From a certain angle, feminist film would seem to be enjoying a field day. Hollywood royalty have recently dazzled onscreen as Gloria Steinem, Madame Curie, and paleontologist Mary Anning. Wonder Woman 1984 is heralded the first #Metoo Superhero movie. A Promising Young Woman has become a vigilante anthem.
But, as many critics have pointed out, the manner in which we as a society tend to examine historic and current gender inequality so often caters to white, middle class, liberal concerns, lionizing individual players at the expense of an ensemble cast. “The narratives might be different — here a woman is trying to climb her way to the top of the chess hierarchy, here a woman is trying to climb her way to the top of the political hierarchy,” argues culture critic Jessa Crispin, “but the structures of the story are similar, and in each one there is someone in historical garb, whether that be a petticoat or a cute little Chanel suit set ….”
What about those women who don’t aim for the creative or professional “top” — who simply aspire to lead their daily lives treated with respect and paid a livable wage? The women who will never wear Chanel, or want to watch a Chanel biopic? What about all the working women who comprise over two thirds of low-wage labor today?
9to5: The Story of a Movement is a step toward filling that gap. Easily one of the most overlooked docs of the year, it tackles one of the most overlooked chapters in feminism’s history. Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert (whose American Factory nabbed the 2020 Oscar for Best Documentary), 9to5 chronicles the lives — and collective rise — of women office workers in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Eclipsed in name by the Dolly, Jane, and, Lily comedy that smashed the box office in 1980, the actual “District 925” labor movement took seed in Boston in 1972 and Cleveland in 1977, and by the late ’70s it had sprouted up in 25 cities across the country.
Who made it happen? Kim Cook. Mary Jung. Debbie Schneider. Verna Barksdale. Karen Nussbaum. Renia Clay. Ellen Cassedy. And so many others most of us have never heard of. By the mid-’70s female clerical workers were the largest sector of the national workforce — exceeding manufacturers, construction workers, and retail by some measure. As 9to5 reveals, that meant 20 million invisible office workers — typing till their hands were numb, replacing pair after pair of snagged stockings, and enduring workplace conditions inconceivable today. It was legal to fire a woman for being pregnant or for averting a boss’s sexual advances. There was no recourse for clerical workers’ lost wages, nor a clear path for professional advancement. “We are referred to as girls until we retire without pension,” reads a column from a secretary zine, one of the many forms of media that connected indignant workers. “Get the coffee, pick up the dry-cleaning, pick up the holiday presents for the staff and for his family members …,” lists Mary Jung, former leader of the Cleveland chapter.
Meanwhile, almost all of the women were earning a pittance. While some who started organizing, like 9to5 cofounder Karen Nussbaum, had grown up in families that valued social justice, most women were initially — and, as we learn, justifiably — wary of fighting “the man.” Corporate bosses, for many, kept the lights on. Rose Aguirre, the daughter of farm workers who later joined the Seattle chapter, shares how at first she wasn’t sure the union was for her, but she ultimately decided, “If it’s women representing the work I do, of course I’m going to get involved.”
The testimony of this diverse body of women is the life force of the film — women ranging in age today from around 60 to their late 80s, women from Cincinnati, Seattle, Cleveland, and Atlanta, women who are white, Latina, Black, and Asian, some college educated and just as many not. “There were the feminists who were the young ones, and were very instrumental in developing the union,” recounts organizer Adair Dammann. “But the really militant women were the 55-year-old divorced women, who would say, ‘I am not a feminist, but this is not right.’ If we are building institutions of power, we have to get rid of what we think they should look like and build them more organically.”
The doc doesn’t shy from the tensions — and racism — that inevitably surfaced among the women as 9to5 expanded. “We tried to deal with race issues straight on and felt it was critical to have a diverse leadership,” explains Nussbaum. Verna Barksdale, the founding organizer for Atlanta, for instance, would pair a white with a Black person, an older with a younger person. “That helped form relationships within the organization,” asserts Renia Clay. “[Barksdale] was an absolute leader in 9to5.”
With such a pan-generational and multiracial coalition, the secretary dynamics onscreen often clash in subtle, illuminating ways. Breck hair shimmers next to stiff bouffants; pantyhose march along belted pantsuits. Women dishing their complaints to each other — over cigarettes, picnics, secret lunches — comprise much of the archival footage that buttresses the film. Many considered “demonstrations” too radical for their taste, so referred to them as “actions.” “Clerical workers unite!” read a series of hand-painted posters raised in an action outside one bank’s headquarters. “Raises not Roses!” women shout in another action, mocking the chivalrous traditions of National Secretary’s Day.
By 1981, the spirit of 9to5 had gone mainstream, but the ad-hoc nature of the organization lacked the ability to actually help women facing sudden unemployment, harassment, or some other injustice. An added challenge to the women was convincing the bigger, legally enforceable unions to take their objections, and objectives, seriously. Launching a new chapter was no easy feat amid the already extant patriarchal hierarchies. Ass-pinching, crude jokes, and condescension were the norm. “You can’t organize women because they think with their cunts, not their brains,” one male union leader told Nussbaum. “We didn’t think that would be a home for us,” she laughs, looking at the camera.
Ultimately, in March 1981, SEIU (Service Employees International Union) — the same union currently working on behalf of both fast food workers and adjunct university professors — emerged as the best match, ensuring that women organizers were paid as much as male organizers. “We were going to be run by women and change the labor movement,” reflects Kim Cook.
The film culminates in a Cincinnati secretary strike wherein hundreds of women left their desks at 10 in the morning and went outside. “It was so much bigger than we thought it would be,” remembers Donna Samuels. “It was our day, and nothing was going to stop it. It changed everything.” Eventual 9to5 wins included family health benefits, raises, child care, and paid leave.
During the closing credits, we see what lofty titles some of these organizers attained — chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, Head of the Labor Women’s Bureau, CFO at the Union of Concerned Scientists, SEIU international vice president — but for each woman who achieved a leadership position, hundreds more continued to do office work.
“Whatever job you do, it’s about the dignity that you have as a person doing that work,” says Aguirre. “I’m not just a secretary. I’m a secretary.” Real feminism isn’t about buying your own Louboutins or how many females are Fortune 500 CEOs, but how much we seek to improve the lives of women of the majority — childcare workers, teachers, and other service employees.
Justice for Janitors, teacher unions, fast food workers, a $15 minimum wage. What is good for low-wage workers is good for women, and it’s about time that a movie today makes that movingly clear.
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