In the current moment, with the rights of women under full assault in the U.S., it is a distinctly odd feeling to watch clips from the film 9 to 5.
When it was released in December 1980, the film proved to be a smashing success. The story of three office workers who take revenge on their boss from hell spawned a television series and a stage musical. Since the time of its release, it has become a beloved part of the cultural lexicon.
I remember seeing 9 to 5 as a preteen in 1980 and being instantly enamoured by Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, the three female powerhouses at its centre. They were capable and smart, but more importantly they were angry. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, there was precious little in the way of female heroes or leadership in popular culture. Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman were running about, as were Charlie’s Angels, but they didn’t channel any of the white-hot rage that I often felt as a girl.
Watching those clips today over 40 years later, it’s more than just déjà vu. It’s more like déjà what the effing hell? That the battles waged then are still being actively fought is depressing enough. But in many ways, the things that women fought and died for have been dragged even further backwards.
Still Working 9 to 5 is a new documentary from Camille Hardman and Gary Lane currently playing at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival. It takes as its premise the origins of the 1980 film, but then expands exponentially to examine the role of women in the workplace, how little has changed and how much needs to.
The documentary is packed with engaging interviews with 9 to 5’s three stars. It also dedicates attention to the women who were in the trenches, fighting the actual fights. It features Karen Nussbaum, co-founder of 9to5 National Association of Working Women, an organization dedicated to fighting for women’s equal rights and equal pay. It also spotlights Lilly Ledbetter, who sued Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. for discrimination in 1998.
In an essay about Still Working 9 to 5 for Jacobin magazine, 9to5 National co-founder Nussbaum writes: “We’ve seen some progress. Women are no longer restricted to a handful of occupations, and sexual harassment is no longer a personal shame but a public scandal. But the sensible reforms mentioned in the film — equal pay, child care, flexible hours — are still out of reach. As Dolly says in the new documentary, Still Working 9 to 5, ‘It’s 40 years later, and it’s still important.’”
In addition to a dive into the backstory of the original film as well as the movement that inspired it, the documentary packs in everything from the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, to the #MeToo movement.
The ERA is a particularly painful chapter. The first version, guaranteeing equal rights for all sexes under the law, was written in 1923, then reintroduced in 1971. Ratification of the amendment required the commitment of 38 states in order to be added to the U.S. Constitution. That’s where things went awry. The required commitment of 38 states was never reached, even with extended deadlines. The ERA has been reintroduced in every session of congress since 1982.
In 2020, after Virginia finally ratified the amendment, the magic number of 38 was finally attained. But a Department of Justice opinion, undertaken during the Trump administration, maintained that the deadline to ratify had passed in 1982. The Archivist of the United States, whose function was to certify amendments, concurred with the Department of Justice. Once again, the ERA appeared to be dead in the water. But the legal battle to forward the amendment is ongoing.
Recent revelations that the Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing federal protection of abortion rights is about to be overturned have brought the ERA roaring back into the spotlight. As a recent article in Ms. Magazine made explicit, the idea of enshrining equality under the law has taken on even greater relevance in light of the draft majority opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and leaked to media.
On the working front, the implications of the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade could not have come at a worse moment. As Still Working 9 to 5 makes clear, the gig economy has not been great for women. The pandemic has also hammered home, quite literally, the gross divisions that still exist in the domestic sphere, with women taking on far greater amounts of work and child care than their male partners.
A recent study published in the Feminist Frontiers issue of Gender, Work & Organization found that women were far more adversely affected during the pandemic, stating “mothers with young children have reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers. Consequently, the gender gap in work hours has grown by 20 to 50 per cent. These findings indicate yet another negative consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the challenges it poses to women’s work hours and employment.”
But anyone with a working set of eyes doesn’t need endless studies to indicate the obvious: we’re going backwards.
Every day, some fresh shit explodes onto the public consciousness, whether it’s a Fox News personality maintaining that pregnant women shouldn’t be hired for important jobs or Justice Alito disingenuously maintaining that pregnant women’s rights in the workforce are enshrined and protected by law.
In her essay, Nussbaum quotes Louis Menand and his book The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold World, “By many measures, American women were worse off in 1963 than they had been in 1945 or even in 1920. In 1920, 20 per cent of PhDs were awarded to women; in 1963, it was 11 per cent. Forty-seven per cent of college students were women in 1920; in 1963, 38 per cent.”
As she writes “this isn’t the first time American women have had to start over.” But the implications are far broader. As many thoughtful folks have pointed out, Alito’s draft opinion lays out a path for the roll back of civil rights, same sex marriage, contraception, even the right to education for all children. The list goes on.
A return to a white Christian version of the U.S. is so bizarre, it’s almost impossible to comprehend. Although America, as per usual, is far more dramatic than Canada, the same forces exist here, working their way into positions of power. It’s a pattern that is echoed in different ways around the globe.
The history of women’s rights has long been stuck in the same pattern. Battles are fought and won, but the war wages on. Even the women featured in Still Working 9 to 5 appear a little nonplussed by the continued rollback. Jane Fonda is still fighting the good fight and regularly getting arrested. Dolly Parton, meanwhile, has crafted her own form of grassroots activism with her literacy projects and even the development of a vaccine.
For every step forward, it often feels like there are 20 backwards. It’s a shuffle that is not only exhausting but enraging. This long-simmering fury is boiling over as the wars that women fought against the dying of rights are spilling once more into the streets.
But to take a page from the original film and the organization that inspired it, imagining innovative, positive and better ways of doing things might be the ultimate form of revenge. In the movie, it’s basic stuff like flexible hours and daycares. In the real world, it’s freedom, money and genuine power.