Women’s struggles and victories in the 1960s and 1970s

To round off our series on the struggles of women for a better deal and for socialism, we are drawing attention to two articles on historical struggles by women.


To round off our series on the struggles of women for a better deal and for socialism, we are drawing attention to two articles on historical struggles by women.

The first is an article written half a century ago on the tremendous strike for equal pay by women workers at Ford’s car factory in London, depicted in the film, ‘Made in Dagenham’. The report appeared in the Militant newspaper (the predecessor of The Socialist (England & Wales) in August 1968. The author is Clare Doyle (nee Paget), member of the CWI’s International Secretariat.

The second item is, appropriately, from the USA – the country where the idea of an international day to celebrate women’s struggles began. It covers two decades of the last century – the 1960s and the 1970s – and the significance of various movements that involved women. We quoted briefly from it on this site last Saturday, 3 March. The whole article by Erin Brightwell and Rob Darakjian can be read here:


Fords: Spectre of equal pay haunts bosses

“What have they (Ford) got to lose? 187 at 5pence an hour? That’s a pittance, they could get us back tomorrow. And them making millions. This is their boom year”. This comment (Financial Times 17.6.68) from one of the women car seat cover machinists on strike at Ford’s Dagenham factory points to the real significance of their struggle.

Forced to lay off thousands of workers and lose £1,250,000 a day (a small enough percentage of its massive superprofits nevertheless) while the strike lasts, Fords itself – Britain’s leading exporter – sees not only its precious system of plant bargaining threatened but also its ability to exploit its female workers and undercut the men’s rates of pay.

Fords was condemned as “the worst payer in the motor industry” by delegates at the NUVB (National Union of Vehicle Builders) conference. The women there start their arduous work (many men wouldn’t do it) at 7:30am with nothing but a 10 minute break in the morning and three quarter of an hour for lunch, before they finish work at 4.15pm. Labouring at heavy machines, scarred through handling unwieldy materials, they are expected to turn out 55 seat cushions an hour, 240 bucket seats or 250 head-linings a day.

If the Ford women win on this regrading issue, the movement will not stop at that. In their fight against “sex-discrimination” they have widespread support from their own union, the NUVB (who say ,“As far as we are concerned we have no 2nd class members”), the men at their factory, the 195 women at the Halewood factory who have come out in sympathy, the AEU (Engineers) and the Bakers’ Union at their conferences, union branches in other sections of industry, Trades Councils, Labour Parties, Young Socialists and individuals prepared to send donations to their strike fund.

With their new found strength the Ford women will no longer be afraid to complain about their conditions (fear of victimisation had compelled them to stay at their work in the rain with their macs on (Financial Times). They have already shown their determination to achieve their demand by refusing to accept a ‘fact-finding’ committee and agreeing not to meet to discuss the strike for another week! “Court of inquiry or not ‘We are not going back until we get the money’” (Morning Star 22.6.68).

It is not surprising that “officials at the Ministry of Employment were nervous… that the Ford women’s example could be the opening foray in country-wide agitation in industry for greatly increased wages. A recent Government-sponsored report on women and work found that most women in industry earned about half the rates of their male colleagues” (Observer 16.6.68). If the Labour Government’s election pledge and the I.L.O. convention on equal pay for women were enforced , employers would be, in their own estimation, about £1,000 million out of pocket – “perhaps higher still” (Evening Standard 21.6.68). This is the amount they have annually bled from working women.

Taking home £12-£13 a week, the Ford’s women are “well-off” compared with most women workers. More than half the 9 million women workers earn less than 5 shillings an hour and less than 1 in 30 receives as much as 10s. According to the “Survey of Women’s Employment”, of those doing skilled manual work, nearly 2/3 earned less than 5s. an hour and only 1 in 90 got 10s. Two-fifths of those paid weekly had earned less than £6 gross in the previous week to the survey. “Roughly one-tenth of all those working 41 or more hours a week, earned less than the equivalent of £6 a week.”

Donovan commission

The Ford machinists are simply demanding recognition of their skill. The lowest paid unskilled man at the Ford’s works has a higher hourly rate of pay than the women. The Donovan commission found the facts about the training of women for skilled work “so disturbing and so important that they had to be singled out for discussion” (Evening Standard 13.6.68).

Though girls had as good a performance at O-Level standards as boys when they left school only 7% entered apprenticeships (predominantly hairdressing) compared with 43% of boys. Only 29% of female manual workers in industry were classified as skilled, compared with 49% of male manual workers. Yet during the last war, women were trained without difficulty to do many types of traditionally male work. The practical reasons why opportunities for women were restricted “could not account for the present state of affairs” (whatever these “practical reasons” are). The report on women working exploded the myth that women are less stable employees than men.

The fact that women make up one third of the labour force, with over half working five days a week, and the fact that the number of women working has increased by 1.6 million since 1950 is simply not reflected in an increase in opportunities in most areas of employment. Only about 1 woman in 20 is employed in a managerial capacity – in some industries only 1 in 100! An editorial in the Times recently pointed out that “most of this increase (in married women working) has been in areas traditionally occupied by women, in particular in office employment: ¾ of the increase in the numbers of women employed between 1921 and 1961 was in that category.

“The other side of this coin, however, is the seeming inability of women to enter occupations normally the preserve of men: women now account for 8% of the total in the higher professions, where in 1921 they accounted for 6%… Whatever the inconvenience of making arrangements sufficiently flexible to accommodate women with children wishing, able and often specifically qualified to work), failure to do so must result in a great waste of potentially useful skills. There is a clear need here for employers to allow women into any jobs they are fit for”. There is also, of course, a clear need for a massive increase in provision of nursery schools.

Essential “luxuries”

Many women are working to supplement their husbands’ incomes in order to buy such so-called luxuries as washing machines, vacuum cleaners, automatic dish-washers, fridges etc. But these are necessities today if women are to be relieved from their centuries-old drudgery which rendered them unfit for any life beyond that of a household slave.

After half a century of votes for women, fewer than 1 million of them have even achieved equality of pay for equal work. They are still regarded as second-class citizens educated for a domestic role and legally subject to her husband on many matters. Even trade union officials bargaining on wage agreements accept smaller percentage increases for their women workers. In view of their position in society and at work, it is not surprising that many female workers are not members of trade unions. But as Dr. Summerskill says, “Up to now women have passively accepted their exploitation. This strike (at Fords) could spark off serious industrial unrest which cannot be ignored. Working women can make or break the economy. The down-trodden women of today are the strikes of tomorrow.”

“There have been signs of gathering impatience” (Times 17.6.68) at union conferences at the Governments’ refusal to carry out its pledge on equal pay any longer. If the employers say they cannot afford it they must open their books to prove it. Fords has £100 million in reserve out of which last year they paid £6 million in dividends to shareholders, yet they refuse to pay a living wage to an extra-exploited section of their workers. If a modern and advanced industry like this cannot even guarantee the most elementary standards, while it remains in private hands, then it should be handed over to the working population.

Fight the profiteers!

The demands by delegates of the NUVB Conference for the nationalisation of the car-manufacturing industry should be completely supported, and extended to the many other industries who refuse to pay workers a living wage. This inevitably links the womens’ struggle to that of the apprentices and young workers and all those who are forced to accept the role of ‘cheap labour’ – a role which in a period of rising unemployment threatens the security and living standards of the higher-paid workers too.

That is why the whole of the Labour Movement must take up the womens’ fight as their own and why the women must take their demands to the unions and to the Labour Party branches. First ‘white-collar’ unions and now the women: the ranks of the working-class militants are growing from day to day – the profiteers must be shaking in their shoes!

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