Working 9 to 5 at Harvard and beyond

2 min read

Before the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, there was 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women. Founded in 1972 by Ellen Cassedy and Karen Nussbaum, then clerical workers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the organization dedicated itself to putting issues faced by working women on the public agenda.

Allison Elias, a graduate student in the University of Virginia’s Department of History, has delved deeply into the organizational papers of 9 to 5, which are housed at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute. During a lunchtime presentation in the library’s Radcliffe College Room on September 2, Elias discussed her research and her work-in-progress, “Gendering the Problems of Working Women: Clerical Workers, Labor Organizing, and Second-Wave Feminism.”

Elias, a recipient of a Dissertation Support Grant from the Schlesinger, found extensive labor materials in the library’s archives, from 9 to 5 and other organizations and unions. Although 9 to 5 never functioned as a formal labor union—collective bargaining didn’t figure into its activities—the organization used publicity, affirmative action campaigns, conferences, and wage surveys to improve conditions for women employed in many public and private industries. They focused on areas as varied as pay concerns and health and safety in the workplace: In the 1980s, 9 to 5 even produced their own consumer report on video display terminals.

The 9 to 5 name became so tied to women’s issues in the workplace that it even spawned a pop culture classic. Actress and activist Jane Fonda admired the cause and helped bring a lighthearted take on secretaries’ plights to the big screen: 9 to 5 was the highest-grossing comedy of 1980.

In addition to the organizational records of 9 to 5, the Schlesinger Library is home to several other labor-related collections, including the organizational records of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers; the records of the Massachusetts History Workshop; and the papers of Jean Tepperman, author of Not Servants, Not Machines: Office Workers Speak Out! (Beacon Press, 1976). Elias dipped into all of these collections during her month-long visit to the library, her second research trip to the Radcliffe Institute campus.