AFI Documentary Film Festival, Review- 9to5: The Story of A Movement

Year: 2020

Runtime: 89 Minutes

Directors: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert

Stars: Karen Nussbaum, Ellen Cassedy, Verna Barksdale, Jane Fonda

By Valerie Kalfrin

The phrase “9 to 5” spurs thoughts of a catchy Dolly Parton song from the wry 1980 comedy where Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda played secretaries wanting revenge against their sexist boss.

But that film actually took its inspiration from the real shoe-leather efforts of female office workers in the 1970s who took to the streets to demand better pay, benefits, and respect on the job. The documentary “9to5: The Story of A Movement,” part of the 2020 AFI DOCS Film Festival, includes Fonda’s admiration for these women and puts these organizers front and center.

Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who previously teamed on the Oscar-winning documentary “American Factory” (available on Netflix), largely build an impressive look at what it takes to get a labor movement off the ground. The film loses some focus in the last stretch, but not before showing the need for such representation and the challenges these often funny and feisty women faced.

“Intercut with clips from “Mad Men” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the film shows how by the 1970s, even with millions of women handling clerical jobs, the overarching impression of a laborer was a guy in a hardhat.”

Advertisements pitching clerical work as “important to women” open the film, complete with one beleaguered typist doing “finger gymnastics” so she can keep pecking away at the keyboard. Intercut with clips from “Mad Men” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the film shows how by the 1970s, even with millions of women handling clerical jobs, the overarching impression of a laborer was a guy in a hardhat.

At the time, even young women with college degrees heard that “it would be good enough to be a secretary and find a nice husband,” notes Mary Jung, a 9to5 organizer who went on to become a chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party.

Enter college friends and the movement’s founders Karen Nussbaum and Ellen Cassedy. Their gatherings in Boston where female office workers could air their gripes clued them in to the larger voice untapped in the labor and women’s liberation movements. Women expressed frustration about vague job descriptions, low salaries, no promotions, being treated like a child or a servant, racial and sexual discrimination—in other words, as one says, “a lot of shit.”

The slapstick setup of an amorous boss chasing his secretary around a desk was really no joke—Jung referred one tearful woman at a meeting to a rape crisis center—nor was the way these women were referred to as “girls,” no matter their age.

“The film is at its liveliest when it shows how creative these women were to draw others to their cause. They’d deliver “awards” to the worst bosses.”

The group organized under the name “9to5,” at first handing out leaflets and newsletters, protesting like Civil Rights and antiwar activists. They later learned more about the law to pursue pay raises and better treatment through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The film is at its liveliest when it shows how creative these women were to draw others to their cause. They’d deliver “awards” to the worst bosses, spurring news coverage for men like the one who demanded his assistant sew a hole in the crotch of his pants while he wore them. The women also heard a fair amount of “I’m not a feminist, but …” from those reluctant to adopt the feminist label but outraged by such behavior.

Fonda, an antiwar activist acquainted with Nussbaum, saw in their efforts the basis for a good movie. The real 9to5-ers were both amused by the “typical Hollywood” treatment but touched that much of the fictional comedy was rooted in their lives. “By making it a farce, it leapfrogs a debate,” Nussbaum says.

Viewers aware of current social justice protests for Black Lives Matter, particularly in the United States, may wish the film had spent more time with women of color. Atlanta’s 9to5 organizer Verna Barksdale, who is black, for instance, would pair up women who were young and old, black and white, at their meetings so they could get to know each other. She and others advised the group about how to include women of different races, which the film acknowledges some members welcomed while others did not.

In addition, the film skips over the fight for and defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment (dramatized in Hulu’s “Mrs. America”), which would seem in line with 9to5’s efforts. Nevertheless, while there are still bosses who want assistants to run errands and fetch coffee, Nussbaum’s assessment of their accomplishments rings true: “We changed the debate about whether women were real workers … and should have aspirations to lead in the workforce.”

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