The Incredible True Story Behind Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’

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The working woman’s problems in 9 to 5, the Jane Fonda-starring feminist comedy about three secretaries’ revolt against their chauvinistic boss, only seem distant at first.

Yes, the movie is four decades old. Female office workers and secretaries are no longer the largest sector of the American workforce; 20 million women don’t roll on pantyhose and sling on high heels every morning while staring down the barrel of another day of mind-numbing clerical work and coffee-fetching. The battle to end the gender pay gap and sexual harassment on the job still toils on. But the feminist movement of the 1970s organized resistance against male bosses who regarded the women around them at work as “office wives” and not fellow professionals. Female office workers took to the streets and brought their message to employers, legislatures, and pop culture.

Finally, women’s careers diversified; cultural attitudes changed. For many Americans, the oppressed secretary’s struggle for respect and recognition now seems frozen in time, stiff as the four-inch halo of hairspray curls around every woman’s head in 9 to 5.

But right at the end of the movie, just before we toast champagne with Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin in their newly egalitarian office, 9 to 5 reveals a more radical vision of the workplace than the simple eradication of every “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” (Like their boss, who gets relocated to Brazil.) Tomlin rattles off new employee benefits and accommodations including an in-office daycare center, flexible hours, a job-sharing program, even resources for recovering alcoholics—on top of the basic things like robust health care, equal pay, and the catharsis of watching a serial sexual harasser shipped off the continent. Workers are happier and more productive, making higher-ups happy too. It’s a gleaming example of how functional and humane work can be.



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