has found the drop off comes in career progression.
Others point to a lack of affordable childcare, the uneven divide of domestic work, that women more commonly work in "ghettoised areas, the Five Cs - caring, catering, cleaning, cooking, and childcare".
Ford's four women feel some women are still "used" by employers today, but they acknowledge the improvements. And, looking back, they are proud of their place in that process.
"It has definitely made history," says Gwen. "It was a good fight. It was worth everything."