The workplace hasn't gotten much better for women since the movie "9 to 5" : Planet Money The movie "9 to 5" used humor to highlight the struggles of women in the workplace 40 years ago. Where are we now? | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
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Workin' 9 To 5

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Workin' 9 To 5

Workin' 9 To 5

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All right.


All right, so you have your snacks?

GLINTON: OK, I have my snacks. Well, I actually have - I have a chicken potpie.

GONZALEZ: A chicken potpie as your movie snack?

GLINTON: Yeah (laughter).

GONZALEZ: I got string cheese, Goldfish crackers. And I haven't seen this film.

GLINTON: That is going to change today...

GONZALEZ: All right.

GLINTON: ...Because we are watching "9 To 5," the movie, during the workday, the way it was meant to be watched.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) OK.


GONZALEZ: Three, two, one, play.


DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Tumble out of bed, and I stumble to the kitchen. Pour myself a cup of ambition.

GONZALEZ: I don't even think I knew that "9 To 5," the song, had a movie. I just thought it was a song.


PARTON: (Singing) Jump in the shower, and the blood starts pumping.

GLINTON: What you got to love is, like, how long opening credits take.


PARTON: (Singing) On the job from 9 to 5. Working 9 to 5...

GONZALEZ: I'm excited. I'm getting into it.


PARTON: (Singing) Want to move ahead, but the boss won't seem to let me. I swear sometimes that man is out to get me.

LILY TOMLIN: (As Violet Newstead) Well, welcome to the front lines.

GONZALEZ: Lily Tomlin, I love her.


JANE FONDA: (As Judy Bernly) Oh, I wanted to ask you about my salary.

GONZALEZ: Jane Fonda looks so good. She always looks good.


PARTON: (As Doralee Rhodes) Mr. Hart, I've told you before. I'm a married woman.

GONZALEZ: Dolly Parton is in it?

GLINTON: This is her debut film. OK, Sarah, here's what you got to know about "9 To 5."


GLINTON: It is truly a movie of its era. It's one of the first movies that was set in the work world. It's about clerical workers, secretaries, a workforce which in 1980 was predominantly women. Most of the bosses were men, which leads to all sorts of problems.


DABNEY COLEMAN: (As Franklin Hart Jr.) Dora, please. Look, I want you. I need you.

PARTON: (As Doralee Rhodes) Oh, for heaven's sake. What are you doing, Mr. Hart?

GONZALEZ: Little sexual harassment in the workplace?

GLINTON: Oh, it gets worse.

GONZALEZ: So they've gotten to men being promoted over women when they're not as qualified, getting coffee for the guy.

GLINTON: What I love about this film is that they take these issues and they handle them with comedy. The problems are played for laughs, like the main plot of the film, getting revenge against your boss.

GONZALEZ: Lily, Jane, Dolly - their characters all get high one day and fantasize about killing their boss. They end up kind of accidentally tying him up one day, and while he's tied up, they take over the business. They're running things. By the end of the movie, the boss gets free. He shows up at the office, and with the women in charge, the workplace looked totally different.


COLEMAN: (As Franklin Hart Jr.) What are all these people doing here? It's not even 9 o'clock.

FONDA: (As Judy Bernly) It's called flexible hours. People set their own time. Well, some work 8 to 4. Some work 10 to 6. Some work 9 to 5.

PARTON: (As Doralee Rhodes) A lot less absenteeism. People really like it.

COLEMAN: (As Franklin Hart Jr.) Oh, do they?

GLINTON: They make a bunch of workplace improvements. There's a daycare center at work, flexible hours, equal pay, and they all end up sticking - well, except the equal pay.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, now, that one was never going to stand a chance.

GLINTON: Yeah, exactly. But the others do stick. So at the end of the film, Lily, Jane and Dolly - they all pop champagne.


PARTON: (As Doralee Rhodes) And Tinsworthy loved what we did.

TOMLIN: (As Violet Newstead) Yeah, everything except that part about the money.

FONDA: (As Judy Bernly) What are we going to do about that?

TOMLIN: (As Violet Newstead) Hey, we've come this far, haven't we? This is just the beginning.

GONZALEZ: This is just the beginning. Oh, no, nothing changes. Nothing changes.

GLINTON: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sonari Glinton.

GONZALEZ: And I'm Sarah Gonzalez. And Sonari, the reason you wanted me to watch this movie is because "9 To 5" is not just a movie.

GLINTON: Exactly. For the women who watched it, there was a real, true feeling that the changes they saw on the big screen would lead to changes in the actual world.

GONZALEZ: Today on the show, the story of how "9 To 5," the movie - "9 To 5," the song, even - started with a group of secretaries in Boston.

GLINTON: "9 To 5," the movie, was based on real workplace experiences, and it all started with a woman named Karen Nussbaum.

KAREN NUSSBAUM: I was very active in the anti-war movement and then the newly blooming women's movement. And I got a job to support my activism in the kind of work that most women did in those days, and that was as a clerical worker.

GONZALEZ: This is the 1970s, and something really big was happening around this time. Millions of women were entering the workforce. This is during the Vietnam War. In the '70s, women in the labor force increased by 12 million. And a lot of women were clerical workers. There were 18 million clerical workers by the end of the decade.

NUSSBAUM: If you ask somebody who is a typical worker in America, they most likely say a man in a hard hat. But in fact, literally, the most typical worker in America was a woman at a keyboard.

GONZALEZ: Now, Karen was just doing clerical work to, you know, pay the bills. Her real passion was protesting the Vietnam War.

GLINTON: So one day, Karen is at this anti-war conference, and she runs into one of the biggest movie stars at the time and perhaps the most famous Vietnam War protester.

NUSSBAUM: I saw Jane Fonda sitting on the floor, just participating like anybody else, and it made a big impression on me.

GONZALEZ: Karen and Jane Fonda end up teaming up, protesting the Vietnam War together. Jane would, like, sleep over at Karen's.

NUSSBAUM: I lived with five other women in an apartment that was a mess. She stayed in somebody's water bed.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

NUSSBAUM: We held meetings in our living room. And every once in a while I'd think, oh, Jane Fonda, major motion picture star, is sitting in my living room.

GONZALEZ: Once the war ended, Jane Fonda returned to acting, and Karen - you know, Karen's an activist. And now that the war is over, she starts noticing all these things about the office that she didn't really, really notice before.

NUSSBAUM: There was this casual chauvinism that just popped up all of the time.

GLINTON: At first, Karen and some of her co-workers started meeting regularly, talking about their workplace problems, and then they realized that women all over Boston were doing the exact same thing. So they decide to start a formal labor organization.

GONZALEZ: And what do they decide to call it?

GLINTON: Well, at the time, the workday for clerical workers was 9 to 5.

NUSSBAUM: So we just picked the hours of the day and called it 9to5. And we had an organization of nurses inspired by 9to5 which called themselves 7to3 (ph) 'cause that was their...

GONZALEZ: Rolls right off the tongue, 7to3 (laughter). No one says seven-to-three. Nine-to-five is the phrase.

GLINTON: Thank you so much, Karen, for the much better phrase. Now, at first, Karen says 9to5, the labor organization, started with what felt like painfully small issues.

NUSSBAUM: We started with job posting (laughter). You should at least know when there was a job opening in your company.

GLINTON: That's still a problem.


GONZALEZ: 9to5, the organization, starts spreading across the country, more and more chapters. And it leads to a local union in Boston, SEIU Local 925. Get it - nine, two, five. Pretty soon, Karen and the 9to5 women are demanding and getting higher pay at big institutions. They helped pass the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. And a big priority for Karen was to have fun with all of their campaigns. One of the very first things 9to5 instituted was the Pettiest Office Procedure Contest and the Bad Boss Contest.

NUSSBAUM: And you would be amazed at the things that these guys asked these women to do, and...

GLINTON: What's the pettiest?

GONZALEZ: Yeah, what was the pettiest?

NUSSBAUM: Oh, my gosh. We had a guy who asked his secretary to sew up a hole in his pants while he still had them on.

GONZALEZ: I was going to ask, not while he was still wearing them, of course?

NUSSBAUM: Yes, while he was still wearing them. And you may think that I made that up, except for that when we gave him the award, it was on television. He went on television with the secretary.

GONZALEZ: Wait, how did you - you would invite the petty boss to come on TV to win the petty boss award? And they were like, sure, I would love to.

NUSSBAUM: They didn't even have enough sense to know that they should be embarrassed. We had a guy who gave his secretary his beeper and sent her to the pub, the bar downstairs from their office. And if she saw a woman who met his specifications, she was supposed to beep him. Now, you might think that that's a made-up story, too, except for that was on Phil Donahue. We got the boss and his secretary on "The Phil Donahue Show."

GLINTON: Using daytime talk shows like Phil Donahue, millions of women across the country could see themselves in the office workers on television, which sort of made people go, hold on a second. This is ridiculous. And it made them feel like they could actually call out their own bosses. I know my mom watched a lot of Phil Donahue. And seeing the craziness out in the open on television helped propel the woman's worker movement. This whole time, Karen - she stayed in touch with Jane Fonda, and she'd tell Jane about the things she was hearing from her fellow office workers. And Jane Fonda said, I want to help.

NUSSBAUM: Jane came to me and said, you know, I'd love to support 9to5 in the best way I know how, and that's by making a major motion picture. So I thought, whoa, great.

GONZALEZ: Jane Fonda is like, let's write up a real pitch. I'll shop it around to the film executives. Karen thinks the best angle to pitch is just the sheer number of clerical workers. She writes, office workers haven't seen themselves represented in pop culture almost ever, and there are almost 20 million of us. You'd have a built-in audience, film executives - a built-in audience of almost 20 million people. The movie studio 20th Century Fox approved the idea.

GLINTON: Now Jane had to figure out what the movie was going to be about. She starts meeting with workers from Karen's group, the original 9to5, to get ideas, and there's this pretty important meeting that's the big aha moment.

GONZALEZ: Jane's meeting with about 40 workers in Cleveland, hearing all their complaints.

NUSSBAUM: And long into the meeting, Jane, at one point, says, now, has anybody here ever dreamed of killing your boss? And the room just lit up because everybody had dreamed about getting even with their boss and told story after story about the kinds of things that they want to do to their boss. And it was those stories that became the basis of the movie.

GONZALEZ: At this point, Jane decides this is a movie about getting back at the man.

GLINTON: So they have a movie studio. They have stars. They have a premise. All they need now is a script. In comes a young 26-year-old rising star. She's a writer, Patricia Resnick, and she hears that Jane Fonda, a hero of hers, was producing a movie. She knew that she had to be a part of it. So she gets a meeting with Jane Fonda.

PATRICIA RESNICK: When I went to meet with her at her house, she had stacks and stacks of files. And so I felt that my job was to come up with a compelling story and characters you could root for and a boss that was, you know, as close as you could get to the mustache-twirling villain.

GLINTON: Problem was, even though Patricia had plenty of non-glamorous jobs, including waiting tables, she'd never had a clerical job. So the movie studio, 20th Century Fox, was like, you want to learn about office culture? We got a place for you. Why don't you try our insurance company in downtown Los Angeles?

RESNICK: It was a, you know, giant whole floor of secretaries. And as soon as you walked in, you saw, oh, all the underlings were female, and all the bosses are male. There was not one female in an upper-level position.

GONZALEZ: Patricia spent weeks hanging out with the secretaries, taking them to lunch, listening to their stories, and slowly, the characters for the movie begin to emerge.

GLINTON: One woman in particular kept coming up in all these lunches. Everyone was absolutely sure she was sleeping with the boss.

RESNICK: I was a tiny bit afraid of her. And anyway, I took her out to lunch last and got a couple of martinis into her. That's when people used to drink at lunch. I didn't bring it up. I didn't feel comfortable bringing it up. But she told me that she knew that everybody thought she was sleeping with the boss, and, you know, he was letting them think that, but it was completely untrue. And she started to cry. And, you know, I had no proof either way, but I absolutely believed her.

GONZALEZ: This real-life worker inspired the character played by Dolly Parton.


PARTON: (As Doralee Rhodes) So you've been telling everybody I'm sleeping with you, huh? Well, that explains it. That's why these people treat me like some dime-store floozy. They think I'm screwing the boss.

GLINTON: Dolly Parton's star turn made the idea of sexual harassment a central part of the movie, but the phrase basically didn't exist yet.

RESNICK: Sexual harassment - those words were never used in the movie. We didn't even have a term for it because it was just this thing that men did that we didn't like.

GONZALEZ: Patricia subtly inserted huge workplace reforms into the script. Like, at the very end of the movie, after the women have instituted all these new workplace programs, the boss's boss - the big boss - he shows up, like, wow, you've been so productive, Frank.


STERLING HAYDEN: (As Tinsworthy) Franklin, my boy, I would like to shake your hand. You have managed to create a very, very splendid environment here, like the job-sharing program.

COLEMAN: (As Franklin Hart Jr.) Job-sharing?

GLINTON: Of course, the boss has been literally tied up in a harness the whole movie and didn't do anything. But he takes all the credit.


HAYDEN: (As Tinsworthy) So you pulled it off, Frank?

COLEMAN: (As Franklin Hart Jr.) Well, I like to think we did, anyway (laughter).

HAYDEN: (As Tinsworthy) Good. Like the daycare center.

COLEMAN: (As Franklin Hart Jr.) Daycare center?

TOMLIN: (As Violet Newstead) Our working parents love it. The cost was minimal. It's cut down on absenteeism, and we had a wonderful time doing it.

HAYDEN: (As Tinsworthy) Well, Frank, I got to give you credit. That equal pay thing, though - that's got to go.

GLINTON: All right. Well, here's an irony. A director named Colin Higgins gets hired to direct the movie. Yes, apparently, you needed a dude to direct the movie about women. And this guy - well, he ends up pushing out Patricia Resnick.

RESNICK: He wouldn't let me on the set. He didn't want me around. You know, he gave me the every ship has one captain speech. So I kind of got 9-to-5ed (ph) on "9 To 5."

GLINTON: When you say 9-to-5ed on "9 To 5," there is a plotline in which the man takes credit for the women's work. That's, like, a theme.

RESNICK: Correct.

GLINTON: That's sort of a theme in the movie.

RESNICK: Right. And that's exactly what happened to me. There was a whole documentary about Colin Higgins that talks about "9 To 5" endlessly. I'm never mentioned. There have been other documentaries more recently. I'm never mentioned. And it's golly, you know?

GLINTON: Is that like a - there's something - I don't know what word you would use for it, but there's some weird poetry in that idea.

RESNICK: Yes. Your poetry is my golly.


GONZALEZ: After the break, we see just how far the influence of Hollywood goes in the real world. It's not much. It's not great.

GLINTON: Like, almost none.

GONZALEZ: On December 19, 1980, Karen Nussbaum, who started 9to5 the organization, goes to a dark theater to watch "9 To 5" the movie on the big screen. The opening credits start. The song comes in. You know the song.

GLINTON: Can you tell me, as someone who's leading 9to5, the union, it has to be a crazy moment the first time you hear...

GONZALEZ: You hear that song...

GLINTON: ...That you hear dun dun-dun dun da (ph)...

NUSSBAUM: The song was thrilling.

GONZALEZ: Karen wasn't sure people would like the movie. But then there was this scene. The copy machine is shooting papers everywhere. Jane Fonda's character doesn't know how to stop it.


FONDA: (As Judy, gasping).

NUSSBAUM: And a woman not far down the row from me stands up and yells, push the stop button. You could just feel the electricity in the room because all of the women there are totally in this movie. They see themselves.

GONZALEZ: "9 To 5" is the second-biggest box office hit that year, right after "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back."

GLINTON: Jane and Karen go on a tour with the film, and they're screening the movie in a bunch of theaters having huge worker rallies and using the song especially to promote organizing office workers. It became a cultural phenomenon far beyond Hollywood.

GONZALEZ: After the movie, the number of 9to5 chapters doubles, and the union expands. Both groups are still active today.

GLINTON: And both lobbied to pass marquee employment protection laws, like the Family Medical Leave Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

GONZALEZ: But for Karen, there was something more subtle that they all accomplished, also. 9to5 the movement was the start of women being perceived differently in the workplace. They were starting to be treated more as professionals, less likely to be asked to sew up their boss's pants, more likely to say no if someone did ask them to do that.

NUSSBAUM: The movement from the 1970s had a massive effect on the way women think of ourselves. We have built generations of self-confident women who take care of ourselves.

GONZALEZ: But Karen really thought there would have been more progress made over the last 40 years. The main issues that 9to5 fought for, they're still a problem today - child care, sexual harassment, equal pay.

GLINTON: The pay disparity is largest for women of color. And I want to acknowledge for a moment that this is a movie about white women. Shout out to Maria Delgado for holding it down for all the women of color in the entire movie.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) Shout out, Maria Delgado.

Now, in many ways, Karen says we've actually gone backwards. You know, Karen has spent almost 50 years in the labor movement. She ran the union. She was in the Department of Labor. And she says the period right after the movie, the '80s, undid a lot of the progress made in the '70s.

NUSSBAUM: When we started first organizing at 9to5, I never expected that we would see fewer people without sick days, that we would see fewer people without paid leave. I certainly thought we would have paid maternity leave.

GLINTON: Karen blames the decline in labor protections on union participation. When the movie came out, almost 25% of U.S. companies were unionized. Today, it's about 10%. But she says the 2020s kind of feel like they could have the momentum of the '70s.

NUSSBAUM: I'm hopeful because the turmoil of the 1970s is so similar to what we're seeing today. You had upheaval in politics, upheaval in the economy, upheaval in social movements. And I think our job now is to make sure that this coming decade is not a repeat of the 1980s.


GONZALEZ: Just this year, Dolly Parton released an updated version of her original song. It's called "5 To 9," an ode to all the extra, extra, extra hours women have to work.


PARTON: (Singing) Working 5 to 9, making something of your own now. And it...

GLINTON: I think that Dolly Parton is the most underrated songwriter alive today. She can certainly write a catchy tune, but, geez, it's depressing.

GONZALEZ: That's sort of the brilliance of this whole "9 To 5" thing. Like, you're like dancing along. You're enjoying it. And then when you really listen to the lyrics, you're like, wait - this is a little messed up. Like, why does it have to be this way?

GLINTON: And thus, the greatness of Dolly Parton.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).


PARTON: (Singing) ...That gives it meanin' - with a website that is worthy of your dreamin'. Five to 9...

GONZALEZ: If you want to tell us about your bad boss, we're on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok. We're @PlanetMoney.

GLINTON: Also, Ellen Cassedy co-founded 9to5 with Karen, who we want to make sure gets credit.

GONZALEZ: Absolutely.

Today's show was produced by Nick Fountain and James Sneed and edited by Mitra Kaboli.

GLINTON: Bryant Urstadt is our show's editor. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. That means he's the boss. And to be clear, we both want him to live a long and happy life.

GONZALEZ: Very, very happy life. And Sonari, you have a podcast called "Now, What's Next?" It's about the post-COVID future. Everyone, you should check it out. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

GLINTON: And I'm Sonari Glinton. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


PARTON: (Singing) Well, you got dreams and you know they matter. Be your own boss. Climb your own ladder. That moment's getting closer by the day.

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