A History of Working Class Women’s Rights

Back in Time for the Factory is a really useful documentary series from the BBC which explores how working class women’s working rights have changed since 1968.

The documentary consists mainly of ‘historical reenactment’ in which a number of ordinary women (and some men) go into a garment factory in Wales and work as women would have done through the last few decades.

This real life historical re-enactment is supplemented with interviews with older women who really lived through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and with footage of news clips which document significant events – such as the various strikes which women organised in order to get equal pay.

The documentaries might be a bit long-winded to watch in their entirety, but selected clips will certainly give you a feel for the gender inequalities in the workplace in the late 1960s, how women campaigned for equal pay (with very little support from men early on) and how employers tried to dodge paying women the same as men by re-grading certain jobs after the initial equal pay acts of the 1970s!

You can watch various clips from the BBCs’ web site here.

A history of working class women’s rights

50 years ago, Britain was a manufacturing powerhouse, with an astonishing 34% of the population working on a manufacturing production line. Factories mostly employed women – hundreds of thousands of them, who made our clothes, telephones and televisions.

The factories were centred on areas of high unemployment like the south Wales valleys and by employing so many women and girls they were at the forefront of a change in British society. But the women who would drive that change were poorly paid, unfairly treated and denied basic rights.

Women’s Working Rights 1968-1972

Starting in 1968 when 85% of all our high street clothes were made in the UK, the women experience the realities of working life for women in these three crucial decades – from the excitement of being out in the work place to the pressures of ever increasing targets, the camaraderie of the factory floor and fun-filled evenings at the social club. Most eyeopening of all is the contents of their wage packets – revealing to our modern workers the deeply ingrained attitudes towards women’s work as inferior and helping them understand what galvanised a generation to fight for change.

The workers start their journey in 1968, when The Beatles and Tom Jones are topping the charts, Labour’s Harold Wilson is Prime Minister and big hair abounds. It is also the year the female strikers of Dagenham brought the Ford factory to a standstill and the question of women’s pay into the headlines. Their first task is to produce pink nylon petticoats – a staple of British women’s wardrobes in an era when only 30% of houses had central heating. The reality of the production line is a rude awakening for many – long monotonous hours with short breaks and few distractions – a situation made worse for some of our women when they discover that it’s legal to refuse to serve an unaccompanied woman in a public bar.

But that is far less of a shock than the moment they open their pay packets and realise some of them are being paid less than half the rate of the men on the factory floor.

Women in the Factory 1973-1975

The second episode starts in 1973, but even though the Equality Act had been passed in 1970, the women discover that things are still far from equal on the factory floor as the factory bosses had been given five years to bring in the changes.

The workers also get to experience the upsides of factory work – enjoying the range of clubs and activities which factory bosses supported while manufacturing was still thriving.

1976-1982

Episode three starts in 1976 when the Sex Discrimination Act had been passed and the Equal Pay Act had finally come in to force the year before.

However, by 1976, women were still earning only 74 per cent of the male hourly rate as employers all over the country found loopholes to avoid paying women more.

Feminism is in full-swing in the mid 1970s and the women have to decide whether they will strike for further equality in an age of uncertanity, navigating the world of pickets, banners and crossing the line.

Off the production line, the factory holds its own beauty pageant – an event companies all over Britain would have been happy to support as part of social life of the workplace. No beauty contest was complete without the glamour of the swimsuit round, and our factory pageant is no different. But how will the modern women feel about parading in their swimming costumes?
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Working women… 1983 Onwards

The fourth episode starts in 1983, four years after Margaret Thatcher came to power. While that event may make you think that women have achieved equality, the working class women in the Welsh factories had another fight on their hands in the 1980s – the fight for their jobs in the age of neoliberalism!

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