Professor Jo Fox, director of the Institute of Historical Research at the School of Advanced Study, explores ‘To Be a Woman’, Jill Craigie’s 1951 documentary examining the role of women in the workplace.
Equal pay has long been at the heart of feminist activism. The struggle for enfranchisement was but one component of the suffragette’s campaign – equal pay was another, with Millicent Fawcett arguing for ‘equal pay for equal work’ in the Economic Journal in March 1918. It remains a pressing issue.
The March 2018 Report on ‘What Women Want 2.0’ recognised that ‘pay is social power. It determines how we live, with whom and on what terms’. The Office of National Statistics highlighted the fact that the gender pay gap across sectors remains a steady 19.2 per cent, unchanged for at least the last three years. But this belies the even greater disparity in some sectors, such as the City: at Barclays, for example, the pay gap is 43 per cent; at HSBC it’s 59 per cent (hourly pay). No wonder, then, that 42 per cent of respondents to the underpinning survey for the ‘What Women Want’ report mentioned the importance of equal pay to the campaign for gender equality.
The Equal Pay Campaign Committee
Equal pay for equal work is at the centre of Jill Craigie’s 1951 short film, To Be a Woman. The film was commissioned by the Equal Pay Campaign Committee (EPCC), formed in 1944 to secure equal pay for women in the public services. It campaigned on behalf of a wide range of potential beneficiaries, from teachers and civil servants to electricians and bank employees. A single-issue pressure group, it was dissolved in 1956 after its members believed that it had won significant advances with the government agreement to introduce equal pay gradually and in stages.
The initial idea for the production of a campaign film came about in July 1949. The EPCC looked to its members to underwrite the cost (£5000 for a 15–20 minute two-reeler), an early example of a crowd-funded project. The EPCC was confident that ‘there must be 5000 people who believe so strongly in equal pay that they will each give £1 or 20,000 who will give five shillings each.’
Jill Craigie: a feminist filmmaker
Jill Craigie, a life-long feminist and campaigner who had transitioned to film directing in the 1940s, was a natural choice to direct. For Craigie, the Second World War was an awakening, a period of equality, and importantly a precursor to her post-1945 work as a prominent feminist and socialist (who was to marry Labour leader Michael Foot in 1949).
Craigie later told her wartime story within a very specific narrative: ‘there was no feminism during the war, because all women were needed. They all got jobs… This was the best time in their lives because they were all working’. She believed war removed gender and class barriers, only for them to be re-erected after 1945.
However, wartime female directors were frequently the objects of unwelcome press and public attention as exotic, ‘unique’ characters, who had managed to lift themselves out of the traditional, ‘natural’ female roles within the film industry such as cutters, secretaries or stenographers. Publicity often emphasised personality or appearance; Craigie later claimed that this rendered her ‘a freak’. Together with the war, she credited this with drawing her towards activism, leading her to make films on housing (The Way We Live, 1946), child poverty (The Children of the Ruins, 1948), and the coal-mining industry (Blue Scar, 1949). By the time Craigie was commissioned to direct To Be a Woman, she had become an active and committed feminist campaigner.
Making ‘To Be a Woman’
The main aim of the film’s first half, Craigie suggested, would be ‘to make a survey of the women in Britain showing what they are up to – how many work in industry, in professions, in the homes, in local government, in Parliament, in managerial and executive posts, and so forth. ‘We will not ignore the fact’, she continued, ‘that working women also have to manage their homes’.
Here Craigie identified a persistent problem in the evaluation of women’s work in monetary and career terms, one of the primary barriers to female progression in the professions – a problem that continues into our own times. Craigie wanted the film to ask: ‘are we fully able to develop our personalities to the full? Are we playing our proper role in the community? How far have we progressed from the state of subjection in which John Stuart Mill found us back in the [eighteen] eighties?’ Craigie had already reached the conclusion that ‘we have not progressed far enough, [and] the film will show how and why’.
This prelude contextualised the more specific problem addressed in the film’s second half: equal pay. Craigie’s script equated pay with power and status in similar terms to the 2018 ‘What Women Want 2.0’ report. While she could not promise commercial success or even the completion of the film, Craigie offered a personal guarantee by asserting that, should she fail in this endeavour, her production company would be made bankrupt. She sought to reassure potential donors by declaring that she had ‘a Renoir painting from which [she had] no intention of being parted’.
To Be a Woman is of – and ahead of – its time. It asks the fundamental question: what does it mean to be a woman, and especially a woman at work? It confronts the issue of what women’s work is and has become, and the types of work men, and indeed some women, find acceptable for women. Craigie cleverly juxtaposes anti-feminist views – represented most starkly in the film by philosopher and well-known BBC radio presenter C. E. M. Joad – with facts, and she positions the women onscreen as experts. While Craigie centres on the problem of equal pay, she shows this to indicate a much wider problem.
Given recent headlines about the gender pay gap, the film leaves us questioning whether we are so very far from the general points made in Craigie’s film. How different is Craigie’s film to the March 2018 episode of Panorama on the gender pay gap? The main difference is that Panorama focused not only the pay disparities, and the issue of equal pay for equal work, but on the legal options now open to women in 2018 through, for example, the Equality Act (2010). These options were not open to women when To Be a Woman was first screened, and it was thanks to feminist campaigners like Craigie and organisations such as the EPCC that those legal options are there at all, flawed though they may be.
Excerpts from the Equal Pay Campaign Committee files and Jill Craigie’s ‘Why a Film?’, 6EPC/02/1/1-2, The Women’s Library collection, LSE Library. Reproduced by kind permission of LSE Library, custodian of The Women’s Library Collection.
Image: Women’s factory war work at Slough Training Centre, 1941, courtesy of Wiki Commons