In many ways, the working-class woman of 20th century Britain was a Cinderella figure. Mothers, daughters and wives would plug away on the sidelines, providing strong foundations upon which families and communities could flourish. They would then emerge in their droves during flurries of labour activism (such as the Miners’ strike of 1984-’85, or Ford Dagenham in 1968) before receding, once again, into relative obscurity.
While it was rarely documented by the mainstream media, a number of independent film-makers and documentary collectives captured the essence of these often-invisible working-class radicals. The following five films offer a glimpse into the world of working women, their stories and their activism during a time when the image of the ‘union man’ reigned supreme.
1. So That You Can Live (Cinema Action, 1982)
Originally intended as a short film about a rural Welsh factory, So That You Can Live (1982) is a heartfelt documentary that puts focus on an ambitious trade union convenor, Shirley Butts. Filmed over five years by BFI-backed production group Cinema Action, the story follows Shirley through a multitude of industrial disputes, many of which she handles directly with flair, confidence and determination.
It also features her teenage daughter, Dianne, as she rapidly approaches womanhood and peers into the daunting world of work. In brief, this film stands the test of time as a brilliant snapshot of British trade unionism at the peak of its popularity: more importantly, however, is the fact that it offers an accurate depiction of the women on the frontlines of the labour movement – and the reasons they fought so fiercely for the cause.
2. Here We Go (Richard Hines & Banner Film and Television, 1985)
Richard Hines is perhaps best known as his fictional alter-ego Billy Casper, the young Falconer from Barry Hines’ book A Kestrel For a Knave. Beyond this, though, Richard is something of a pioneer for working-class representation in film, having set up his production company Banner Film and TV in 1982. Banner saw the creation of several powerful films about women, including A Tale to Tell – Women and Lasses (1984) and Fat Women are Here to Stay (1989), but the most memorable by far is 1985’s Here We Go.
As one of Hines’ two documentaries to focus on the miner’s strike, Here We Go does not follow a strictly female narrative. It does, however, feature an incredibly touching performance of Mal Finch’s ‘We Are Women, We Are Strong’ that should not be missed, as well as some rare footage of women standing their ground (and later being arrested) on the picket lines at Hatfield Main Colliery in Doncaster.
3. Nightcleaners (Berwick Street Film Collective, 1975)
During the mid-20th century, office work was booming. Every major city required an invisible army of female cleaners to work through the night, ensuring that the buildings were maintained for those who manned the desks during the day. Working for as little as twenty-six pence an hour – equivalent to around £3.40 in contemporary terms – these women would clean in ten or twelve hour shifts, before returning home in time to take their children to school.
In 1972, a group of filmmakers known as the Berwick Street Film Collective decided to document these cleaners and their eventual attempts to organise. The completed work, named simply Nightcleaners (1975), is a jarring yet potent epic, which has since been recognised as a cornerstone of avant-garde documentary cinema. It takes the viewer on a journey through the motions: the endless scrubbing, wiping and polishing, though banal, takes on an almost grotesque quality when you realise just how exhausted these women are.
The urgency of this film lies in the fact that this was what these women considered to be ‘their lot’ – cleaning throughout the day for their families, then emulating this domestic duty for their employers. Thankfully, some relief is offered in the film’s chronicling of the cleaner’s strikes in the early 1970s, during which time many of the cleaners became (and would remain) unionised.
4. Major, the Miners and Me (BBC, 1993)
Part of the thoroughly 1990s BBC 2 series Video Diaries, Major, the Miners and Me (1993) offers what could be the only in-depth visual exploration of the women’s pit camp movement of 1992-’93. Filmed on a handheld camera by Women Against Pit Closures activist Brenda Nixon, the footage that makes up this 90-minute epic is a deeply personal account of the final battle in the miners’ fight for jobs, with all of the rousing speeches, touching family moments and deeply human struggles that occurred over 12 months of the campaign.
Sadly, this is an incredibly difficult film to get a hold of, despite its obvious cultural and historical value: its rarity only serves to exemplify further the poignancy of the campaign, and its life-altering importance for the women involved.
5. A Question of Choice (Sheffield Film Co-op, 1982)
This short and aptly named documentary from 1982 follows four women employed at a Sheffield primary school – two cleaners, a cook and a lollipop lady – and the limitations placed upon them by family life. While their stories are far from revolutionary, they are all tragic in some way: one woman, determined to be a nurse, is resigned to the life of a cleaner, while another is forced to step down from a supervisory position at a local sweet factory after her children are born.
By documenting these unremarkable stories, the Sheffield Film Co-op were able to expose the question of choice for working-class women as a sham. It is important to note that these women are far from miserable and downtrodden. As one notes of her £25-a-week wage: ‘It’s the most I’ve ever earned… you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth.’