11/16/2010 10:14 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Movie Review: Made in Dagenham

Even as the right wing in both this country and Great Britain casually rip holes in the social safety net, it would do well to look back to just how short-lived some of the things we take for granted, equality-wise, actually are.

Gay rights, for example, have really only been a cause for legal battles for about 40 years. Instructively, that's also about how long women have had legislated equality of sorts (though the comparative salaries of women and men still show obvious discrepancies). Not that it's all peaches and cream: A woman's right to choose came about only in 1972 with Roe v. Wade - and remains under constant assault. Meanwhile, the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated - by a right-wing force led by women (and their right-wing male cronies) in 1982. Some changes come harder than others.

It's also been exactly 40 years since Parliament in Great Britain enacted legislation that eliminated laws that made it legal to pay women less than men in England, even for the same work.

That equal pay-for-women movement began in the British town of Dagenham -- and is the subject of the funny, uplifting Made in Dagenham, a film by Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls). This charming little film tells an underdog tale with only its own story on its mind -- leaving the larger implications of its plot for others to sort out.

Sally Hawkins and Geraldine James play Rita and Connie, two of a group of women who work in the seat-cover division of the Ford plant in Dagenham in 1968. But they're upset about a provision of their newest contract, which classifies them as unskilled workers, while the men in the factory are classified as skilled and, as a result, are paid better. The women, after all, operate complex sewing machines and do complicated stitchery that's far beyond assembly-line work.

They are encouraged to speak up by their shop steward, Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins). But when they take the issue to their union rep, a good old boy named Monty Taylor (Kenneth Cranham), he essentially caves to Ford management, uttering the kind of bromides and platitudes that women heard for years about men's egos and men as householders and heads of family. Monty practically apologizes to management for taking up its time with these silly womens' complaints.

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