Review: ‘9to5: The Story of a Movement,’ starring Karen Nussbaum, Ellen Cassedy, Verna Barksdale, Mary Jung, Jane Fonda, Renia Clay and Carol Sims

February 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

9to5 Cleveland activists, including Verna Barksdale (front row, third from left) and Mary Jung (front row, second from right)  in “9to5: The Story of a Movement” (Photo by Steve Cagan)

“9to5: The Story of a Movement”

Directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar

Culture Representation: The documentary “9to5: The Story of a Movement” features a predominantly white group (with some African Americans and a few Asians and Hispanics) of American women who were involved in the late 20th century activist movement advocating for gender and racial equality in the workplace.

Culture Clash: The activists got a lot of resistance from people who wanted the U.S. workforce to remain stuck in a culture that automatically gave the highest positions and preferential treatment to white men.

Culture Audience: “9to5: The Story of a Movement” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in feminism and historical, first-person accounts of civil rights activism in the United States.

Karen Nussbaum in “9to5: The Story of a Movement” (Photo courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and UrbanAffairs, Wayne State University)

The documentary “9to5: The Story of a Movement” shines a deserving spotlight on the activists who fought for gender equality in the U.S. workforce, beginning in the early 1970s. The mostly female group of advocates for these changes helped shape government polices and significantly altered the ways that employers were legally obligated to treat employees. There’s still a lot of progress to be made in the workforce when it comes to gender and racial equality, but the documentary gives an excellent overview of how the 9to5 movement made an essential and outstanding impact on society that can still be felt today.

Julie Reichert and Steven Bognar, the Oscar-winning directors of the 2019 documentary “American Factory,” helmed “9to5: The Story of a Movement,” which is another of their numerous documentaries that tackle workplace issues. Because “9to5” is a chronicle of events that happened in the past, it has an “oral history” format that mixes archival footage with exclusive documentary footage. In this documentary, it just so happens that everyone interviewed for the movie is a woman.

Reichert comments in the “9to5” production notes about the documentary having a female-only group of interviewees: “It felt so right. It was a movement of women, who were mostly brought up to see themselves as second-class, never as leaders, and who carried sexist baggage around in their heads. They persisted in figuring things out on their own, in creating and growing a real movement. There were some men involved, a few male clericals, and we met a handful of male activists too, but the movement was woman-led.”

The documentary, which has a lively conversational tone, opens with a montage of several of the women who were part of this movement talking about their own experiences in dead-end office jobs and/or being sexually harassed at work. Many of the women interviewed say that the main problem for employees, especially female employees, at the time was that “there was nowhere to go” to do something about discrimination and harassment. Some of the interviewees mention that they grew up in households where they were taught that women should not expect to have high career achievements in the way that men were expected to have. Other women describe growing up in progressive activist households that believed in civil rights for all.

Although the word “feminism” automatically conjures up images of politically liberal women, the documentary points out that women from all walks of life and various political persuasions supported the activism of the 9to5 movement. It’s just that a lot of them were a “silent majority” who weren’t out there participating in protests or marches. And in the end, the progress made by the movement improved working conditions and benefited many people, regardless of their personal politics.

The activist group 9to5 was founded in 1973 and gradually became the flashpoint for a lot of boycotts and protests that led to impactful policy changes for business and for government. The group also endured a lot of setbacks, obstacles and backlash from people who had a vested interest in having companies get away with discriminatory practices. Many of these practices—such as sexual harassment, discriminating against pregnant women, and denying job opportunities based on gender—are now illegal. It doesn’t mean that these bigoted practices have gone away, but employers can now be held liable for them.

9to5 co-founders Karen Nussbaum and Ellen Cassedy met as college students at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s. Nussbaum says she came from a family of anti-Vietnam War protestors. In a sense, she was born to be an activist. “My family was concerned about social justice,” Nussbaum comments in the documentary. “I learned there was strength in numbers.” Eventually, Nussbaum dropped out of college to focus on full-time political activism.

Cassedy also came from a family of civil rights activists. She remembers that her parents would show her what segregated neighborhoods looked like and would take her to civil rights marches and protests. And she remembers that the first time she meet Nussbaum, she was thought Nussbaum was “a little scary” because of Nussbaum’s militant way of looking at activism.

Nussbaum and Cassedy eventually moved to Boston, where they started a 9to5 newsletter in 1972, to focus on women’s issues in the workplace. Cassedy remembers the first newsletter, which was dated December 1972/January 1973, had more of a “let’s share a cup of coffee” tone than “women of the world unite” tone. Nussbaum says that her favorite letter from a newsletter reader had this comment that summed up the frustration of how women were usually treated on the job: “We are referred to as ‘girls’ until the day we retire without pension.”

As women began to share their workplace horror stories and hopes for ways that their work life could improve, it became obvious there was a huge need for women to band together to make changes in the workplace. And so, the 9to5 activist group was formed in a modest office space in Boston. Cassedy went to Midwest Academy to get business training on how to lead an activist group. Eventually, 9to5 expanded to more branches in other cities, until 9to5 was a group that spanned across the United States.

Dr. Lane Windham, a historian of American labor, provides historical context in the documentary and mentions that the 9to5 movement coincided with the massive surge of women entering the U.S. workforce in the 1970s. Most of the women’s work was clerical, but the sheer numbers of women in the workforce were larger than it had ever been before in U.S. history. These numbers could not be ignored, especially when 9to5 organized boycotts and employee walkouts to show the mostly male bosses that they shouldn’t take their underpaid employees for granted.

Of course, the movement didn’t come without a lot of resistance from people who hated the idea of women being treated equally and fairly on the job. Cassedy remembers after 9to5 held its first meeting with a male human-resources executive, he promised to make changes, but nothing happened. The activists soon learned how to turn performative talk into real action.

The documentary includes archival footage of how 9to5 would single out the worst bosses and employers in America and shame them in the media with protests outside their offices until policies were made at these companies to give gender equality on the job and put anti-discrimination rules in place. For example, 9to5 revealed to the media how the secretive Boston Survey Group engaged in the illegal practice of setting industry wages by gender. The subsequent media coverage and 9to5 protests forced the Boston Survey Group to be more transparent about its members and policies. Employers who were accustomed to discriminating against women were now being exposed and being held accountable.

In addition, 9to5 was instrumental in providing assistance to women and other employees experiencing discrimination, by referring them to legal aid that they could get for their cases. The 9to5 movement was also the first to establish the Office Workers Bill of Rights, which was used as a template for subsequent anti-discrimination legislation for employees. In 1983, 9to5 consolidated all of the local chapters of Working Women groups into its umbrella organization with the official title 9to5, National Association of Working Women.

All of this amazing work was the inspiration for the 1980 comedy film “9 to 5,” starring Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin, as three long-suffering administrative assistants who get revenge on their sexist and mean-spirited boss, played by Dabney Coleman. The filmmakers of the movie used real-life stories as the basis for many of the scenarios in the movie. Several people in the documentary comment that making the “9 to 5” feature film a comedy about serious issues made it easier for people to watch, but it also made people aware of how sexism in the workplace is ridiculous and that people don’t have to put up with it.

Fonda says in the documentary that when she became aware of the 9to5 movement and saw the tremendous response that the movement was getting, she thought, “I should make a movie about this!” Fonda and some of the other “9 to 5” filmmakers (such as director/co-screenwriter Colin Higgins, co-screenwriter Patricia Resnick and producer Bruce Gilbert) relied on the stories of real-life female workers to bring authenticity to the film. Fonda comments that the real-life working women, when asked if they ever had fantasies of killing their bosses, all replied “yes.” It’s the inspiration for the “revenge fantasy” sequence in the “9 to 5” comedy.

All jokes aside, Fonda has this to say about her experience making “9 to 5,” which was a big hit at the box office: “The entire time we were working on the movie, I could carry in my heart that it was married to a movement.” Fonda also remembers the first time that she heard Parton sing the “9 to 5” theme song, Fonda saw the hairs stand up on Tomlin’s arm, and Fonda says she knew instantly that the song would be an anthem for the 9to5 movement. Parton’s “9 to 5” song was also a chart-topping hit and earned an Oscar nomination and two Grammy nominations.

The documentary doesn’t gloss over some of the serious problems in the 9to5 organization, both internally and externally. Externally, the group hit several roadblocks when it renamed itself 925, relocated its headquarters in Cincinnati, and decided to form a union. The group chose Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as its labor union representative, because SEIU did something extraordinary at the time: It gave 9to5 control over its own budget. However, many of the people who supported the activism were afraid to join unions, in large part because they feared being fired by companies that intimidated employees into not to joining unions.

Internally, even among this group of civil rights activists, were some who were racist and disliked the idea of giving leadership positions to non-white women. Carol Sims of the Cleveland chapter remembers the resistance she got from 9to5’s nearly all-white campus in the Western part of Cleveland, where Sims (who’s African American) was chosen to organize and lead the group. “They said everything but ‘I want a white organizer.’ You could feel it in the room. They were tough,” Sims comments.

The other women of color interviewed in the documentary are Jackie Harris and Mary Jung of 9to5’s Cleveland chapter; Rosie Aguirre, a member of 925 Seattle; and Verna Barksdale, the first organizer of 9to5’s Seattle chapter. Jung, who is Chinese American, says that even in her own family, she got disapproval for her activism. Jung says that her mother was opposed to any lifestyle where she wasn’t a subservient wife and mother. However, Jung says she always had a rebellious streak and was surprised to find out after her mother died that her mother had kept newspaper clippings of all of Jung’s civil rights activism.

Several of the white leaders of 9to5 acknowledge in the documentary that their group wasn’t immune to racism from some of its members. But ultimately, that racism did not prevent women of color from having leadership positions in the group. Renia Clay, an activist from 9to5’s Atlanta chapter, says of the group’s racial integration and diversity: “I credit Verna Barksdale. She would always pair a black person with a white person, an older person with a younger person.”

Other activists who are interviewed in the documentary include 925 organizers Anne Hill, Cheryl Schaeffer and Adair Dammann; former Cincinnati clerical workers Donna Samuels, Inge Goldschmidt and Carolyn Schwier; and Kim Cook and Laurie Brown, who were 9to5 organizers in Seattle. What should be inspiring to anyone watching this documentary is that the people who began this movement and sustained it weren’t elite lawyers or career politicians but were mostly everyday working people who decided to take action.

“9to5: The Story of a Movement” is a well-told inside account of this important part of U.S. civil rights history. The film’s editing ties everything together in a cohesive manner and brings the movement into activism perspectives of today and beyond. The filmmakers chose their interviewees well. The women in the documentary bring a sense of humor to parts of the film, which is why “9to5” doesn’t have the type of egocentric posturing that can make historical documentaries too pompous and dull. This movie should be watched by anyone who cares about civil rights, as well as people who think that they don’t care about these important issues.

PBS’s “Independent Lens” series premiered “9to5: The Story of a Movement” on February 1, 2021.