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The Long Road to the Equal Pay Act 1970

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By Dr Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist

Have you seen Made in Dagenham? This film (and stage musical!) tells the story of the women sewing machinists at the Ford Motor Company plant in Dagenham, who went on strike in a dispute over pay and grading in 1968. One of the results of this was the Equal Pay Act, which was passed on 29 May 1970 and came into effect five years later. It established the principle that men and women should be paid equally for the same work, or work of a broadly similar nature.

HL_PO_PU_1970_c41.Equal Pay Act.001
Equal Pay Act 1970. Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1970/c41.

The early history of equal pay campaigning

However, the battle for equal pay between men and women has a much longer history. Equal pay was a demand of women campaigners from the 19th century. In fact, campaigns have been traced as far back as the 1830s, but accelerated from the 1880s, following greater unionisation of workforces and the rise of the women's suffrage movement.

In the early 20th century Mary Macarthur formed the National Federation of Women Workers. Macarthur particularly aimed to organise women to campaign for better pay and conditions in sweated industries. Women entered the workforce in large numbers during the First World War. They did the same work as men but for significantly less money, and following the war, many had to give up their jobs to make way for returning servicemen.

The inter-war period

In 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications the right to vote, and a separate Act allowed women to become MPs for the first time. Women could now influence Parliament both as voters and as MPs, although numbers of women MPs remained very small. A raft of legislation was passed over the next ten years affecting women's lives and gender equality.

However nothing was achieved on equal pay. Equal pay for women in teaching and the civil service was a demand for feminist organisations such as Lady Rhondda's Six Point Group throughout the inter-war period. Sympathetic MPs such as John Waller Hills raised it repeatedly as an issue in the House of Commons. In fact, the Commons voted in favour of the principle of equal pay in public services as early as 19 May 1920, but no action was taken.

The Second World War

In the Second World War, women were mobilised for work and again, did jobs traditionally done by men but for less money. Examples of this happened right in the heart of Parliament. Kay Midwinter was appointed the first women Clerk in the House of Commons in 1941, supporting proceedings in the chamber and managing the work of select committees. She was consistently paid less than male Clerks doing exactly the same job as her.

Similarly, Jean Winder, the first permanent woman Hansard (Parliamentary Debates) reporter, was employed by the House of Commons from 1944 and fought a long battle for equal pay with her male colleagues over many years. She even had her case brought up in Commons by Irene Ward MP, and thus entered the Hansard annals herself.

Women MPs played a key role on the Select Committee for Equal Compensation, which successfully recommended equal compensation for men and women civilians who were wounded in the war.  In 1944, the Equal Pay Campaign Committee was set up to campaign for equal pay, chaired by Mavis Tate MP. It held meetings, sought publicity, and lobbied MPs.

Equal pay in the public services

In 1952 Charles Pannell reminded the House of Commons that it had now been 32 years since they had voted in favour of equal pay in the public services, but nothing had happened since. Campaigning continued, and in 1954, the Equal Pay Campaign Committee presented a petition asking for 'equal pay for equal work between men and women in the public services'. The petition was signed by more than 80,000 people. It was presented to Parliament amid great publicity by a cross-party group of women MPs, including Irene Ward and Barbara Castle.

Women MPs delivering a a petition of 80,000 signatures supporting equal pay for women to the House of Commons in March 1954.
Women MPs delivering a a petition of 80,000 signatures supporting equal pay for women to the House of Commons in March 1954. Left to right, Dr Edith Summerskill MP for Fulham West, Patricia Ford ,Barbara Castle (Blackburn) and Irene Ward (Tynemouth). © Dave Bagnall Collection / Alamy Stock Photo, JPWW19

Following the petition, equal pay was introduced in the civil service on a phased basis between 1955 and 1961.  However, private employers were not affected, and many continued to pay women less than men.

 Made in Dagenham

 On 7 June 1968, 187 women sewing machinists at the Ford Motor Company plant in Dagenham, Essex, went on strike. Their jobs had been re-graded at a less skilled grade than men, meaning they were being paid 85% of the rate paid to men. The strike went on for three weeks, was highly publicised, and the whole plant closed down at huge cost to Ford.

Women sewing machinists at the Ford Motor Company plant in Dagenham, 1968
Women sewing machinists at the Ford Motor Company plant in Dagenham took strike action on 7 June, 1968 in support of a claim for regrading, parity with their male colleagues in the C pay grade and recognition of their skills. © Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo, EMWN8N.

Barbara Castle, Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, intervened on behalf of the Dagenham women, and they returned to work after their pay was raised to 92% of that of men.  Although this was a big step forward, it didn't resolve things. A court of inquiry under Sir Jack Scamp found the dispute was about grading rather than equal pay, and recommended that the machinists' job profile be reviewed. The Dagenham women did not achieve equal pay until after a further strike in 1984.

Equal Pay Act 1970

The 1968 strike was nevertheless very important, because it put equal pay on the government agenda. Trade unions agreed to support equal pay. The argument was also made that equal pay was required before the UK would be able to join the European Economic Community. All the publicity, public opinion and lobbying pressure enabled Barbara Castle to pass the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

There was a delay before the Act was implemented, to give employers time to make adjustments and prepare for additional costs. The Act finally came into force on 29 December 1975. Although the principle of equal pay was now established, the Act was more limited than Castle initially hoped, and inequalities remained. The Equal Pay Act was later incorporated into the Equality Act 2010. Equal pay remains an issue for many women today.

Dr Mari Takayanagi, Parliamentary Archives

Further reading:

Living Heritage - Equal Pay

Women Demand Equal Pay! Vote 100 blog by the Hansard Writing Team


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