Back in 1981, Dolly Parton’s theme song snagged an Oscar nomination for the film “9 to 5.” (Her song lost to the theme from “Fame”).
Some 42 years later the documentary “Still Working 9 to 5” by Camille Hardman and Gary Lee is playing the Nashville Film Festival. It is a documentary that heralds and memorializes the struggles of working women for “raises, rights and respect.” Women have, historically, been valued less than their male counterparts in the work force. That realization caused star Jane Fonda, in partnership with Gary Lane, to try to make a film that would be informative on this topic.
In 1970, one in every three women in the work force was engaged in clerical work, generally as a secretary. There were 20 million such office workers in the 1970s and they were routinely subjected to sexual harassment, poorer wages than their male co-workers and many other inequities. Not only were the women’s good ideas co-opted by male superiors (and then presented as the men’s own) but the women were often not promoted when they were as qualified (or more qualified) than the male worker (whom they had often trained). The men got the promotion. One line from the film that particularly resonated with me, an excuse for this obviously unfair labor practice: “Well, he does have a family to support.”
My own father (born in 1902) refused to support me in my desire to go to law school after completing my undergraduate degree, because there was a perception that there were “women’s jobs” and “men’s work. One male interviewee on the street articulated it this way in the documentary: “They (women) should do feminine work.” In the 60s, feminine work was being a nurse, a secretary, or a teacher. Other fields were not “suitable” because we women would just be taking up space that should rightfully be occupied by a male head of a family. (Oh, how time have changed!)
It was attitudes like these that were foisted on the American female work force and caused one worker, Lilly Ledbetter, to ultimately sue, when she learned that she was one of four managers doing exactly the same job as her three male co-workers, but the men were being paid $6,000 a month while she was being paid only $3,000 a month. Women in general, made only 60 cents on the dollar in the late 70s and the gender pay gap In the U.S. meant that we ranked #51 on a list of the world’s most equitable work forces. A white woman worker at the time the film was released (1980) made 79 cents on the dollar in comparison with a male worker, while a Latino female worker fell even further behind, making only 54 cents on the dollar when compared to a man.
When Lilly Ledbetter sued in Alabama, the resulting bill, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restitution Act was the first bill that Barack Obama signed as President in 2009. The characters in the original “9 to 5”—Lily, Violet and Doralee—needed their jobs. They were not simply working to supplement their spouse’s incomes. They were career women before society allowed women to have lucrative careers. Only 6 out of every 100 of the clerical staff, if female, ever advanced to management in the 70s.
As nearly the only girl in my group of 10 high school female friends with a working Mom (a schoolteacher), I lived through that era. It was “okay” for a woman to be a nurse, a secretary, or a teacher, but when I mentioned becoming a lawyer, my father expressed the same sentiments that the men on the street in this documentary articulated. It was (then) okay for a woman to have a job to supplement her husband’s income, (or as a hobby), but “real work” was for men.
This double standard caught the attention of Jane Fonda, well-known (and often vilified) for embracing and examining important cultural issues and trying to make a difference. Some called “9 to 5” a “militant feminist cry.” Others termed it “a breakout cultural moment.” As a busy rebel and pusher of causes, Fonda knew she wanted Lily Tomlin for the cast. Dolly Parton entered, Fonda said, when she heard Dolly singing on the radio; it occurred to her that Parton could probably act as well as sing. One of the screenwriters had originally envisioned the film focusing on 5 women, but that number was whittled down to 3.
Fonda also realized that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” She and Gary Lane understood that comedy rather than drama was the best way to get their message across. Colin Higgins—writer of such hits as “The Best Liittle Whorehouse in Texas,” “Harold and Maude,” “Foul Play” and “Silver Streak” —was brought in to write and direct.
The studio wanted a movie star, not a television actor. Dabney Coleman (now 90) was known for television appearances on shows such as “The Love Boat,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The studio preferred that either Steve Martin or Richard Dreyfuss play the part of Frank Hart, the sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot (think Trump on steroids).
The film went on to become the second highest-grossing film of the year, second only to “The Empire Strikes Back,” taking in $100, 409, 707 at the box office. This documentary—which reunites Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, Dabney Coleman, and other commenters, like Rita Moreno— is shot against the backdrop of the turbulent years of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) movement, with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum mobilizing opposition to giving women equal rights under the Constitution. (The ERA bill missed the deadline for passage and so never became law; my silver bracelet is still in my jewelry box.) The Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings are also revisited.
When asked if they intended to light the fire of feminine revolt against injustice back in 1980 with their movie “9 to 6” Fonda said, “Secretaries are lighting the fire; we’re just fanning the flames.” As one protest sign said, “Women are pissed off about being pissed on.”
When the Broadway version of “9 to 5” came to Broadway in 2009 (and again in a 2019 revival) it was quite interesting to see Harvey Weinstein (THE Harvey Weinstein), an investor in the play, say, “This play could run forever simply on the attitude of employees toward their boss. I know that everyone in my company wants to kill me.”
It was a great film back in 1980 and it’s a great documentary for the U.S to contemplate.— then and now. There’s also a new rendition of the Oscar-nominated theme song, featuring Kelly Clarkson and Dolly Parton.