March 1, 2013

"9to5" by Jen Benka

I could hear my mother trying to hold back her hearty laugh, but she couldn’t help herself and it bounced out anyway into the darkened movie theater. She leaned over to me and whispered, in between giggles, that what we were watching was “absolutely not funny.” She didn’t want me, her 12 year-old daughter, to get the wrong idea.

It was the scene in 9 to 5 in which three clerical workers—Violet (Lily Tomlin), Doralee (Dolly Parton), and Judy (Jane Fonda)—having kidnapped their boss, Franklin Hart, Jr. (Dabney Coleman), bind him in leather and chains, and suspend him several feet off the ground to prevent him from escaping.

“This is not…(laughing)…how you should deal…(laughing)…with a bad boss…” my mother continued. After the movie was over, she leaned over to me again and, this time with complete gravity, told me that women should be treated equally to men in the workplace and everywhere else for that matter. She asked me if I understood what she meant.

“Can we go see The Empire Strikes Back?” I asked.

Feminism was not something my mother claimed. “I missed the movement by about five years,” she’d tell me, although she was actually younger than Gloria Steinem. 

But by the time Steinem launched Ms. Magazine, my mother had been married for nearly ten years and had three babies. Very few women could take to the streets, my mother would explain, usually while handing me a book like Our Bodies Ourselves or The Second Sex. Most women of her generation “could chose from one of only three acceptable occupations: nurse, teacher, or secretary.” Thankfully, “things are better for you,” she’d say, always crediting feminism.

The movie 9 to 5 was written by a 26 year-old lesbian, Patricia Resnick, and a gay man, Colin Higgins, who had also written the screenplay for the film Harold and Maude.  Higgins died of AIDS at the age of 47 in 1988.

The idea for the film was not the screenwriters’, it was Jane Fonda’s. Resnick, in a December 3, 2008 interview with, noted that Fonda “had a lot of statistics about clerical workers and things that she wanted to say politically, and she wanted it to be couched in terms of a comedy.”

Fonda was energized to draw attention to women clerical workers’ issues after meeting a woman named Karen Nussbaum through the peace movement. Nussbaum was a founder of the nonprofit organization 9to5, National Association of Working Women, which advocates for women’s rights in the workplace and, this year, marks its 40th anniversary.

9to5’s national office is located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, my hometown, and, in 1995, fifteen years after seeing the movie with my mother, I had the great privilege of joining the staff.

Cindia Cameron
At 9to5 I worked with brilliant and inspirational women, including Cindia Cameron, 9to5’s National Organizing Director. Cindia coordinates issue campaigns, provides leadership and program development to organizers across the country and is an expert on issues including living wages, sexual harassment, and family friendly policies. She has worked for 9to5 since 1983.

I asked Cindia if she’d be so kind as to answer a few questions for Delirious Hem readers.

9to5 was founded in 1973 by clerical workers. How many women work in those kinds of positions today? Does 9to5 work with women working in other fields as well?

Between 2006 and 2010 about 4 million workers in the US were employed in the category of "secretaries and administrative assistants"; 96% of them were women, according to the US Census.  This was true in 1973.  Surprisingly, after decades of automation, computerization and downsizing, it is still true today that ‘administrative support’ is the largest job category for women.

The good news is that only one job title comes immediately to mind when we think of jobs that women have not yet broken into.  The bad news is that the ‘sticky floor’ is still as much or more of a problem than the glass ceiling.   The sticky floor are those ‘traditional’ women’s jobs: clerk, cashier, childcare worker, health care aide – where wages are low, benefits are few, and ‘advancement opportunities’ severely limited.

Beginning in the late 1980’s, 9to5 began hearing from women across the job spectrum about the need for family leave and for support in addressing sexual harassment and discrimination.  We also heard from low-wage women who cycled in and out of low-wage jobs and public assistance for these same reasons.  Our National Board of grassroots women leaders decided to expand the definition of our constituency from secretaries and clerical workers to ‘women who are most affected by workplace inequalities and economic injustices’.

What are the most pressing issues facing women in the workplace today?

Today girls can aspire to any job or career (yes, even President).  But if they are like the majority of women, they are still paid less than men with similar skills and education; face subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination in fields that are still ‘non-traditional’; are over-represented among minimum wage earners; and are twice as likely as men to ‘retire’ into poverty.  Large sectors of working women and men in the US still lack access to the most basic of family-supporting policies:  paid sick days and affordable family leave.

9to5’s Agenda is advocating for:

  • Jobs with benefits that pay enough to support families in dignity and offer hope for a better future.A pro-family workplace with flexible policies to allow us to work and support and protect our families.
  •  An end to all forms of discrimination in the workplace.

What are the victories 9to5 is most proud of?

9to5 was among the leading national organizations that worked for more than 8 years to win passage of the Family and Medical Act (celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2013).  This law has been used more than 1 million times by people needing leave for a new child or serious illness of the worker or immediate family member.

9to5 talked about the issue of workplace sexual harassment before this form of workplace discrimination was recognized as a violation of equal employment law.  We have educated thousands of working women, employers, union leaders, human resource professionals and legislators about this issue: how to identify, prevent and respond when it happens.  Through our Job Survival Helpline we have provided organizing tips, legal referrals and support to hundreds of women seeking a solution to this problem.

Celebrating our 40th anniversary this year, 9to5 has now trained at least two generations of low-wage women leaders to speak up, speak out and win change in workplace policy.  These women embody our mission: building a movement to achieve economic justice, by engaging directly affected women to improve working conditions.

Why are organizations like 9to5 important?

9to5 connects our members with a nationwide network of women and activists who care about working women’s issues. It empowers them with the tools and opportunities to make a difference on the issues that impact their lives. Here’s what some of our members say about why 9to5 is important:
“I am a member of 9to5 because I want to see the goal of workplace equality realized. 9to5 has provided recent important gains for workplace equality such as an increase in the minimum wage, working to defeat anti-equality ballot measures, providing pay equity legislation, and implementing family-friendly state legislation. 9to5 also has a hotline that workers can call when they face job issues and need answers.” —Crystal Carkhuff
“9to5’s work continues to amaze me, even after several years of being involved. Our work in economic justice especially is grassroots, fundamentally progressive, and committed to bettering the lives of all economically and socially vulnerable groups, especially in the work place. I am honored to be a directly affected woman acting as a leader and voice for 9to5’s work, because we are one of the few organizations that remains dedicated and true to our base and committed to our values while still winning important victories for working women and families.” Reagan Byrd
You can learn more about 9to5 here.

Jen Benka is the author of the poetry collections Pinko (Hanging Loose) and A Box of Longing With Fifty Drawers (Soft Skull). She was recently named the executive director of The Academy of American Poets.

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