Union Maids. Directed by Jim Klein, Miles Mogulescu, and Julia Reichert. Beacon, NY: New Day Films, 1976. 51 minutes.
The Girl with the Rivet Gun. Directed by Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2020. 15 minutes.
9 to 5: The Story of a Movement. Directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bogar. Arlington, VA: Public Broadcasting Service, 2021. 84 minutes.
Offering documentary perspectives on three different moments in American women's labor history, Union Maids, The Girl with the Rivet Gun, and 9 to 5: The Story of a Movement are well-suited for introductory women's or labor history courses.
Union Maids is a classic documentary about the lives of women labor activists in the 1930s. The three women on whom the film focuses—Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods—brim with conviction, even as they recount their stories forty years later. All began working when they were teenagers: Kate at a factory that made men's athletic supports, Stella in a stockyard, and Sylvia in a laundry. Though their different backgrounds shaped their experiences on the job and the issues they fought for, all three grappled with low wages and poor working conditions. White workers Kate and Stella organized campaigns to address safety hazards and protest layoffs, while Sylvia, who is Black, also contended with racial discrimination in pay and hiring practices. To challenge, Sylvia organized what she believes may have been one of the first sit-down strikes of the 1930s.
In the feminist classroom, instructors should contextualize Union Maids within the moment of its production. In the mid-1970s several factors may have drawn attention to the Depression-era activism of women workers. Not only had the women's movement matured and developed into several distinct strands, including liberal, radical, socialist, and women of color feminisms, but stagflation and declining union membership placed strains on the working class. At the same time, wildcat strikes by postal workers, the organizing of household employees, and the ongoing militancy of the United Farm Workers suggested labor's potential for social and economic redistribution. Filmmakers Julia Reichert, Jim Klein, and Miles Mogulescu can, at times, elide the complexities of solidarity, focusing instead on the exceptional. In her 1977 review of the film, historian Linda Gordon critiqued its tendency to overemphasize the support that the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) offered working women. In reality, the CIO's limited efforts in the 1930s resulted from the rank-and-file pressure of workers on the shop floor. Instructors should help students engage with this context—both the realities of women's organizing in the 1930s and the conjuncture of historical forces in which Union Maids was produced.
I would pair Union Maids with Dorothy Sue Cobble's The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (2004), Dayo Gore's Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (2011), and Vicki Ruiz’s Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950 (1987). Like Union Maids, these classic texts examine women’s challenges to economic power structures. By offering histories of women's activism in the twentieth century that focus on labor politics, they urge us to reconsider the traditional periodization of feminism. Interviews with the film's protagonists are accessible online, and may serve as additional primary sources for students to explore (Hyndman 2015; Starr 2016; “Sylvia Woods” 2014). Viewers interested in an overview of American women’s movements since suffrage might begin with a text jointly written by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry: Feminism Unfinished: A Short Surprising History of American Women’s Movements (2014).
Girl with a Rivet Gun is a creative short film about women factory workers during World War II. The filmmaking and production team—consisting of Danielle Ash, Anne de Mare, Kirsten Kelly, and Elizabeth Hemmerdinger—use cardboard animation to explore the everyday experience of work, and their topics span an impressive range from interracial interactions on the job to the tedium of factory production. Beyond the sheer creativity of its medium, the value of Girl with the Rivet Gun is its ability to capture the texture of workers' daily lives. Two scenes stand out for their insights into experiences that may be atypical or infrequently discussed. The first is about the role of factory work in expanding workers' cultural worlds. One worker describes how her boss read scenes from Othello during lunch and the whole shop viewed a production of the play afterward. While cynics would rightly note both the boss's paternalism and the unrepresentative nature of this experience, the worker's teary-eyed telling suggests the impact it had on her life. Another woman describes the emotion she felt when the Air Force disposed of the planes she built. “They weren't really fit to fly again,” she explained, “but it really, it hurt to think that my Helldiver was going in the ocean” (5:21). This short scene offers a welcome peek into the pride many workers felt, not only in their contributions to the war effort but in the products they helped to build.
While Girl with the Rivet Gun might come off a bit sanguine about the experiences of women workers (cardboard faces with unchanging smiles suggest an irony the film does not really entertain), the length alone gives it pedagogical merit. Instructors could easily show it during the first fifteen minutes of class, offering a tool for visual learners and leaving ample time for lecture or class discussion. Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo's Abiding Courage: African American Migrant Women and the East Bay Community (1996) could be read alongside the film.
9 to 5: the Story of a Movement brings us back to the work of Julia Reichert with a documentary on the movement initiated by clerical workers in the early 1970s. While 9 to 5 started in Boston, it soon spread across the country, inspiring workers in Cleveland, Seattle, and many other cities. Through interviews with numerous participants, the film showcases the strategies clerical workers used to address wage fixing, union busting, and sexual harassment. The eponymic box office classic, based on the 9 to 5 movement and starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton, also offers ample attention to workplace sexual misconduct (9 to 5 1980). It would be a shame to show the documentary without showing the feature film. Not only does the feature film offer the sheer joy of watching Fonda, Tomlin, and Parton kidnap their boss, it also allows us to see how cinema mediated and translated women’s experiences in the workplace to the viewing public. In Reichert’s film Jane Fonda explains that each part of the feature film represents a story told to Fonda and Tomlin by workers in the 9 to 5 movement, sharpening the sting of the feature film's many punchlines.
One of the strengths of the 9 to 5 documentary is the breadth of perspectives it offers and the diversity of women it interviews. Unlike Union Maids and Girl with the Rivet Gun, both of which focus exclusively on white and Black workers, 9 to 5 includes interviews with Asian-American and Latina women. At the same time, 9 to 5 sidesteps issues of race until later in the film, a pitfall that the previous two films avoid. The images shown in the first hour suggest a multiracial movement, but the viewer is left wondering what the images obscure. A union campaign at National City Bank in Cleveland later exposes the difficulties of uniting a diverse workforce, revealing how issues of racism could, at times, slow the process of winning a union.
After showing Union Maids earlier in the semester, an instructor might remind students of the chronological overlap between the 9 to 5 movement and the production of Union Maids. Both offer windows into the women's liberation movement in the 1970s: while the 9 to 5 documentary engages with it directly, Union Maids suggests some of the questions that interested feminist filmmakers in the 1970s. An instructor might tease out these dynamics, asking students whether Union Maids reveals more about the 1930s or the 1970s, and, in that vein, what the 9 to 5 documentary might tell us about our present moment.
I would pair the 9 to 5 documentary not only with the feature film, but also with Kirsten Swinth's Feminism's Forgotten Fight: The Unfinished Struggle for Work and Family (2018), which explores the understudied efforts of second-wave feminists to redistribute unwaged labor and to pressure workplaces to accommodate families. Together, the two pieces showcase how the women's movement engaged with the politics of work beyond liberal feminists' demands for equality.
Ideally, all three films would have a place in the feminist classroom, as each covers an important moment in women's labor history. If I could show only one, I would choose Union Maids. Viewing it again for this review reminded me why it has achieved classic status. Its singular focus on three workers offers penetrating insights into women's working lives, and the fervency of its three radical protagonists reminds young viewers of the potential in labor feminism to reimagine power in the workplace.
9 to 5. 1980. Directed by Colin Higgins. Century City, CA: 20th Century Fox. 110 minutes.
Cobble, Dorothy Sue. 2004. The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Cobble, Dorothy Sue, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry. 2014. Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements. New York: Liveright Publishing.
Gordon, Linda. 1977. “Union Maids: Working Class Heroines.” Jumpcut: A Review of Contemporary Media 14 (March): 34-35.
Gore, Dayo F. 2011. Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War. New York: New York University Press.
Lemke-Santangelo, Gretchen. 1996. Abiding Courage: African American Migrant Women and the East Bay Community.Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Hyndman, Katherine. 2015. “1970 Oral History Interview with Katherine Hyndman.” Libcom.org, June 2.
Ruiz, Vicki L. 1987. Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Starr, Vicki. 2016. “Union Maids / Vicky Starr aka Stella Nowicki; Produced by Sophie's Parlor Media Collective.” Archive.org, 32:59, April 30.
Swinth, Kirsten. 2018. Feminism's Forgotten Fight: The Unfinished Struggle for Work and Family. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
“Sylvia Woods (1919) Read by Alana Arenas.” 2014. Vimeo video, 3:02. Voices of a People's History, July 8.
Combahee River Collective. 1995 (1977). “A Black Feminist Statement.” In Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall, 232–40. New York: New Press.
Farmer, Ashley D. 2017. Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta, ed. 2017. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Chicago: Haymarket Books.