The Working Woman’s Anthem ‘9 to 5’ Needed an Update. But This?
In 1978, when Jane Fonda decided she wanted to make a film about working women, she traveled to Cleveland to meet with members of an organization that would come to be known as 9to5. The women were clerical workers who were fed up with low wages and chauvinist managers, and Ms. Fonda asked them: “Have you ever fantasized about killing your boss?”
“We thought, ‘Oh, come on, what is this Hollywood sensationalism stuff?’” said Ellen Cassedy, a co-founder of the group and 28 at the time. “But then one woman sort of timidly raised her hand, and these stories came pouring out.”
The stories would become the basis for the 1980 film “9 to 5,” which starred Ms. Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton as office workers who enact revenge on their sexist boss. Ms. Parton wrote the movie’s theme song, which described the grind of “workin’ 9 to 5” that had only recently become a reality for a significant number women. Many of them were “barely gettin’ by,” as Ms. Parton sang, on minimum wages with bosses that groped, demeaned and stole their ideas along the way.
Now Ms. Parton’s “9 to 5” will reach a new audience — those who tune into the Super Bowl on Sunday. The song has been reimagined as an advertisement for Squarespace, the website builder. But with a gig economy twist.
The song begins like the original, with a “tumble outta bed” and “a cup of ambition,” the clacking of Ms. Parton’s acrylic nails the inspiration for the clacking sound of a typewriter in the background.
But this version has been recast as “5 to 9” — open to interpretation, it seems, whether that means 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. or a four-hour chunk of time before or after a typical workday, when people with “passion and a vision” are focused on their “dreams.”
“Cuz it’s hustlin’ time,” Ms. Parton sings. “A whole new way to make a livin.’”
It isn’t exactly the working-class anthem that Senator Elizabeth Warren chose as her presidential campaign song.
Indeed, Americans are hustling more than ever in the pandemic, but not in the same way. In a global recession that disproportionately affects women — and has working mothers coming apart at the seams — many people are simply trying to stay afloat.
“Another word for hustle is ‘survival,’” said Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has been pursuing a passion project about Ms. Parton. Women often take on significant caregiving responsibilities on top of paid work and “micro-entrepreneurship,” she said. It’s necessary to acknowledge, but, she added, “we should not valorize it.”
Professor McMillan Cottom noted that she was struck by the lead character of the ad — a Puerto Rican woman, the actor Tanairi Vazquez, whose side hustle is dance (she’s making herself a website). That’s at least somewhat accurate, she said. Women of color, especially Black women and Latina women, have always had to hustle — and are bearing the brunt of job losses during Covid-19.
“That ad speaks to a demographic that I’m not actually sure exists right now in the pandemic,” said Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford and the author of “Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times.” “It’s great to hustle to achieve your dreams. It’s another if you have to hustle just to get by.”
Ms. Parton’s original anthem spoke to solidarity among working women. It had “this kind of ‘Take this job and shove it’ tone,” said Joan C. Williams, a workplace scholar. She said the song, which came out when she was in law school, “showed me that Dolly Parton was a pistol.”
The update — even if Ms. Parton didn’t write the lyrics this time around — might speak more to the grim reality of every woman for herself.
The organization 9to5, which is the subject of a new documentary, began in 1973 with a group of 10 young clerical workers in Boston who made less than $3 an hour and did not receive pensions. Many had trained the men who would become their bosses.
They began passing out pamphlets in ladies’ rooms of local offices and meeting over coffee, drafting an office workers’ Bill of Rights, which included things like equal pay, job descriptions and respect. On National Secretaries’ Day, they organized a protest — attempting to “repossess” the holiday by declaring they wanted “Raises, not roses.”
They staged “Worst Boss” contests to publicize their bosses’ most outrageous behavior: firing a secretary for delivering a corned beef sandwich on white bread, not rye; asking another to sew up a hole in the groin of her boss’s pants — while he was wearing them.
The organization accomplished much more than stunt theater, too, filing class-action suits for back pay, forming a woman-led union and setting up a sexual harassment hotline in an era when many people didn’t even know that the harassment was illegal.
“One of our great achievements was to bring together a very diverse group of women who were working office jobs, who all looked around at each other and thought, as Dolly Parton said, ‘We’re all in the same boat,’” Ms. Cassedy said.
Many of those original demands remain as relevant as ever. It’s the “9 to 5” part that feels retro. Since the 1970s, full-time jobs with benefits have slowly but surely been replaced by the types of short-term, gig economy jobs that sociologists call “precarious work.”
“I’m almost nostalgic for the 9 to 5 job,” Dr. Cooper said. “A full-time job with a salary and benefits has become a luxury.”
And for those who have it, the demands are rarely limited to eight hours and a lunch break. There may have once been a wage penalty for overwork — commonly defined as workweeks of 50-plus hours — but these days we place a premium on overwork, said Ms. Williams, who runs the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law.
But even as Ms. Parton fought for fair working hours for others, she has always been about working herself to the bone.
In 1976, she became the first woman in country music to have her own TV program, “Dolly.” “9 to 5” was her first acting role, and she agreed to take the job only if she could write the theme song — to which she kept the rights.
In a recent T Magazine profile, Ms. Parton noted that she typically rises at 3 a.m. to work on her spiritual practice, along with any one of the projects she keeps lined up in plastic bins before her workday officially begins.
Ms. Parton may be just having a bit of fun with her 5-to-9 Squarespace side hustle. And maybe she will use her fee to fund more vaccine research.
But, as Shima Oliaee, a co-creator of the podcast “Dolly Parton’s America,” put it, Ms. Parton has always been a prism for how we see the world.
“People interpret her based on their own hopes and struggles and passions,” Ms. Oliaee said. “So at first I thought, ‘This is great, it’s all about achieving your dreams.’ And then when the lyrics of the song had a microscope put to them, I thought: ‘Wait, maybe this is not great. Maybe this is way too hard in a pandemic to live up to.’”
What would be great?
As American women deal with ongoing job losses, economic challenges and just plain fatigue, they could use a more accurate anthem.
It’s just that “working on my own terms, with flexibility, in a way that adds up to 40 hours a week but not more than that” isn’t quite as catchy as the original.
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