Jane Fonda Describes Hollywood's Duty to "Amplify" Important Voices During Capitol Hill Visit

Othello Banaci
From left: Ai-jen Poo, Jane Fonda and Monica Ramirez

"We are able to amplify the voices of the people who need to be heard. That’s how we need to use our celebrity," the veteran actress and activist said.

If they gave out Oscars for activism, Jane Fonda would need a bigger bookshelf. And not just for her controversial leading role in the Vietnam-era antiwar protests. She’s also historically advocated for minorities and the disenfranchised of all stripes through her active role in the Black Panthers, her outspoken defense of American Indians, and her founding of the Women’s Media Center with fellow benchmark feminists Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan. Currently, she fights for “one fair wage for restaurant workers” on the board of ROC United. 

And this week, the veteran actress and activist joined forces with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, National Farmworker Women's Alliance, and National Women's Law Center and stormed Capitol Hill to advocate for livable wages and protection from sexual harassment for women in the farming and domestic care industries — an issue she hopes will be a tipping point for the ethical treatment of all people, from the Heartland to Hollywood.

At an intimate press conference Thursday inside the Capitol, Fonda said that being on the Hill brought back memories: "It occurred to me that my father, Henry Fonda ... is very present with me. The year that I was born, 1937, my dad made The Grapes of Wrath. It was a movie that I grew up with that had a big effect on me before I was even grown up. These white men coming from Oklahoma ... are fighting for dignity and rights and risking their lives doing so."

Fonda added that her support of women workers' rights has roots that are decades deep: "In the early 1970s, I became friends with a woman named Karen Nussbaum. We were working together in the antiwar movement, but her day job was organizing women office workers, and she would tell me stories about what these women were having to endure. And I said, 'I've got to make a movie about this.'" That idea became 9 to 5, the 1980 office satire that starred Fonda with pals Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin, who, after enduring blatant sexual harassment from their intolerable bigot of a boss, decide to exact their own brand of retribution. 

Ai-jen Poo, the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance who walked the Golden Globe Awards red carpet alongside Meryl Streep in January, echoed Fonda's recent efforts. Poo pointed out that many of the women who take care of the most precious people in our lives —  children, aging parents, loved ones with disabilities — are earning “poverty wages without protections or benefits” because of stipulations in FDR’s Depression-era New Deal, which, she says, “excluded these workers from some of the basic protections that the rest of us take for granted.”

The organizers were on Capitol Hill strategizing with members of Congress to help close the loopholes in Title VII, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, nationality or religion, and bringing light to the stories of the real people who are affected when these loopholes remain slack.

“Before the Time's Up and #MeToo movements burst forth in Hollywood almost a year ago, I never thought I would live to see a day when women were actually heard,” said Fonda. “I’m very aware of the fact that in the beginning, this happened the way it did because the women who were speaking out were white and they were famous. Almost immediately, we in Hollywood received a letter: 'Dear sisters, from the Alliance of Women Farmworkers.' I can’t tell you the effect that that had on all of us — the fact that 7,000 workers from the field were reaching out to us celebrities in Hollywood saying 'we stand with you' made us realize that this notion that has become so important of intersectionality was now being fleshed out. That this was a new reality for many of us and that this was going to be forever. That if we are going to truly confront these issues of workers' rights and dignity and safety from sexual harassment in the workplace — and those economic and sexual issues are very much interconnected — they need to be in kinship and love and alliance with our sisters across sectors. And it’s extremely moving to do this and I am so honored to be here as we call for these policies."

Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women's Law Center openly expressed concern over the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, who she feels would "roll back rights that are critical to women." When asked if closing the gap on Title VII would require a democratic takeover of Congress, Monica Ramirez of the National Farmworker Women's Alliance (also a Golden Globe Awards carpet star/activist, walking alongside Laura Dern) pointed out that sexual harassment is not a partisan issue: "It affects individuals of all political backgrounds. We need people on all sides of the aisle working together to make those changes and businesses need to talk about why this is important for them, too. Because if there were stronger anti-sexual harassment laws and more prevention in place, it would also benefit employers. This isn’t just about workers speaking out for what’s needed. It’s also about businesses coming together to educate members of congress about how stronger laws could benefit them as well." The coalition of leaders said they had been speaking to delegates and lawmakers, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who, according to Fonda, is "extremely interested in helping strategize."

As for the role of Hollywood in shining a light on this movement, Fonda — who was affectionately called the "godmother" of the coalition’s efforts — said she could envision a modern-day 9 to 5-type movie that elevates the issue of sexual harassment and mistreatment of farm and domestic women workers in our cultural conversation, slyly mentioning that she believed one was already in discussion.

"We are able to amplify the voices of the people who need to be heard. That’s how we need to use our celebrity," Fonda said. "There's a shift that has been happening ... that we’re beginning to understand, across class, race, ethnicity — what other women are facing. Understand what's important. It's not just because of the #MeToo movement and the Time's Up movement, it's because of the women's movement in general. It's because of Trump. These policies that we're fighting for are so important because they affect so many people. I think it's happening, and we just have to goose it a little.”