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INDEPENDENT LENS: 9to5: The Story Of A Movement

Karen Nussbaum marches for equal pay. 1970s
Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
Karen Nussbaum marches for equal pay. 1970s

Stream or tune in Monday, Feb. 1, 2021 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

—Commended as “stirring” by Variety and “urgent” by The Boston Globe—

Before the hit song and Hollywood movie, “9to5” was an inspiring grassroots movement for equality that fused the spirit of both the women’s and labor movements of the 1970s.

From filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, the duo behind the Academy-Award winning documentary “American Factory,” “9to5: The Story Of A Movement” chronicles the waves of secretaries, starting in Boston, who in the 1970s and '80s fought to create impactful changes in their workplaces.


Their ideas spread rapidly, eventually leading to a nationwide movement at the intersection of the women’s movement and the labor movement, and changed the American workforce forever.

In the 1970s, secretaries and clerical workers made up the largest sector of the American workforce, with over 20 million employed. Inspired by the growing Women’s Liberation Movement, secretaries Ellen Cassedy and Karen Nussbaum got mad, got organized, and started a group called “9to5.” The group grappled with class and race barriers, and deployed humor and wry publicity stunts to shame their bosses into change.

Their goals were simple: better pay, job descriptions, respect, advancement opportunities, and an end to sexual harassment. What Cassedy and Nussbaum didn’t know is that similar groups were popping up in Chicago, San Francisco and other cities across the country.

Clerical workers were the low-wage workers of their era. As America confronts the growing reality of deep income inequality and commonplace sexual harassment, the stories and strategies of these bold, creative women continue to resonate deeply almost 50 years later.


Featuring interviews with 9to5 founders Nussbaum and Cassedy, actress and activist Jane Fonda, and other leaders in the movement, “9to5: The Story Of A Movement” is a previously untold story, through a mixture of archival footage and newly filmed interviews from the movement's activists.

The film weaves a story that celebrates the strides that women have made in achieving equality, while recognizing there is a lot of work yet to be done.

“‘9to5’ tells a story through the words of these workers and the organizers themselves. These women are so inspiring, and as we spoke with them more, we discovered undeniable parallels to the movements happening today,” said filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar. “We hope this film inspires people and shows how people can build momentum to tip the balance of worker vs. corporate power.”

The 9to5 movement also famously inspired a pop culture phenomenon — the 1980 film starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, and, of course, the catchy Parton tune that served as the film’s theme.

9 to 5 TV trailer 1980

]In “9to5: The Story Of A Movement,” Fonda reflects on her involvement in the movement and the genuine friendships she formed with these labor organizers that still exist today:

“I met my friend Karen Nussbaum through the anti-war movement and found her stories about women in the workplace utterly jaw-dropping. I immediately knew I needed to use my voice to help amplify their stories through a film,” said Jane Fonda, actress and activist. “While we’ve made some monumental strides for women’s rights, we still have a lot of work to do. I have dedicated my life to social, political and environmental activism, and I hope that the story of the 9to5 movement will help inspire and teach the next generation of activists.”

Working Women’s Wardrobe: How the 1970s Opened Feminist Fashion

In this related article by Marlen Komar, learn how feminists in the 1970s tried to change how women in the workplace could dress, after years of having men dictate fashion.

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Directors/ Producers: Julia Reichert and Steven Bog. Co-Producer: Crystal Whetstone. Cinematographer: Steven Bognar. Editor: Jaime Meyers Schlenck. Music: Wendy Blackstone.