One of the most interesting of filmmakers to emerge from Britain’s rich tradition of documentary, Jill Craigie, is also someone whose work is hard to see. Therefore it’s great news that her 18 minute film To be a Woman (1951) is now available on the BFI’s excellent collection of postwar British documentary, Shadows of Progress. Here’s hoping that her other films Out of Chaos (1944), The Way We Live (1946), Children of the Ruins (1948) and Blue Scar (1949) also enjoy release soon - some way, somehow. To be a Woman was co-sponsored by the National Union of Women Teachers and the Equal Pay Campaign Committee, and it makes a watertight case for equal pay legislation, addressing all the usual objections to its implementation. A man who may have a family to support should be paid more than a spinster? Well in that case, why shouldn’t bachelors and spinsters be paid exactly the same then? Why should sex be the differential factor? And what about the fact that many spinsters have dependents such as parents and more than half of male workers have no dependents at all? The documentary’s core point is that under the existing system ‘women are cheap labour’, and that this has deleterious side-effects for both male and female employment, not to mention being fundamentally unfair; as Labour politician Ian Mikardo points out in the film, ‘the same job done in the same way’ merits the ‘same rate of pay’ (it’s depressing to note that equal pay legislation was not brought into force in British law until 1975, and there still exists a significant pay gap between the sexes).
One of the glories of the film is Wendy Hiller’s wonderfully astringent voice-over narration, coldly furious in places, wittily sarcastic in others (C. E. M. Joad’s reactionary views on women are introduced as evidence that even misogynists can be ‘quite lucid’ on occasion), and never less than engaging. Elizabeth Lutyens’ timpani-dominated music for the film is aurally striking and strikes quite an ominous note, and the composer also makes an appearance in the film as one of a number of notable female professionals in areas ranging from trade unionism to engineering to the arts. Arguing for the necessity of equal pay for men and women is the immediate remit of To be a Woman – and it does this forcefully and eloquently - but the film goes beyond that single issue into a broader question: ‘What does it mean in 20th century Britain to be a woman?’ What is the difference between the life of an everywoman in Victorian Britain and an everywoman in 1951? Library pictures of Suffragette marchers embedded in the film act as a salutary history lesson, and a reminder that rights are rarely freely given; they have to be fought for. Otherwise even legitimate demands will be indefinitely postponed: as Hiller’s voiceover states, ‘Now never is the time.’