The Incredible True Story Behind Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’
The new doc “9to5: The Story of a Movement” examines the real-life 9to5 movement of women office workers that inspired the iconic Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin film.
The working woman’s problems in 9 to 5, the Jane Fonda-starring feminist comedy about three secretaries’ revolt against their chauvinistic boss, only seem distant at first.
Yes, the movie is four decades old. Female office workers and secretaries are no longer the largest sector of the American workforce; 20 million women don’t roll on panty hose and sling on high heels every morning while staring down the barrel of another day of mind-numbing clerical work and coffee-fetching. The battle to end the gender pay gap and sexual harassment on the job still toils on. But the feminist movement of the 1970s organized resistance against male bosses who regarded the women around them at work as “office wives” and not fellow professionals. Female office workers took to the streets and brought their message to employers, legislatures, and pop culture.
Finally, women’s careers diversified; cultural attitudes changed. For many Americans, the oppressed secretary’s struggle for respect and recognition now seems frozen in time, stiff as the four-inch halo of hairspray curls around every woman’s head in 9 to 5.
But right at the end of the movie, just before we toast champagne with Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin in their newly egalitarian office, 9 to 5 reveals a more radical vision of the workplace than the simple eradication of every “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” (Like their boss, who gets relocated to Brazil.) Tomlin rattles off new employee benefits and accommodations including an in-office daycare center, flexible hours, a job-sharing program, even resources for recovering alcoholics—on top of the basic things like robust health care, equal pay, and the catharsis of watching a serial sexual harasser shipped off the continent. Workers are happier and more productive, making higher-ups happy too. It’s a gleaming example of how functional and humane work can be.
Imagine that. And imagine how 40 years later, securing just a fraction of those work benefits is still a distant dream for the average, non-billionaire American.
The secretaries’ revolution in 9 to 5 unfolds over a matter of weeks. It has the perfect happy ending, soundtracked by the genius anti-capitalist anthem Parton wrote and performed for the movie. (It’s hard not to be radicalized by the catchiness of “9 to 5, yeah they’ve got you where they want you / There’s a better life, and you think about it, don’t you? / It’s a rich man’s game, no matter what they call it / And you spend your life putting money in his wallet.”)
But it was inspired and drawn directly from the work of real-life organizers who fought far longer and harder for an outcome less clear-cut and triumphant. Those women are no longer secretaries, but their work is ongoing today—monumental if largely unheralded, as it was back then.
Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert (Oscar winners for last year’s American Factory) track the rise of these little-known heroines of the labor movement in the documentary 9to5: The Story of a Movement, now playing via the DOC NYC Festival. Told mostly through interviews with the women whose office rebellions inspired the movie and song, it offers a diverse cross-section of sometimes funny, sometimes galling, often emotional and intimate stories about the push for change. It’s a how-to guide of sorts for future organizers, chronicling the day-in, day-out minutia of building a nationwide movement from scratch. And it’s a reminder of the enormous collective power of everyday workers, especially the underappreciated and underestimated among them.
Just look to the handful of young female office workers in Boston who met in the fall of 1972, looking to trade stories about their dead-end jobs at the mercy of entitled men. Led by a typist and a clerical worker, they took to calling their “little lunchtime group” simply “9to5.”
The name eventually functioned like a secret code, drawing generations of fed-up secretaries and office workers out of the shadows to commiserate. In less than 10 years, it became an organized movement and pop-culture phenomenon, dedicated to upending the hierarchies that kept working women stuck in place in ways their male coworkers rarely recognized. (As one secretary put it in an early “9to5” newsletter: “We’re referred to as ‘girls’ until the day we retire without pension.”) But before the Dolly Parton song and the nationwide protests and walkouts, it began with two socially conscious twentysomethings uncertain of how to bring about change.
Ellen Cassedy and Karen Nussbaum were friends from college when they took clerical jobs at Harvard. Each had grown up attending anti-war and anti-segregation protests, but Nussbaum was the born organizer. When Cassedy was hired, Nussbaum had already gathered a group of 10 or so female office workers to meet over lunch and discuss their jobs. They developed a language for articulating workplace problems and talked about expanding the group into a citywide organization. They printed newsletters and leaflets on pink paper and stood at the entrances of subways in office attire, handing them to women on their way to work.
Soon, they’d drafted a list of demands for Harvard’s director of personnel that included health coverage, a track for promotions, and respect. In grainy archive footage of the meeting, a nervous, curly-haired man sits outnumbered in a room full of young women. He shifts uncomfortably, fingers clasped together. “The big revelation was that his hands were trembling,” Cassedy remembers. “We were terrified. But he was, too.”
Their demands went nowhere, of course, but that the meeting had happened at all was enough encouragement in itself—the group just needed to figure out what to do next. Enter the Midwest Academy in Chicago, a kind of progressive boot camp where 9to5 sent Cassedy as a representative. There, she learned the essentials of organizing: how to engage people who are affected, how to define and simplify the issues, the importance of creating a meeting place, and how to design actions and campaigns that can be feasibly won and claimed publicly. It was not easy for her, a naturally shy person who’d held signs and chanted slogans at protests but had never led or organized anything herself.
9to5 is at its most rousing while chronicling these early days of the movement, as ordinary women like Cassedy find their voices and, full of uncertain stops and starts, help others find theirs too. It does so in granular detail, creating a balanced and valuable picture of the doggedness and conviction required to break new ground. As the doc explains, the plight of female office workers at the time was all but invisible. Women were new to the workforce in such numbers, with 12 million more working by the end of the ’70s than at the beginning. Not even the women’s liberation movement had yet taken office workers into account—so it took considerable guts for the first of them to rebel.
The doc also grants access to a treasure trove of artifacts from the group’s earliest days. We see personal photos of the women marching or handing out leaflets or strategizing in meetings, most of them young, many with feathered hair or oversized glasses. Old newsletters and leaflets printed with the group’s unofficial emblem, a rose growing out of a typewriter, flash onscreen long enough to read snippets of aggrieved write-in letters.
Soon, we see the group’s numbers grow enough to rent a (tiny) office and hire members full-time. They pass out surveys in front of office buildings, uncovering a host of long-festering issues: sexual harassment, low salaries, no raises or promotions, rampant sex and racial discrimination, no sick leave. A question asks whether the respondent performs duties outside her job description. One answer, written out in impeccable cursive: “What job description?”
The film’s scope expands after 9to5’s first high-profile victory: an across-the-board 10 percent raise for the office workers at certain insurance companies and big banks. (They had discovered that these companies were meeting in secret and fixing wages in consultation with one another, which is illegal. Nussbaum articulates that lesson loud and clear: “Your boss is organized. You better be organized too.”) Women in distant cities began to contact 9to5 and set up chapters across the country. And heroic figures like Verna Barksdale, the first organizer of 9to5 Atlanta, and Mary Jung, the founder of 9to5 Cleveland, enter the fray.
Verna’s and other Black women’s testimonies in particular highlight one of the more crucial fissures in the movement. The Boston chapter, for instance, led by white women, found it difficult to recruit Black members. “Nobody believes you want to help them if you don’t ever socialize with them,” Verna had to remind them. Conversely, white female office workers in the western suburbs of Cleveland often made Black 9to5 organizers, sent there at their request, feel unwelcome. “They said everything but ‘I want a white organizer,’” one remembers.
The fight to unionize sets up one of the documentary’s most eye-opening retellings. To better serve its cause, 9to5 needed to become a division of a larger existing union—organizations whose sole purpose is to advocate for workers’ rights and benefits. But workers’ unions at the time were often male-dominated, and the women of 9to5 faced some of the same condescension and belligerent sexism from them as they did from their employers. One man, Nussbaum remembers, told them it was impossible to unionize women because “they think with their cunts, not their brains.” Others were clueless, muttering about how they’d get more organizing done if only they “could just get a girl in here to answer the phones.”
As for the movie, Jane Fonda herself sits down to tell the story. (And, it must be said, unleashes a magnificently ramshackle Southern accent for an impression of Dolly Parton on the day she unveiled the song to her and Tomlin.) She had heard stories from Nussbaum about what female office workers were enduring. “They were jaw-dropping,” she says, “and so I started to think I should make a movie about this.” Accompanied by archival footage of herself in 1978, the actress and activist recalls meeting with the women of the Cleveland 9to5 office and asking if they ever fantasized about killing their boss. “Every single one of them had a fantasy,” she laughs, claiming that each of the three fantasies in the film were borrowed from real-life, fed-up office workers.
9to5 did eventually unionize on their second attempt in 1981, after failing to muster up enough votes two years earlier. But they were up against almost impossible odds: the rise of the union-busting industry was flourishing under Reagan. And anti-feminist activists like Phyllis Schlafly had narrowly managed to kill the Equal Rights Amendment. 9to5’s division of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) did succeed in organizing nationwide walkouts and negotiating pay raises, professional development, family health benefits, paid leave, child care, fair treatment guarantees, among other benefits for their members. But it wasn’t built to last.
A transforming economy (and the advent of computers) soon meant that fewer and fewer women were working as secretaries, and SEIU Division 925 never grew enough to stay independent. (Some local chapters of the group have survived and still fight for low-wage women workers in fields like child care and education.) The documentary scatters a bit as it strains to underline parallels between the 9to5 movement and the renewed fervor driving modern protests like the Women’s March—a less-than-ideal comparison considering the relative emptiness of the latter.
But at its best, the film will be a long-overdue introduction for many to the women whose efforts improved the lives of all workers, not just women, and whose work highlighting workplace issues like sexual harassment created the foundation activists are still building on today. And, to their credit, Bognar and Reichert seem to understand that a movement’s shortcomings and mistakes are just as instructive as its victories. Their film makes the case that collective power is not only essential to the modern worker, but that anyone with the guts to do it can organize themselves.
Still, there’s a note of melancholy amid all that resolve. Nussbaum admits she wrestles with the question of where all that fire and momentum goes when a movement stalls. “When people are ready to fight and they engage in the fight and then they don’t win or they don’t win everything, where does that go? Is it gone?” she asks. “Do you have to rebuild the whole thing? Or does it stay underground, and then you have to re-emerge again?” Fonda shuts her eyes for a moment and laughs, for a rare moment sounding exhausted. “There’s so much work to be done,” she says.
She knows from decades of experience who’ll be on the front lines. “Women lead the way. They always have and they always will. If you’re not part of the status quo, what have you got to lose? So we’ll always be braver.”