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Feminist Fiction or Feminist Future? Revisiting the Working Women’s Movement for Women’s Organizations Today

Feminist Fiction or Feminist Future? Revisiting the Working Women’s Movement for Women’s Organizations Today

A new documentary, 9 to 5: The Story of a Movement, tells the herstory of the 1970’s working women’s movement that inspired the classic 1980’s film 9 to 5.

The film 9 to 5 depicts a sexist, misogynistic, and patriarchal work environment where women are harassed, underpaid, and passed over for promotion. In a desperate attempt to change their situation, co-stars Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lilly Tomlin kidnap their boss and take over the company. Their leadership normalizes women at the highest levels of the company as they implement new policies that include equal pay, flexible hours, in-house day care, and a job-share program.

Let’s face it – Fonda, Parton, and Tomlin have always been bad asses, and their appearance in 9 to 5 has been made legend by working women across generations. But does the equitable workplace created in the film hold up in real life or is it only feminist fiction?

Thanks to the working women’s movement many of the rights for women in the workforce have been expanded. Still, many of the policies portrayed in 9 to 5 have yet to be achieved in the workplace. For example, women’s organizations are held up as symbols of social justice-focused organizations, yet often replicate systems of oppression. While simultaneously working for the equity and justice of those they serve women’s organizations have gone along with a philosophy of leadership couched in white male professionalism for the promise of success and legitimacy. Women-focused and lead organizations are not exempt from dominant societal values, pressures, and problems.

Recently, a longtime colleague made the decision, endorsed by her board of directors, to step down as CEO of a national feminist organization after serving for only one year. Citing leadership style difference this fabulous, queer, woman of color activist with almost 20 years of experience leading feminist organizations was, in the views of her all-women board of directors, “not direct enough.” Her style of valuing mutual voices and consensus-building was too collaborative and did not provide enough vision to her all-woman staff. Some might say this is an isolated incident. Yet I hear similar story after story from women in my work as a coach and leadership educator across all types of sectors, leadership roles, and organizations.

Another executive level colleague, a white, queer vice president of a women and gender-focused organization, served for years on the board of a large regional organization addressing poverty. She was coached by fellow board members and promoted to board chair. Shortly into her term, the older white men and women on the board began to meet privately to discuss that my colleague was uncommitted for taking one weekend away to care for her sick parent and “disrespectful” for centering diversity, equity, and inclusion in her work.

Women want more women leaders, but we don’t support or trust other women to be leaders even in women’s organization. This manifestation of patriarchal structures in women’s organization is creating a hostile environment for women in the workplace who are harmed, intimidated, and coerced, or bullied, by other women.

To be sure men are still predominantly perpetrating bullying at work, but they are bullying men and women equally. However, according to a 2021 report by the Work Place Bullying Institute, when women are bullies in the workplace they choose other women as their targets 65% of the time. What does this say about the status of women leaders in our society if we as women don’t support other women leaders?

Though the obstacles are many, when it comes to women bullying other women in the workplace, there are a few small things all women can due to begin to overcome this dynamic today. In 9 to 5, Fonda, Parton, and Tomlin did not create a more equitable organization alone but envisioned a better future together. Women must work to support each other at all levels by acknowledging our different intersecting identities, encourage each other, and making space for more of us at the table in our workplaces.

Women need to call other women in and hold accountable those around us who bully other women, so they do not derail organizational efforts to support women. I know systems are hard to navigate and they are not setup for women to thrive, but you don’t have to face obstacles alone. We can remove barriers together: start small by supporting other women in your organizations and institutions today so our feminist fiction can be our shared feminist future.

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