The Labor Feminism of 9to5 Should Guide Our Organizing Today

For today’s feminists, labor militants, and socialists, the vision of feminist labor organizing that guided the women’s white-collar organizing project 9to5 — and immortalized in the classic comedy 9 to 5 starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton — should still be our north star.

Archival footage of women from the 9to5 Movement striking in the 1970s from the documentary 9to5: The Story of a Movement.

It’s hard to imagine, but the zany 1980 fantasy-comedy film 9 to 5, starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin, was initially going to be a drama. When Fonda took on the project of making a movie about the exploitation, harassment, abuse, and mistreatment women suffered in the workplace, she approached it with all the seriousness she thought the topic called for.

Fonda had been friends with Boston clerical worker and labor leader Karen Nussbaum for years, having met in the anti–Vietnam War movement, and Nussbaum kept her abreast of the state of things for women workers. It was dire: women faced rampant sexism in the office, were regularly passed over for job opportunities in favor of less-qualified male counterparts, often made half of men’s salaries, and had little to no protections at work.

In response, Nussbaum, along with fellow Harvard office worker Ellen Cassedy, founded a Boston-based organization called 9to5 in 1972. Growing out of a local newsletter titled 9to5: Newsletter for Boston Area Office Workers, 9to5 brought women office workers together to organize for better conditions at work. They built a new model of organizing, somewhere between the labor and women’s movements, harnessing the energy behind rising feminist struggles while also recognizing that women organizing as workers was essential and powerful.

“On the one hand, we were building a wing of the women’s movement that was for working women, who didn’t otherwise identify with the women’s movement,” Nussbaum told me in an interview. (You can read the interview in full here.) “This was a way to expand the women’s movement to a new group of women who otherwise weren’t getting there. And we were bringing the women’s movement into the labor movement. So we were trying to create a home for working women in the women’s movement, and for women in the labor movement.”

To accomplish this, 9to5 appealed to women workers through tactics full of humor and personal connection. They held mock contests, such as one for the “pettiest office task,” once awarded to a secretary who had to sew up the crotch of her boss’s pants while he was still wearing them. They made up songs and funny slogans; one flyer featured an illustration of a stick of dynamite struck in a high-heel shoe and read “women in insurance: an explosive situation.” They “pilloried these bosses by name,” as Nussbaum puts it. “We would take the press with us to go announce who the bad boss was that year.”

“We did things that were fun because we wanted to have fun,” Nussbaum says. “It wasn’t a tactic so much as we wanted to build the kind of organization we would want to join.”

The tongue-in-cheek-ness lowered the barrier of entry for the white-collar workers 9to5 was organizing and made their message easier to deliver. Upon seeing this and understanding its appeal, Fonda quickly changed course: she would make an over-the-top comedy instead, a kind of movie-length narrative that channeled the spirit of the hilarious-yet-deadly-serious gags 9to5 was staging in the streets.

For the last four decades, that Hollywood film has been the principal cultural production tying us back to that lost labor history. Now, a new documentary, 9to5: The Story of a Movement, directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar (directors of American Factory), brings 9to5’s history to us in full detail. The documentary offers a history of the kind of class-rooted feminist struggle that socialists should take up today.

Feminist Victories That Endure

9to5 started by pressuring the state to enforce affirmative action and set new regulations against gender discrimination. Eventually, they began taking direct action against companies: in 1975, after discovering through a survey issued by 9to5 that Boston publishing companies were paying women significantly less than men, they issued a class-action lawsuit for gender and racial discrimination.

In Knocking on Labor’s Door, labor historian Lane Windham, who provides historical commentary in the documentary, writes that “companies were shocked by the lawsuits, which seemed to come out of the blue in an industry that was not unionized and was not used to any sort of worker collective action.”

Archival footage from the documentary 9to5: The Story of a Movement.

Eventually, the association affiliated with SEIU to form sister union Local 925 and later grew into a national association called 9to5: National Association of Working Women. By 1981, organizers had also formed SEIU District 925, representing office and clerical workers nationally. This dual-organization model allowed 9to5 to recruit women potentially wary of joining a union in a male-dominated labor movement.

Windham posits, and Nussbaum agrees, that while 9to5 did not achieve their original goal of “seeding” the labor movement with militant women workers, they did transform women’s treatment in the workplace. Years of organizing for better benefits, equal wages, and “raises not roses” (a reference to the office custom of giving roses to secretaries on their work anniversary), resulted not only in material wins for women workers, but also in a significant cultural shift in women’s expectations for how they deserved to be treated at work.

The documentary cleverly juxtaposes 9to5’s victories with scenes from television shows from the era, including one that shows a disgustingly lecherous male boss chasing his terrified secretary around a desk as a supposedly humorous gag.

Those cultural shifts — basic respect for women workers on the job, ending scrutiny of women’s bodies in the workplace, curbing the scourge of casual sexual harassment — were able to endure, Nussbaum told me, even though many of 9to5’s economic wins were beaten back.

Cultural changes “couldn’t be resisted, because there was a lot of organizing behind them, but the economic changes were smashed, and economic power was gone after in a very serious way. The ’70s saw the rise of the working women’s movement and the rise of the union busting movement at the same time.”

The Hollywood movie played a huge role in effecting this cultural shift. 9 to 5 follows the story of three office workers — Judy Bernly (a dowdy Jane Fonda in her Sunday best), Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton, in her big-screen debut), and Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin, tough and pissed off as ever) — who kidnap their boss and take over the management of their office after a series of mishaps leads them to believe Violet is responsible for their boss’s near-death.

Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton in the film 9 to 5 (1980).

The movie holds up, both because we’re still suffering so much of the same bullshit at work, and because it’s an absolute trip. It captures the common, horrendous sexist indignities of work, like how everyone in the office thinks Doralee is sleeping with the boss, at the same time that it shows the quick solidarity built when people decide to team up against their common enemy. In the scene that unleashes the real rising action of the film, Violet gets a joint from her son and invites Judy and Doralee to an “old fashioned ladies’ pot party.”

High off their asses, they each fantasize about what they’d do to Hart. Violet, dressed as Snow White and with the help of some little blue cartoon birds, puts poison in Hart’s coffee, then pushes an incapacitated Hart out the office window. Wearing a shiny ’80s cowgirl get-up, her hair a fluffy white pouf on top of her head, Doralee sits behind Hart’s desk and flips the script on him: she tells him to turn around so she can “check out his bod,” orders him to “take it off” (“it” being his necktie), and then walks around the desk, right up to Hart, puts her hand behind his head, and presses it into her cleavage.

When he tries to run away, she lassos him as an off-screen voice narrates the scene as though it were a real, live rodeo: “Let’s see how long it takes you to hog-tie this sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” For her part, Judy catches Hart in his darkened office. Holding a rifle, ammo strips crossing her chest, her voice a cool, cooing octave lower than in the rest of the movie, she tells Hart: “You’re a wart on the nose of humanity, and I’m going to blast it off.” She does.

The fantasy ends up coming true. When, after ending up in the hospital, Hart finds out (through office manager and class traitor Roz) that Violet had accidentally put rat poison in his coffee, our three heroines have no choice but to kidnap him to shut him up. Doralee hog-ties him in his office with a phone cord. When he tries to get away, Judy shoots him with a small pistol she finds in Doralee’s purse.

The three get a taste of revenge — and they want more. When they learn Hart has been committing fraud, they set out to find hard documents to prove it, and buy themselves time by setting up a complex contraption to keep Hart in his room that involves a motorized garage door opener and a leather dog collar. It’s a BDSM fantasy with all of the sadism and none of the sex.

In Hart’s absence (during which no one misses him; in fact, no one seems to know what he had done all day), the trio takes over the workplace. Of course, they know the ins and outs of the office, know exactly what each worker needs and how to make it happen. They institute flexible schedules and job-sharing, which allow women with children to work and be able to spend time with their kids. They repaint the office lockers from a drab gray to a cheery yellow and give everyone raises.

Eventually, the boss comes back and tries to take credit for the changes but cannot. After years of getting passed over in favor of men she trained herself, Violet is finally promoted.

We’re meant to see that as a victory, and in 1980, when the film came out, it was. Few women could have dreamed of such professional success before. But the opportunities for ascension by women in the workplace since second-wave feminism lay bare the progress made by the feminist movement and its limitations: now we are liberated to be exploited by women bosses.

Of course, feminist and labor organizers in the 1970s and ’80s faced giant obstacles in the face of a newly vicious attack on workers by the rich, and anti-communism amid the Cold War. They made a wager: go for what’s winnable, bring in as many people as possible, build the movements, and make change.

Meanwhile, the bosses made wagers, too: if they let enough educated women into the higher echelons of the workforce, gave them access to good jobs and better pay, that they could take enough steam out of the organizing women were doing in the labor movement to neutralize it.

“There was all this pressure on employers, as well as lawsuits and demands for unionization,” Nussbaum tells me.

By 1980, employers decided they would use a safety valve. They decide to give on the issues of promotions and letting women in on the good jobs. So women, particularly white, middle-class and upper-middle-class women, over the next decade or two become managers and professionals. They split the workforce. They split the college-educated women, give them opportunities and shut them up, and downgrade work for the rest, for working-class women.

This split remains today. The break-through-the-glass-ceiling feminism of the 80s and 90s that got Violet her promotion made wins for some women and left others in the same, or worse, shape than before. The vestiges of this remain with us today in the form of boss-bitch feminism: the exaltation of women CEOs, the calls to “lean in” to get ahead at work, the insistence that you can “do it all,” on your own, without a man, without anyone, in fact. It’s a feminism that’s both gender-essentialist, in its reinforcing of men and women as two competing and intractable categories, and anti-solidaristic.

While working-class women got stuck with low wages, bad benefits, and less collective power, the women who were able to break through to the better jobs became, as Nussbaum puts it, “individually self-reliant but collectively powerless.”

Still, 9to5 was able to make huge gains for women in the workplace. The Reichert and Bognar documentary makes that clear, showing how women who had never organized before were able to find their voice and power through collective action. Verna Barksdale, a 9to5 organizer in Atlanta, describes the tasks of the organization as “not only fighting for employee rights, but having women develop themselves.”

Through this investment, and through their fight for material improvements in the workplace, 9to5 was able to bring an end to the humiliating and degrading conditions that had marked women’s working lives for decades. No longer did they have to simultaneously be doting mother, caring daughter, and sexualized plaything for their bosses just to eke out a living. Those changes have lasted until today. But their work remains incomplete. When Cassedy and Nussbaum started 9to5, they had a vision for a “big, national mass-based organization” that would bridge racial differences and espouse the values of the feminist movement while flexing the power of organized labor. For today’s new generation of feminists, labor militants, and socialists, that vision should still be our north star.