Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Q&A with Ellen Cassedy


Photo by Brad Fowler



Ellen Cassedy is the author of the new book Working 9 to 5: A Women's Movement, a Labor Union, and the Iconic Movie. She was a founder and leader of the group 9 to 5, an association of women office workers. Her other books include We Are Here. She lives in New York City.


Q: Why did you decide to write Working 9 to 5?


A: The day after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, hundreds of thousands of women gathered in Washington, D.C., for one of the largest demonstrations in US history.


Many of those women had never participated in any kind of protest before. They reminded me of the working women – me among them – who joined together in the 1970s to win rights and respect on the job.


That was the day I decided I had to write the story of 9 to 5. I hoped that our story – my story – could nurture and inspire people and help them confront the challenges we face today.


Q: How did you first get involved in creating the 9 to 5 movement, and what impact did it have on you?


A: In 1973, I was 23 years old, a clerk-typist working at Harvard University. Ten of us got together and started talking about our pay, about sexual harassment (we didn’t call it that then), about respect. We started by passing out a newsletter all over downtown Boston. We filed lawsuits, threw up picket lines, sent out press releases, and leafleted without pause.


Within a few short years, we expanded into a multiracial national organization that took on the biggest banks, insurance companies, and universities. We strengthened the laws protecting women on the job and got government working to enforce them. We won millions of dollars in back pay, raises, and promotions.

The union we launched—of women, by women, and for women—propelled thousands of workers into action and won higher pay, better benefits, and a host of improvements. We ran into ferocious opposition from corporations, yet we brought women into the labor movement in lasting ways and charted new directions for worker power.


We inspired Jane Fonda to make her Hollywood hit comedy and Dolly Parton to write her toe-tapping song. We changed the lives of millions of women workers – and made bosses get their own coffee.


Some of us called ourselves feminists; others didn’t. All of us found ourselves speaking up in ways we’d never imagined. As we put our newly-learned organizing skills and newly-invented tactics into practice, we were transformed. We surprised ourselves with our own eloquence and our own courage.


I didn’t consider myself a “natural” leader, but I came to see that a movement needs all kinds of people – quiet ones and loud ones, beginners and old hands alike. I learned to listen, to speak in public, to strategize, to persuade, to inspire. I grew up.


Q: How would you compare the women's rights activism of the 1970s to that of today?


A: When our movement began, employees could be fired for getting pregnant. Sexual harassment was perfectly legal. There were two kinds of “help wanted” ads – male and female. Women made 59 cents to a man’s dollar. Only one woman in six ever made it into management out of the typing pool. Our organizing helped to change all that.


I’m proud of what we achieved – but the struggle for women’s rights and workers’ rights is far from over. As the old labor song says, “every generation’s got to win it again.”


In some ways, today’s low-wage workers have it harder than we did back then. We couldn’t have foreseen the role of social media, globalization, the growth of the tech industry, the rise of “gig” jobs – new situations calling for new forms of organizing.


I’m thrilled by the recent surge in labor activism and inspired by the rising support for unions. Just as we learned from the past but followed our noses and forged our own path, today’s activists are inventing their own ways to take on injustice.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I hope readers will come away understanding that change is possible, and that the best way to achieve it is to join together.


Recently I came across a quotation on a little scrap of paper that I used to keep on my desk at the 9 to 5 office. “Through our great good fortune,” it said, “in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.” I hope new generations will be “touched by fire,” just as we were.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Writing Working 9 to 5 involved an intensive encounter with boxes of old leaflets and newspaper clippings and diaries, multiple archives, and many people’s memories. And of course many, many hours at my desk. I loved it!


Now I’m enjoying the other part of authoring a book – the part that draws on my organizer self rather than my writer self. It’s a joy to reach out to readers of all ages, to libraries, bookstores, unions, organizations, and educators.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ellen Cassedy.

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