An Actress's Thoughts

Sewing Machines! We need Sewing Machines! – Rights, not Privileges! It’s that easy.

Two Films about Sewing Women

Sewing Machines! We need Sewing Machines! – Rights, not Privileges! It’s that easy.

Today’s focus is on two films about sewing women that are based on historical people and actual incidents. The films are no documentaries but fictionalized so of course a lot of the plot has been made up. But there are distinct differences: In Film A the characters and the depicted time gain greater depths by this and in Film B the leading lady and her achievements are reduced.

MADE IN DAGENHAM (UK 2010, German title : WE WANT SEX) tells the story of 187 women sewing machinists at Britain’s largest automobile factory / Dagenham who in 1968 protested successfully against being regraded as unskilled and who fought for equal pay. Two years later this industrial action led to the Equal Pay Act.

The TV movie MARGARETE STEIFF (D 2005) is about the life of south German sewer of soft toys and company owner Margarete Steiff (1847-1909). The film starts when she is 10 years old and ends with the 1903 toy fair in Leipzig where Steiff had her international breakthrough with „55 PB“, the world’s first movable toy bear (,Teddy Bear’).

Made in Dagenham. UK 2010

“I got brought up by my mum, me and me brothers. She worked all her life, and she paid my aunt Lil to take care of us during the day. And it was hard. Especially as she was getting less than half what the blokes in the factory was getting, for doing the same work. But there was never any question that it could be any different. Not for her. Someone has got to stop these exploiting bastards getting away with what they’ve been doing for years.”

This, in the film MADE IN DAGENHAM, is the answer of foreman / union steward Albert Passingham (played by the great, sadly recently deceased, Bob Hoskins) to the question why he is so passionate about the sewing machinists’ industrial dispute at Ford Dagenham car plant.

The film takes place In 1968, when 55,000 male and 187 female workers were employed at the car plant. The women sewing machinists produced the covers for the car seats. When a regrading of the workers led to the women becoming officially unskilled and at the same time receiving less pay, even though their work was qualified and they had to account for two years’ sewing experience, they called for an immediate stoppage and demanded equal grading and equal pay with the male colleagues, this a first in Britain’s history. This stoppage that resulted in a longer strike and industrial action, some at times reluctant union officials, who wanted to put the women’s demands to the end of the line, unsolidary workers, the miserable work place, the meeting with Labour Secretary of State for Employment Barbara Castle, as well as the finally negociated result – the machinists were regraded as semi-skilled and their wages were raised to 92 % of the men’s – all this is true to the facts.

Quite impressive! It’s always nice when a Goliath (in this story a big, capitalistic enterprise) is brought to his knees by a clever David, or rather Davina. And if in the course of this action the colleagues and husbands of the Davinas learn something new it’s a bonus.

In Nigel Cole’s social comedy all protagonists with the exception of Secretary of State for Employment Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson) are made up and along with them their sub stories: we get to know Rita and her family and their financial problems and her son who is caned by his school teacher, shop steward Connie (Geraldine James) whose elderly husband is a traumatized war veteran, Lisa (Rosamund Pike), a historian with a University degree, who is in the role of housewife and mother as well as ornamental wife of the Ford factory boss (her son is being caned at school as well, she starts a petition which leads to his dismissal) and many more stories of private and professional dreams of the machinists, wrapped in the fashion, hair-styles and music of the changing society of the swinging sixties. I talked to representatives of trade union TUC and the library collection of trade unions’ history at London University who both emphased the fact that the REAL Dagenham ladies had looked completely different, far less glamouros for a start. The machinists’ leader Rita O’Grady did not exist, however the real Rose Boland can be called the driving force, „but then it’s never just one person, is it“.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Financial Times

Reproduced by kind permission of the Financial Times

Originally the film’s titel was to be WE WANT SEX, based on a true anecdote: the machinists had painted a banner with the phrase „We want sex equality“, however they did not revealed the whole length of the banner, so the fourth word was missing. However the title was changed to MADE IN DAGENHAM, which is a wise decision since the other title would have led viewers in a direction which had nothing to do with unions’ history or rights for women. Unfortunately they chose the exact „we want sex“ title when the film came to German cinemas, in a German dubbed version. This is unfortunate for the above reason and also because the play of words does not make any sense in German. I have no idea why they did not choose a German title, maybe along the lines of „Die Autofrauen von Dagenham“ („The Car Women of Dagenham“).

Finally I would like to point out certain parellels between machinists’ leader O’Grady and Secretary of State Castle („We ain’t politicians, we’re working women – and so are you“), who even own the same cheap dress from Brenninkmeijer. Both had to fight against male prejudices and paternalism, both had to find new ways. „That risk you were talking about, I am going to have to take it“, as Barbara Castle says to a US Ford representative who had threatened to move the car plant to another country if the demands of the women were met. I have no idea if this is a historical fact, but in fiction it is of course very nice to see politicians stand up against a big private enterprise.

MADE IN DAGENHAM. UK 2010. Director Nigel Cole, Script William Ivory. Casting Director Lucy Bevan. With Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, Geraldine James, Rosamund Pike, Andrea Riesborough, Jaime Winstone and others

Margarete Steiff. D 2005

A cripple will never find a husband, let alone find work.“

This is what mother Steiff (played by Suzanne von Borsody) says to 10 year old Margarete in the film.

Margarete Steiff (1847-1909) suffered from polio from the age of two, both legs and the right arm and hand were affected and nearly completely immobile. She learns to write with her left hand, trains to become a sewer, buys the wirst sewing machine in her town (Giengen / Brenz, in the south of Germany), founds a felt clothes shop, invents high class soft toys, the Steiff animals, and turns her family business into a global player of the toy industry. When I saw the film for the first time some years ago I was really surprised, having owned Steiff animals all my live I did not know that they were named after their inventor. I thought they were called Steiff animals because they were stiff (German: steif) and firm. Making a biographical movie is not easy, especially if it spans over nearly 50 years as in this case. The film starts in Margarete’s childhood (there she is played by Annika Luksch) and ends at the Leipzig toy fair of 1903, when Steiff was 56 years old. The actress playing the grown-up, Heike Makatsch, was 33 years old at the time of shooting. On the next photo we see Margarete Steiff in 1895, as a 48 years old.

Margarete Steiff and Employees. Approx. 1895. Photo: Margarete Steiff GmbH.

Margarete Steiff and Employees. Approx. 1895. Photo: Margarete Steiff GmbH.

Steiff’s biography is really impressive. A women with a poor background and a disability, a woman in the 19th century, when education and job opportunities were even more different for women and men than today. Her motto „Only the best is good enough for our children“ is quite remarkable in times when children were caned and beaten legally in schools and families. Of course (and unfortunately) the story was changed a bit. In the film Margarete is younger, thinner, more beautiful. But first and foremost: a love story involving travelling salesman Julius is made up. Why?

I was talking to someone from Steiff’s public relations staff who said that „this is what people want to watch, so this way the film will get a larger audience.“ It’s not that the love story isn’t well done, it is, and the scene where Margarete and Julius (Hary Prinz) meet for the first time on a train is quite charming, there is a good chemistry between the two of them and the dramatic arc first meeting – separation – surprise reunion – falling in love – separation – reunion – break-up works quite well. Add to that jelous younger brother Fritz (played by 4,5 years older Felix Eitner) and there you have real personal drama. But it is quite weird that this made-up love-story, or rather Julius, is triggering all Margarete’s crucial actions as well as causing the majority of turning points in this film story.

In the film Margarete met Julius on the train as she was travelling to Vienna to get a treatment for her legs.

  • J: Machines are the future.
  • M: Where I come from we do everything with our hands..
  • J: This has got to change. machines make everything in life much easier. For you as well!
  • M: But machines are for men!
  • J: I am trying especially to make the lives of women easier, with sewing machines for example.

Months later he comes and visits her in Giengen, he provides her first sewing machine and also the fabric for her first fancy dress which brings her big success as a dressmaker. They get closer, and kiss for the first time while swimming in a river. Julius helps her start her business and when he wants to leave after a while she says” I need you here, you are the only one who knows about machines, who knows how to oil the hand wheel (…) Stay! Julius, please!” He stays for the time being. It’s time to buy the second sewing machine. Julius leaves and does not return for days. She flipps through a fashion magazine from Vienna that of course Julius had given her. In it she finds a drawing of an elefant. Since she can’t sleep for nights on end she sews and sews and sews her “Filzelefäntles” (velt elephants), that were originally designed as pin cussions, but end up becoming the first soft children’s toy. Julius returns and bringst the second sewing machine, but in the meantime he had fallen in love with Margarete’s best friend and leaves for Salzburg with her. Margarete stops talking to her brother (because he didn’t warn her) and plunges herself into work, to forget all her sorrows, so much so, that after a short time – there is no statement on dates – she is head of a large factory with dozens of sewers. After Julius is gone only 15 minutes of this film remain, Steiff now has sales difficulties after many successful years, she reconciles with her brother and together with him invents the toy bear who is her saviour when 3,000 are ordered.

Yes, the basic facts are correct and as I said it is perfectly alright to make things up. But why the love story? To show that she is a proper woman after all? And why this Julius? To show that she would not have been able to think of all the things that eventually led to the company Margarete Steiff GmbH? Who is responsible for this decision? Scriptwriters Susanne Beck and Thomas Eifler? The TV producer? The production company?

Stories about male pioneers are not sexed-up or deflected by love stories. You may have a film on the race to the south pole, alternatively from Amundsen’s or Scott’s perspective, and there will be no female in the plot. Well, maybe Mrs. Scott (“my widow”) as recipient of Scott’s final letter before freezing to death, or maybe Amundsen’s faithful female sledge dog. When there are women they are helpful, but not significant. They make tea or contact to a financer (Hedwig Ehrlich in DR. EHRLICH’s MAGIC BULLET). But they are not the source of the men’s achievement.

But the story of pioneer Margarete Steiff is not enough for a film in its own right. Why? Because market research has revealed that a story with a heroine needs a love story? It does not matter if true or invented, happy or sad, as long as there is a male love interest? Because this is allegedly what women wnat, and men don’t watch films anyway that center around a woman?

MARGARETE STEIFF. TV movie 2005. Director: Xaver Schwarzenberger. Script: Susanne Beck, Thomas Eifler. Casting Director: Birgit Geier. With Heike Makatsch, Felix Eitner, Hary Prinz, Suzanne von Borsody, Herbert Knaup, Harald Krassnitzer, Bernadette Heerwagen, Annika Luksch u.a.

Comparing the formal frame

MADE IN DAGENHAM has explanatory titles at the beginning, like we know from other „based on a true story“- films: „In 1968 there were 55,000 men employed at Ford’s Dagenham Factory (new title) and 187 women.“, and we see archive material, old Ford promotional films from the 1960s. Even more impressive I find the end title section, in a split screen we see the usual credits, but in the other half we see the real Dagenham machinists (and Barbara Castle) back in 1968, and we see them in the 21st century, cheerfully talking about those days. Just before that a title „Two years later in May 1970 the Equal Pay Act became Law. Similar legislation quickly followed in most industrial countries across the world.” By the way, what is the situation on equal pay in the film business, behind and in front of the camera? Do women and men get the same money for the same work? Well, that is a topic for another day.

The Steiff movie passes on additional text titles at the beginning and the end. This is unfortunately, I think something like “Four years later in 1907 974.000 teddy bears were manufactured. Margarete Steiff died in 1909 from pneumonia. Her three nephews took over the management. Until today the head office of Steiff Retail GmbH remains in Giengen / Brenz.” would have been quite informative.

Despite all criticism I strongly recommend watching both films, not least because they depict inspiring stories of female sewers who through their work and their guts have considerably changed the course of history, not ony for themselves, but for many who followed.

In any case, I have just gone and bought a sewing machine for a start.

A Steiff animal and a sewing machine.. Foto: SchspIN

A Steiff animal and a sewing machine. Foto: SchspIN