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Working 9 to 5: The Activism of Women Office Workers

Roundup
tags: films, labor history, womens history, Pink Collar Work



Ellen Cassedy was a founder of the 9 to 5 working women’s organization in 1973. Her new book, Working 9 to 5: A women’s movement, a labor union, and the iconic movie (Chicago Review Press, 2022, foreword by Jane Fonda), is a first-person account of how women office workers rose up to demand their rights beginning in the 1970’s. For classroom discussion questions, visit www.ellencassedy.com.

Ever wonder if it’s safe to bring an artichoke to lunch when you’re trying to convince someone to speak up on the job? Want to know how a Tampax machine can help you make progress at the bargaining table? Did you hear what happened to the boss who ordered his secretary to sew up a hole in his pants while he was wearing them?

All of this is part of the story of the 9 to 5 movement of women office workers – a movement that began almost fifty years ago, when I was a clerk-typist at Harvard University and a group of us got to talking about what bothered us about our jobs. The Boston-wide organization we founded was called 9 to 5, named after the hours of the work day.

In 1973, the 20 million women office workers in the US. economy – people like me – were basically invisible. When people pictured a worker, they saw a man in a hard hat, brandishing a wrench. Yet here we were, and our ranks were growing. Millions of women were flooding into the workforce.

1973 was the great economic tipping point when families began to be worse off than the generation before. As a result of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, workers had new expectations, new dreams.

We 9 to 5’ers sensed that we had our finger on the pulse of something big. We considered ourselves the heirs of the garment women at the turn of the 20th century, immigrants, teenagers, who went on strike by the tens of thousands and transformed the labor movement. Their slogan was Bread and Roses. Our slogan became Raises and Roses.

Some of us called ourselves feminists; others did not. But we all wanted equal treatment, and we had no lack of things that made our blood boil.

Women earned 57 cents to a man’s dollar. Some of us were doing the same work as men for less pay. Office work sounded like a step up from factory work. But to our surprise, it paid less than factory work – a lot less.

Back then, no one used the term “glass ceiling” – meaning that women could only advance so high before they hit a sometimes invisible limit. But the phenomenon was real. Our jobs were dead-end.

The lack of basic respect was galling. One woman said, “We are referred to as girls until the day we retire without pension.” Many of us were expected to do favors – all kinds of favors – for our bosses.

Read entire article at Labor and Working Class History Association

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