When Peggy Olson first started her career at Sterling Cooper, the fledgling advertising superstar was hired as Don Draper’s secretary, a gig that Joan Holloway wryly deemed “something between a mother and a waitress.” Of course, the beloved AMC series wasn’t far off — not about that, and not about a lot of things — but it’s still striking when a clip of this interaction pops up early in Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s “9to5: The Story of a Movement.” Following the rise of a group of female office workers who began to organize in the early ’70s, the filmmakers’ followup to their Oscar-winning “American Factory” handily lays out the specific conditions that led to this essential, if little-known chapter of American history. For many, it was being treated like Peggy: an “office wife,” an invisible “girl,” an underestimated force to be reckoned with.
Bognar and Reichert’s latest documentary cleverly weaves in cultural touchstones (like that “Mad Men” clip, and similar snippets from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “I Love Lucy”) to ground their exploration of what would eventually become a national movement. As America again returns to a period of protesting and organizing, “9to5” lays out both key history about this vital movement and the indispensable knowledge that comes with it. At its best, “9to5” introduces a world of Peggys (including a massive assortment of new heroes to admire) who sought to make the world a more equitable place and the ways in which they got that done; at its worst, the film is hobbled by a narrative that grows far too big for just one film.
It’s a story more suited for the series treatment, not a relatively slim feature (less than 90 minutes) that spends its first half detailing the early history of the movement, sprung from the concerns of the then-growing population of female clerical workers, before splintering off into its later wins and loses. Each portion of the story — the formation of the 9to5 group, its ambitious jump into union organizing, and its current aims today — could easily engender its own feature, but it’s the early acts of the film that are most successful on their own.
In the early ’70s, the American workforce saw a massive uptick in female employees, many of them clerical workers who far outnumbered other, predominantly male occupations. At the same time, the women’s liberation movement was on the rise, and these two “rivers” of educated, empowered women began to merge, finally able to band together to fight for what was right. What would become the 9to5 organization (which inspired the famous move; star Jane Fonda even pops up to confirm it) initially sprang from a group of Boston-area clerical workers fed up with their treatment in the workplace and who set about doing something about it through organized action.
“9to5” introduces a litany of organizing superstars — many who still remain unheralded — including founders and early devotees like Karen Nussbaum, Ellen Cassidy, Verna Barksdale, Kim Cook, and Mary Jung, as they unpack their ideals and aims through a series of intimate and telling interviews. Pristine archival footage enlivens their stories, lending them a snappy immediacy.
As those women began to flood the workforce, they were hobbled by outdated ideas, a lack of upward mobility, and plain old sexism. 9to5 wanted to change that, and Bognar and Reichert’s film lays out a roadmap for their early successes, the kind of stuff one member of the group literally learned in organizing school (and, yes, many of those lessons still apply even now). The group enjoyed some big wins, but so much of what they fought for, including a basic demand to not face discrimination or harassment on the job, remain rallying points for protesters or organizers today.
9to5 eventually blossomed into a national movement, and the group soon turned its attention to classic union organizing, first struggling to find a union that would even welcome them and later attempting to unionize other workplaces. While the first half of the film carefully traces the formation and rise of 9to5, its back half grows more scattershot when turned to the union efforts (again, a rich enough history to inspire its own feature film) of the organization. Though informative and often emotional, these segments lack the focus of earlier sequences, eventually hopscotching through history in order to deliver the film into the present day.
While it’s telling how cyclical the fights waged between 9to5 and the establishment were (and remain to be, as some of its subjects are still out there protesting for worker’s rights), the shaky focus of the documentary’s final act seems to hit upon that idea by accident. Veering from the well-assembled focus of its first half doesn’t diminish the power of the group’s story, but it does end a vital film on a weaker note, thrusting it into a future when the past is more than worthy enough for its own examination.
“9to5: The Story of a Movement” premiered at AFI Docs and is currently seeking U.S. distribution.