Why 9 to 5 Still Resonates Today

A new documentary goes inside the making of the classic labor-feminist movie 9 to 5 — and shows how many of the problems it lampooned still plague working women today.

Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda in 9 to 5. (20th Century Fox)

When Dolly Parton first tapped out the beat to her iconic song 9 to 5 more than forty years ago, a movement of working women was taking off. 9 to 5 the movie catapulted those women’s demands for rights and respect into the public debate, legitimizing the often-unspoken grievances of the growing women’s workforce.

We’ve seen some progress. Women are no longer restricted to a handful of occupations, and sexual harassment is no longer a personal shame but a public scandal. But the sensible reforms mentioned in the film — equal pay, childcare, flexible hours — are still out of reach. As Dolly says in the new documentary, Still Working 9 to 5, “It’s forty years later, and it’s still important.”

I know 9 to 5 well. I was friends with Jane Fonda from the antiwar movement, and my stories about organizing women office workers in our national association 9to5 and our union SEIU 925, inspired her to make the film, as she describes in the documentary made by Camille Hardman and Gary Lane. The documentary has delightful information about the film I didn’t know, along with insights on the fight for women’s equality.

A few highlights: It turns out that Lily Tomlin backed out twice because she didn’t think the script was funny; she eventually decided the opportunity to work with Fonda was too important to pass up. The studio was nervous because the film had three female leads and wanted a movie star as the boss; Bruce Gilbert, the producer and Fonda’s business partner, prevailed in casting Dabney Coleman in that role.

Lilly Ledbetter, who sued Goodyear Tire for sex discrimination in 1998 and for whom the 2009 Fair Pay Act is named, saw 9 to 5 when it came out. When she became a supervisor, some men resented taking orders from a woman and made her job difficult. She even feared for her life at times on the dangerous factory floor. She took comfort in the film. “I think back,” she says, “and Jane and Dolly and Lily encouraged me.”

And in a moment of bizarre self-awareness, Harvey Weinstein, an investor and producer of the 9 to 5 musical, explains why the production is a success: “It’s women’s emancipation. Secondly, it’s about women wanting to kill their boss. And third of all, I know that everyone in my company wants to kill me.”

Weinstein’s screen time aside, Still Working 9 to 5 is fun, including when the stars of the film, TV show, and musical deliver the messages: “Don’t put up with shit,” Allison Janney says. “Stand up for yourselves,” says Rita Moreno. “I’m not going to take it anymore!” Jane Fonda cries. Dolly summed it up: “It touched a nerve. It resonated with enough people that right out of the box it kept getting bigger and bigger.”

Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton in Still Working 9 to 5 (Still Working 9 to 5 LLC).

Why does it resonate today?

Far fewer women are actually still working 9-to-5 these days. Secretaries and administrative assistants were the top occupation for women by a mile in 1980, and the occupation is still overwhelmingly women — 95 percent. But it now comes in fourth after teachers, nurses, and health aides as the top occupations for women, according to the US Department of Labor Women’s Bureau. More women may be working 7 AM to 3 PM, the evening shift, or have no fixed hours at all, while many office workers and professionals are on call long after the work day ends. But while the jobs and hours may have changed, the issues haven’t gone away.

In 2019, I met with about fifty working women in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Washington, DC, to get their thoughts on a possible sequel to 9 to 5. “We’re working more like 24-7, but I had to stand up and shout ten minutes into this film,” a woman named Brenda told me. “I couldn’t believe how many of the problems are still with us.”

“Childcare center? I feel like I have to hide the fact that I have kids,” said Sheila. One woman captured the anger of the Lily Tomlin character: “I have to swallow all the fury and frustration in order to just show up to the bullshit at work, because the bullshit pays the bills.”

Social scientists confirm that the agenda is unfinished. The Harvard Business Review reports that, since the 1990s, the move toward workplace gender equality has slowed:

Sociologist Paula England has called this phenomenon an uneven and stalled gender revolution, and there have been dozens of studies showing how the progress in gender equality experienced during and immediately after the feminist movement of the 1970s has not been sustained.

With the pandemic, the problem is not just a stalled agenda but a major setback. And with a supermajority of conservative judges on the Supreme Court, we’ll see the end of abortion rights and a likely erosion of workplace and civil rights for women and people of color.

This isn’t the first time American women have had to start over. Louis Menand, in his book The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold World, writes, “By many measures, American women were worse off in 1963 than they had been in 1945 or even in 1920. In 1920, 20 percent of PhDs were awarded to women; in 1963, it was 11 percent. Forty-seven percent of college students were women in 1920; in 1963, 38 percent.” Women were largely absent in professions and public life. And even the gender pay gap was greater in 1963 than it had been in 1951.

It took social movements in the 1960s and 70s to restore progress to women who had lost so much ground and leap forward. The success of 9 to 5 in 1980 captured that momentum and promised a future of positive change — a promise that, as Still Working 9 to 5 will remind you, still hasn’t been fulfilled.