Julia Reichert’s now classic and still inspiring Union Maids, chronicling three women in the 1930s labor movement, was released in 1976. While she was making that film, a group called 9to5, devoted to obtaining equal rights and fair conditions for women office workers, was gaining momentum. It makes perfect sense that Reichert and Steven Bognar have now circled back to document that important and relatively little-known 1970’s labor action.
Premiering as part of this year’s virtual AFI Docs festival, 9to5: The Story of a Movement is their first film after the Oscar-winning American Factory, but its oral-history form allows it to fit easily as a companion piece to Union Maids. It is another contribution to Reichert’s career-long focus on women and work. Based on interviews with the group’s founders, with a wealth of archival footage, 9to5 is sleek and astute, a valuable addition to Reichert and Bognar’s filmography and to the history of the women’s movement.
As in Union Maids (made with Jim Klein and Miles Mogulescu) and American Factory, 9to5 is notable for the immediacy the filmmakers bring to the subject. American Factory gives us remarkable fly-on-the-wall access to business meetings at a Chinese company that has taken over an Ohio plant, as well as contemporary interviews with the American workers. But 9to5 offers retrospective accounts of the women who were there at the start, including Karen Nussbaum and Ellen Cassedy, the 9to5 group’s founders. In 1972 they were clerical workers at Harvard, and Cassedy says they thought, “We keep this place running, yet we don’t get recognized, we don’t get enough money.”
Although the film has no narrator, it does have a narrative trajectory as it traces the movement from its start to the present. Nussbaum and Cassedy began by handing out a newsletter on the streets of Boston, with the simple goal of gathering women to talk about their common problems as secretaries whose roles hadn’t changed since the Mad Men era. As their numbers grew, they organized and began advocating for rights that included better pay and clearly-defined job descriptions, which would not include fetching the boss’s dry cleaning. Their goals came to include child care and countering sexual harassment before that even had a name. The movement spread to other cities and became an organization called 9to5, National Association of Working Women.
The documentary creates a vivid texture of the world the women were trying to change. We see newspaper ads from the period listing separate jobs for men and for women, along with television news clips in which men are flabbergasted to learn that their secretaries are discontented. Photos show women on National Secretary’s Day marching and holding signs that read, “Raises Not Roses.” All this is fluidity edited by Jaime Meyers Schlenck, so that the archival moments add variety and detail without taking the focus away from the first-hand voices that matter most.
Early organizers from cities across the country look back at their goals and the obstacles. Verna Barksdale, the first organizer of 9to5 in Atlanta, speaks to the additional bias that black working women encountered, along with the casual sexual harassment every woman was vulnerable to. “I was interviewed by this man and he made it perfectly clear what I would have to do to get the job,” she says, the kind of story several other women echo.
The only starry appearance is a brief interview with Jane Fonda, who recalls a forgotten fact: Her influential 1980 hit comedy, Nine to Five, was inspired by and drew on stories she heard from women in the organization, including the common fantasy of killing their bosses.
Fonda’s movie is not the only reason the 9to5 organization has been overshadowed. Even at its strongest, in the ’70s and ’80s, it was eclipsed by the broader women’s movement, including efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Yet almost under the radar it grew to become a labor union, a quasi-independent segment of the Service Employees International Union. The film takes us through one specific action, the effort to unionize clerical workers at the University of Cincinnati, a process that was one step forward and two steps back.
The documentary’s weak spot is the way it shortchanges the account of how and why 9to5 disbanded as a union in 2001, its members mostly absorbed into other unions. (The organization still exists as an advocacy group.) That shift deserves more than abrupt statements from a couple of local organizers who say that new technology, a changing economy and therefore the role of clerical workers had all changed.
There is only one talking head, who appears throughout: Labor historian Lane Windham adds useful perspective on the period, and an illuminating personal note. A couple of generations younger than the women who started 9to5, she says that when she began working she was never called “girl” or asked to make coffee.
But Reichert and Bognar emphasize that progress has only gone so far. A number of the mainstays from the early 9to5 days are seen at the Women’s March in Washington in January 2017. That scene is both upbeat in the way it captures their idealism and energy and sad in that they still need to fight after more than 40 years.
The film ends with a recent chart listing disparities in earnings. Asian women are at the top of the list, making only .85 for every dollar a man does, with white women following at .77, Black women at .61, Native American women at .58 and Latinas the worst off with .53. As always, Reichert and Bogart are not preachy, even about this inequity. They let their compelling evidence speak for itself in a beautifully crafted film.
Production Company: Working Women Documentary Project LLC
Directors and Producers: Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar
Cinematography: Steven Bognar
Editor: Jaime Meyers Schlenck
Music: Wendy Blackstone
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine
Venue: AFI Docs