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If You Want to See What Revolutionary Workplace Policies Really Look Like, Watch '9 to 5'

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

When I was in my twenties and worked as a secretary—a job that had then recently been rebranded “assistant”—my female colleagues and I used to go out drinking at a dive bar with a jukebox that was heavily stocked with country music. Just about every week, we women—overworked, underpaid, and thoroughly fried by our comparatively cushy yet still pretty thankless jobs—would end the night practically standing on the bar for one song: Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” 

It was the theme song to a film that was by then almost 20 years old and had starred Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin as office mates who come together to battle their sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot of a boss, played by Dabney Coleman. It had been a big box-office hit in 1980, long before my contemporaries and I had come of age or would have understood its messages.

So how did we all know and love this movie so well? Why did we, in an East Village bar at the turn of the millennium, a million miles from the perms and shoulder pads that mark the movie’s aesthetic moment, respond to it so viscerally?

I’ve thought about 9 to 5 a lot in the past week. In part, it’s because I noted the obituary of one of its supporting actors, Elizabeth Wilson, and read coverage of Grace and Frankie, a new Netflix show that reunites Tomlin and Fonda. But I thought about it most directly on Wednesday, when Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced that her company would require vendors with more than 25 employees to pay a $15 minimum wage, offer fifteen days paid time off and, if they don’t provide paid family leave, a $4,000 benefit for parents of new children. It’s a progressive move that corresponds surprisingly neatly with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Tuesday call for a “Progressive Agenda to Combat Inequality” through, in part, a $15 minimum wage, paid sick days, and subsidized child care. But Sandberg’s proclamation is also in line with fixes laid out by a 35-year-old slapstick comedy that in one sequence features animated rabbits and which remains—15 years after my colleagues and I pounded our fists to its music—stubbornly and depressingly relevant.   

The politics of 9 to 5 are rooted in the moment when Second Wave feminism prompted the entrance of millions of middle-class white women into the paid workforce and the exit of many of those same women from the marriages they had entered in the Baby Booming 1950s and ’60s. The film was based in part on the experiences of members of the 9 to 5 National Association of Working Women, a group founded in 1973 that has been led by work-life balance advocates Karen Nussbaum and Ellen Bravo and still exists today.

Violet (Tomlin) is a widowed mother of four and a senior employee who has trained mediocre men and watched them leapfrog over her to management positions. When she’s denied yet another promotion, the boss urges her not to “fly off the handle” and explains that the man who’s getting the bump “does have a family to support.” Fonda’s character, Judy, has been driven into the paid labor force by her husband’s desertion; she and Violet exemplify the perils of economic dependence on men who may not be around forever. This crucial point has been made in recent years by Leslie Bennetts and others: work can be about fulfillment and ambition; it is also often about necessity.       

Meanwhile, Parton’s Doralee is a married secretary who is forever resisting the piggish advances—“Would you grab your pad and bring your pretty face in here?” “You mean so much more to me than just a dumb secretary”—of the boss. It’s not just the three leads who are suffering. One of their female colleagues is fired for disclosing her salary and speculating about its paucity in comparison to her under-qualified superior’s.

These working conditions for women have deep roots in American culture. That nonsensical rationale behind higher pay for men stretches back into the nineteenth century, when teachers’ unions were founded, in part, to battle the misperception that women did not themselves provide economic support for their kin. And of course gendered pay inequity has been a reality in practically every field in which women have ever drawn paychecks. The concept of “sexual harassment” as a legal issue—and not simply the way things were—wasn’t drilled into the American consciousness until eleven years after the release of 9 to 5, when Anita Hill testified at Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. 

What is extra dismal is how many of these conditions persist today. Right now. All around us. Wasn’t it just last year that Senate Republicans twice blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act? This year, Twitter’s Tina Huang filed a lawsuit claiming to have been passed over for promotions in favor of similarly qualified men. 9 to 5 premiered 32 years in advance of Ellen Pao’s lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, in which she claimed to have been retaliated against for complaining about sexual harassment.

In the film, a series of farcical accidents leads Tomlin, Parton, and Fonda to kidnap their boss, hold him hostage and become the defacto bosses themselves. And the office policy improvements they make as soon as they take charge would look downright revolutionary today.

After hiring back the colleague who revealed her salary, they compose a memo that begins, “Effective immediately, employees will be paid equal salaries for equal job levels.” They establish an on-site daycare facility, a feature the movie reminds us is not born simply of Second Wave radicalism, by having an older male executive recall, “During the war I had charge of setting up daycare centers in all the defense plants, glad to see you brought it back.” They institute part-time work, job sharing, and flexible hours programs that permit a more diverse group of workers to achieve more balanced lives, prefiguring the work of Brigid Schulte, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Joan C. Williams, and many others who’ve been studying these kinds of policies, and the stigmas attached to them, for years.

The policies that the three women institute lead to a decrease in absenteeism and a 20 percent increase in company productivity over six weeks. Here the movie is making a claim that remains deeply contested: that having women at the top of institutions results in trickle-down improvement for women (and men) working within those institutions.

It’s a claim that feels relevant again this week in the wake of Sandberg’s very 9 to 5-ish policy proclamation: that companies working for Facebook would be required to raise their minimum wages and provide employees paid time off and cash upon the arrival of a new baby. In her announcement, Sandberg, who has spent two years at the center of sharp feminist argument over the relationship between individually powerful women and systemic policy reform, took care to make a point that extended beyond Silicon Valley, noting that “women, because they comprise about two-thirds of minimum wage workers nationally, are particularly affected by wage adjustments.” Sandberg, who herself has just lost her husband, might as well have been channeling Lily Tomlin’s Violet in adding, “Research … shows that providing adequate benefits contributes to a happier and ultimately more productive workforce.”

9 to 5’s climax involves a huge win for the lead women, at the same time that it twists a knife. The Chairman of the Board has noticed the increase in efficiency and worker satisfaction, and credits the sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot boss with the successes. (With one reservation: “That equal pay thing” notes the Chairman sotto voce, “has got to go.”)

So to everyone who hasn’t seen it, or hasn’t seen it in a while: Go watch 9 to 5. Because it’s hilarious and bonkers. Because everyone in it is great. Because along with Tootsie and Obvious Child, it’s one of only a handful of truly funny feminist movies, which is a shame because feminism is sometimes a laugh riot. 

And while you’re watching, consider how durable its entertainment value is, but how troubling its durability as polemic remains.