What Mrs. America Leaves Out

What Mrs. America Leaves Out

The 1970s women’s movement included a wave of organizing in the workplace. A new documentary, 9to5, tells the story of a movement.

A still from 9to5: The Story of a Movement

According to Mrs. America, the TV series in the running for five Emmy Awards this weekend, Phyllis Schlafly and the conservative women’s movement she led out-organized the drive to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) during the 1970s. Narrowly framed as a clash of titans—Schlafly on one side, feminist icons like Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Shirley Chisholm on the other—the Hulu show ignores the role played by the insurance industry and other big corporations which stood to lose from the ERA. And it leaves out an equally important story: the millions of working women who were organizing on the job.

In the 1970s, it felt like women in every occupation were creating new organizations. These groups launched ground-breaking lawsuits, making use of the provisions of agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCCP). Secretaries, nurses, flight attendants, and others were engaged in battle but it wasn’t along feminist/anti-feminist lines and they rarely focused on the ERA. They developed their own language of gender equality, one that felt natural to the women they recruited, many of whom described themselves as “no women’s libber.”

The range of the new movement was stunning: There was 9to5 for women office workers, Stewardesses for Women’s Rights, an organization for women miners called the Coal Employment Project, Women in Banking, Wages for Housework, and an organization for sex workers—COYOTE, for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics. Three thousand union women met in Chicago in 1974 and created CLUW, the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Union organizing in the female-dominated public sector and hospitals accelerated. Working women were finding their voices and exercising their collective power.

Unexpected Feminists

While most of the attention was on the mainstream women’s movement, the fight for equal rights was taking place in unexpected pockets of society. Take coal mines. Betty Jean Hall was a young lawyer when an anti-strip mining environmental group asked her to research whether coal companies were in violation of Executive Order 11246, which required affirmative action by federal contractors. Indeed they were: Hall found that 99.8 percent of all coal miners were men, as were 97.8 percent of all people in the industry including secretaries and file clerks.

Hall started the Coal Employment Project (CEP) in 1977 and filed a complaint with the OFCCP in 1978 against 153 coal companies representing more than half of the industry. The OFCCP agreed to investigate, and the first big settlement came later that year at Consolidated Coal Company. With the publicity, women who had been turned away from mining jobs surfaced and CEP organized them in local groups from Wyoming to West Virginia to push for more jobs and provide support to each other.

Even within the mining sector, the groups were varied. As Hall recalled recently, “The Lady Miners of Utah did a fundraiser selling lunch at the mine rescue competition. The Women Miners of Pennsylvania wouldn’t have been caught dead calling themselves ‘lady miners.’ Their idea of a fundraiser was a card party in the back of a bar. In Alabama it was mainly Black women who had grown up through the civil rights movement. In West Virginia and eastern Kentucky it was mountain women, very few minorities.”

They made great strides in a short time. By 1981, Hall told me, nearly 10 percent of miners were women. Rosalyn Pelles, a longtime labor and civil rights leader, was organizing at a textile plant in North Carolina in the 1970s. She was a spooler, a job mostly done by women in a multiracial workforce. “The ERA was not on the minds of the people I worked with,” she said. “They didn’t even know about it. This wasn’t a topic at the SCLC meeting. They didn’t talk about it in church, the PTA, in Jet or Ebony. As a Black woman and a single parent in a low-wage job, there were a lot of battles to fight in between me and my life, and the ERA. We mobilized around conditions on the job.”

That focus worked. As Pelles explained, “There was racism outside the plant gates, but people had some unity inside. You didn’t visit at their homes, but people were open to moving past differences when you built relationships. You can get past name-calling if you focus on what brings you together. We won victories on health and safety issues—reducing high temperatures in the plant and cotton dust, gaining control over speed ups, the right to leave the line if you got sick—and more flexible leave. This is where I really learned how to be an organizer.”

9to5: The Story of a Movement

My engagement in this movement was as a founder of 9to5, the organization for women office workers, and the inspiration for the popular 1980 movie and Dolly Parton’s anthem of the same name. In 1970, I took a clerical job, like one out of three working women at the time. I didn’t intend to organize, but women workers all around me in the office were quietly seething. Marilyn’s boss couldn’t remember her name. Charlotte’s boss, who was decades younger than she, referred to her as his “girl.” Fran was passed over for promotion by a new employee who was a man. Sheryl was proud to work in an office where she was expected to dress nicely only to discover that she would make more money working in a factory.

When I and other activists called a meeting, women like Marilyn, Charlotte, Fran, and Sheryl poured in. 9to5 started with a bang in 1973 in Boston with a meeting at the YWCA attended by 150 women. By the end of the decade, there were twenty organizations around the country in the 9to5 network and a sister union, District 925 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

A new documentary by Academy Award-winning filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar brings that overlooked history to life. Through interviews with participants and archive footage, 9to5: The Story of a Movement captures the qualities of our organizing—grassroots, personally transformative, naturally feminist without being doctrinaire, based on building the power of women as workers. As Mary Jung, an organizer in the Cleveland chapter recalls, “Women in [our organization] considered themselves mainstream women. They didn’t believe that they were feminists, but if you asked them what they believed in, they believed in all the same things feminists believed in.”

Renia Clay, a member of the Atlanta chapter, describes how she and other women built a multiracial member-based organization. “I credit Verna Barksdale [a 9to5 organizer]. When she invited you to a meeting she asked you to bring something—chips, cookies—because then you were committed to come. She would always pair a Black person and a white person together, or a younger person and an older person. And that helped build relationships in the organization. No one believes you want to help them if you don’t talk to them, you don’t ask them to lunch, their children don’t play with your children.”

In the film, historian Lane Windham sums up the impact. “The women who were part of 9to5 built their own kind of feminism. It was a workplace feminism. And it was powerful. There was a whole working women’s movement. It was like a brushfire.”

These women and their organizations made big changes. A series of legal victories opened doors for women in key sectors of the economy, such as the landmark settlements by the EEOC with AT&T, the nation’s largest employer, for $45 million; with nine steel producers for $31 million; and with General Electric for nearly $30 million. And advocates made gains in individual workplaces through direct organizing. According to Windham, “Women powered the new wave of unionization attempts [in the 1970s].” And they changed the image of women as workers in our own right for generations to come.

Power Not Privilege

Schlafly’s STOP ERA organization stood for Stop Taking Our Privileges. The group did stop the ERA, and shaped an anti-feminist backlash that helped fuel a growing conservative movement. But that movement bypassed the growing number of insurgent working women who didn’t see their lives as privileged and organized for power at work instead.

9to5: The Story of a Movement shows how women came together across class and race to make change on the job. Their echo can be heard today in a new wave of organizing in teaching, child care, domestic work, and food service. As we live through another fractious time, these working women are a source of hope and power for progressive change.

Karen Nussbaum is co-founder of 9to5, National Association of Working Women and District 925, SEIU.

Mrs. America is up for 10 Emmy Awards, broadcast on September 20, 2020.

9to5: The Story of a Movement will continue a festival run for the remainder of the year, with distribution intended for Spring 2021.