Ellen Cassedy

“I’ve always been hungry to be connected to the women who came before me.”

Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, July 2022

EC:  I’m Ellen Cassedy. I was born in 1950 in Brooklyn, New York. I grew up in the Baltimore and Washington area and then went to high school on Long Island in New York. My father was a professor of electrical engineering. My mother was both a homemaker and a writer of very literary children’s books, and I grew up in a house that was full of words and books that influenced my later life as a writer.

I also grew up in a home where social issues were very much a part of daily life. In the 1950’s, Baltimore was a legally segregated city. My parents used to drive me and my brother through different neighborhoods and talk to us about segregation and civil rights, and I was involved with my parents in civil rights demonstrations and peace demonstrations.

MJC: And ethnically you’re identified as?

EC: White. My mother was Jewish, and my father was brought up going to whatever Protestant church was closest to home. I thought of myself as from a mixed marriage, and in the neighborhoods where we lived that was very unusual. I think that background was important to my identity as somebody who was could reach out across cultural and class and racial divides.

MJC: When did you begin to be aware of yourself as a woman, or be aware of the women’s movement?

EC:  Very early on, I was aware of gender and what girls were supposed to do and what boys were supposed to do. When I was 15, I read The Feminine Mystique and felt kind of terrified by it in two ways. One, the portrait of disaffected, bored women was very painful to read. The other scary thing was wondering whether I would ever be able to get free of the stereotyped roles and fulfill my destiny as a full human being. I wasn’t sure I could.

I think I grew up on a sort of cusp.  Girls like me both did and did not expect to have a career other than mom and housewife. When I got to college in 1968, the women’s movement was just beginning to blossom.  I attended the University of Chicago for two years and attended a meeting of a group called WRAP –  Women’s Radical Action Project.  We sat around in a circle and talked about what it was like to be a young woman at the university. My heart was in my throat. I could barely speak.

After two years, I transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. By that time, campuses all over the country were exploding, and women’s studies was taking off. By then, I was ready to join the women’s movement.

I read Sisterhood Is Powerful and joined a consciousness raising group. Women’s labor history became my area of study. I attended classes with instructors who would come to class desperate to share their findings about women who had never been the subject of scholarship before. The walls of the classroom were lined with auditors, women who were not actually enrolled at the university but were dying to hear this information. The atmosphere was electric. We were discovering something about ourselves, about our society, about our history.

I ended up writing my senior thesis on the Women’s Trade Union League. This group supported the women garment workers’ strikes of the early 20th century, such as the Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909 – huge strikes that transformed the garment industry, the mills, and the labor movement itself. The Women’s Trade Union League played a part in developing women garment workers into skilled labor leaders, and they enlisted the support of middle-class and wealthy women. They had a big impact.

Much later, when I was part of starting 9 to 5, the working women’s organization, I realized that the WTUL was kind of the grandmother of 9 to 5. It was not a union, but it was adjacent to the labor movement and helped it succeed.

MJC: You’re at Berkeley, and what comes next?

EC: As I was graduating, like many people at that age, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. Was I headed for a career? I couldn’t really picture it.  Also, the Vietnam War was in full swing and the country was in turmoil.  It was hard to see settling down. I went to visit my friend from the University of Chicago, Karen Nussbaum, and she suggested I join her in Boston and work for the peace organization she was involved with. So I did.

After a few months, the peace organization ran out of money and we all had to get jobs.  Karen and I became clerk typists at Harvard University, and that’s where the seeds of 9 to 5 took root. That time was the great economic tipping point, when women flooded into the workforce, especially into clerical jobs.

The need for women to work had been true for families of color for many years, but many white women who had not expected to have to work found that they did. And the ideas of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement had seeped into workplaces everywhere.

The women in our offices were not participants in the women’s movement. They didn’t go into demonstrations. But they were talking about equality and about wanting to be treated fairly on the job.

A group of us started meeting on Thursdays at lunch time to talk about our jobs. Soon we’d formed a citywide organization that we named 9 to 5, after the hours of a working day.  We felt we had our finger on the pulse of something big.  When we heard that a training school for organizers called the Midwest Academy would soon be holding its very first summer session in Chicago, our group decided to send me.

At the Midwest Academy, my eyes were opened. I learned all kinds of things about the techniques of community organizing, and I also came to understand the concept of being organized, as in wearing a watch, and writing things down on index cards, and showing up on time. I learned the nuts and bolts of listening, paying attention to how people talked, guiding a discussion, zeroing in on what people might be willing to do.

At the end of the summer of 1973, I came back to Boston and our group set about crafting a plan for action. I quit my job at Harvard and started working full time at our office at the Boston Y. We started by doing research about the situation of women working in Boston offices and learned that women were the backbone of the service sector that dominated the Boston skyline, and that we were underpaid and undervalued.

We developed a systematic plan for reaching out to women who worked in the banks, insurance companies, publishing houses, law firms, and universities. We wrote a Bill of Rights for Women Office Workers and worked on figuring out what we could demand and what we could win.

We settled on a plan that had three prongs.

First was to get in the media constantly.  we dreamed up all kinds of crazy theater, and we were covered all the time by the Boston Globe and radio stations and TV.

Here’s an example of what we did. We announced that we were holding a petty office procedure contest, a bad boss contest. We invited women from all over the city to send in their nominations of the most ridiculous or abusive or annoying thing their boss had ever asked them to do. We got some amazing nominations – such as the boss who asked his secretary to sew up a hole in his pants while he was wearing them.

At lunchtime we took a group of women to visit this boss and present him with an executive sewing kit. The TV cameras rolled.

Then there was the man who fired his secretary for bringing him a corned beef on white instead of rye.  And many other terrible things that bosses were asking office workers to do.

It was an education for everybody. Women thought, hmm, maybe I don’t have to put up with that. And bosses thought, hmm, maybe I should change my ways.

Who made the coffee in the office? A giant issue. One year we erected a huge coffee cup in City Hall Plaza in downtown Boston. No words were necessary. The cup said it all.

The second prong as to get anti-discrimination agencies working on our behalf.

We scoured the books, and instead of going straight to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, we found obscure regulations that gave the state insurance commissioner, for example, the power to regulate employment conditions.  We caught him by surprise and he ended up doing more than we asked for. The Department of Public Utilities, for another example, had powers it had never used that pertained to how the phone company was treating workers. We caught them off guard, too. And the federal affirmative action regulations were a rich source of pressure on companies that were undervaluing women and people of color.

The third prong was the use of what you might call whistleblowers. We created safe ways for women working in offices to pass along information. Then we’d bring that information out in the open and use it to embarrass and pressure the companies.

The banks were making profits hand over fist, and yet some full-time bank workers were paid so little that they were eligible for food stamps. We targeted the biggest bank in town, the First National Bank of Boston, and declared 1979 “The Year of the First.”

Our campaign targeting the First made use of all three prongs – media attention, government action, and whistleblowers.

We began our campaign with a big splashy press conference, the First announced that it was going to start posting jobs. (When jobs came open, many employers wanted to just pick whoever they wanted for the job without letting employees know about the openings. Our view was that employees should know about job openings and have a chance to apply.

We worked with the federal affirmative action regulators to make sure the bank was investigated.

We passed out an anonymous survey in front of the bank and set up an anonymous hotline for employees to call us. We heard things like this:

I just trained a man to be my supervisor.  I’ve been here 15 years, I know how to do the job, but they won’t hire me. They’re hiring him “because he has a family to support.”  Not fair.

We took this information, put it on a leaflet, and passed it out the next day in front of the bank. We went to big depositors, unions, and community organizations and said, Is this what you want? Tell them you don’t like it.

Management couldn’t have been more surprised. It was as if the wallpaper had come alive.

By the end of the Year of the First, 51 women had been promoted into management, career ladders were created, a grievance procedure was instituted, and the bank gave a 12% across-the-board raise, the  largest in bank history.

MJC: How did you see the women change?

EC: That was one of the most moving things about our organizing. It happened both to women who were directly involved in the organization and to many, many, other women who just watched from the sidelines.

At first we thought, as with community organizing, that we’d be able to go out and find the leaders in the clerical workforce. But we found that instead of finding leaders, we had to develop them. Many of the women who came to our meetings had never been to a meeting before. Their hearts would be pounding when it was time to introduce themselves, just the way mine had been in the early consciousness raising group at college.

Women were afraid to call strangers on the phone.  I knew about that because I was one of them. I had to write out a script to get up the courage to call people I didn’t know. I think being shy actually helped me because I was able empathize with other women and realize how they were feeling.

How do you help people take the first step and then the second step? First they come to a meeting. Then they bring someone to a meeting. Then they’re in charge of bringing the cookies or setting up the chairs or introducing a speaker.

I remember one time we met with a government official at an anti-discrimination agency. There were maybe 20 of us on our lunch hour standing in front of his desk. All of a sudden, he came out from behind the desk and started pacing back and forth. “Okay,” he said, “I’ve heard from your spokeswoman, but now I’d like to hear from some of you less vocal ladies.”

At that point there was a loud crash, as one of our party fell to the floor. I, as the organizer, rushed over to raise her feet off the floor, but the meeting was at an end.  That woman later became the chair of 9 to 5. She would often tell the story of how she’d fainted because she was so terrified. But now look at her!

MJC:  As you developed in Boston, how did you reach the women in other cities? How did that work?

EC: By the mid-1970’s, we’d formed a coalition with other working women’s groups in other cities, and we also started some new citywide organizations.  Soon we had groups all the way from San Francisco to Cleveland to New York and Washington, all working together. Over the years, we developed more organizations until we had several dozen chapters all over the country.

MJC: The model basically was being imitated in other cities.

EC: That’s right. We had a national staff based in Cleveland, as well as offices in Washington and Boston. We had staff to nurture the newest organizations through the first steps. How do you gather statistics? How do you set your first target? How do you bring people in? How do you develop leadership? It was very exciting.

In the late 70’s, Jane Fonda came to us, having known Karen Nussbaum, one of our founders, from the anti-war movement, and said she wanted to make a movie about the concerns of office workers. The film “9 to 5” came out in 1980 and was a huge box office hit.

Not only did we feed stories to Jane Fonda’s team that went right into the script, but Jane Fonda went on a tour to promote the movement behind the movie. The two things – the movement and the movie – were really married to each other. And Dolly Parton’s enduring anthem, “Working 9 to 5,” was, too.

Of course, we were very nervous that Hollywood wouldn’t get it right. Would they make everybody laugh at the secretaries instead of the bosses? Would the movie suggest that clerical work was somehow “less than”?

Right from the start, we were very clear that office work was dignified work and office workers deserved to be treated with respect. It wasn’t just about rising up to higher jobs. It was about the right to be treated fairly wherever you were. And it was about joining together to win those rights and that respect.

In the end, the movie was really true to what we were about.

Before the movie came out, it was sort of open for debate, whether office workers should be treated like full workers, and whether women should be treated equally with men.

Those arguments went by the wayside after the movie came out. I remember being on a bus one morning and hearing a woman saying to another woman, “So he asked me to make the coffee and I said to him, I just watched ‘9 to 5’ and I’m never going to make coffee for you again.”

MJC: That movie was tremendous. All the organizing had to be done, too. But the movie brought it to another level of consciousness.

EC:  Right. That’s a good way of putting it.

I want to emphasize that we created an organization where women of all classes felt comfortable. That didn’t just happen. It was a conscious goal.  In the same way, I’m proud of the multiracial character of our movement.  Boston’s clerical workforce was more than 90 percent white, and part of the reason we decided to expand to other cities was to build a multiracial organization.

We targeted cities with a diverse workforce and made sure that our leadership and our membership reflected those demographics. Again, that didn’t just happen. It took conscious effort.

We always talked about race discrimination in the same breath as sex discrimination. We kept our focus, on a common goal and a common target, and we linked arms and moved forward together to win better policies on the job.

The next phase was the union. Right from the start, we believed that women office workers should be able to join a union if they wanted to. When we looked at history, we saw that American workers who were able to make lasting changes on the job had done so through unions.

But there were very few women union officials, and as for the men we met with, it was often hard for them to understand what we were talking about. When they thought “worker,” they thought of a man in a hard hat with a wrench. They didn’t see women sitting at a typewriter as real workers., They didn’t believe that such women would ever want to be part of a union.

But we kept at it, and eventually, the Service Employees International Union granted us a charter for a local called Local 925, a play on “9 to 5.” We had the right to hire our own staff, and our own constitution, and we could decide what union drives we would engage in. We immediately unionized a small publishing company, then a larger publishing company, and we got a lot of action going on university campuses.

In 1981, we launched District 925 as a nationwide union effort. Soon we were running union drives in Syracuse and Seattle and Cincinnati and Cleveland and Boston.

This happened at a time when unions all over the country were facing huge challenges.  The year we started District 925 was the exact moment when Ronald Reagan fired thousands of air traffic controllers and employers everywhere were hiring anti-union consultants – union-busters – at an unprecedented rate.  The era of employers and unions working together for a stable middle class was over.

By necessity, we came up with some really creative tactics. For example, at the University of Washington in Seattle, a key tactic at the bargaining table turned out to be mentioning the issue of the dearth of Tampax machines as often as possible – just to fluster the management side.

At the University of Cincinnati, we developed something called “the herd.” At 10 a.m., office workers stood up from their desks and started shaking cans of beans as they paraded through the campus in a one-day strike. We had people standing outside the library in Cleveland ringing cow bells. We did all kinds of wacky things.

We made use of the 9 to 5 style of listening and developing leaders. We brought women into the labor movement who brought the 9 to 5 spirit with them and stayed for decades. That’s a legacy I feel proud of.

And we won some excellent contracts.

MJC:  So, you worked with 9 to 5 for how many years? And then what led you to take a different route?

EC:  I was on the staff of 9 to 5 until 1985, twelve years. Eventually I worked in Washington, where we were part of a pay equity coalition and helped pressure the government to enforce anti-discrimination laws. But when it was my time to have children, I found that the job of full-time activist and mom didn’t fit together well.

In 1985, I ended up moving over to write speeches for the Service Employees International Union. I wrote a column on “work from the worker’s point of view” for the Philadelphia Daily News. I wrote articles about work issues for women’s magazines. A few years later I became a speechwriter in the Clinton administration, moved to Washington, continued writing speeches for SEIU, and eventually moved on to other kinds of writing.

I wrote a play that was turned into a movie about my great-aunt, a retired secretary, called “Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn.” She was someone who was overlooked but who had a rich inner life.  I wrote a book about how Lithuania is dealing with its Holocaust past, called We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust. To write it, I had to really listen to people, set aside my assumptions, and encourage my readers to do the same. I also became a translator, translating the work of women writing in Yiddish into English.

In the last several years I’ve been working on a memoir called Working 9 to 5: A women’s movement, a labor union, and the iconic movie (Chicago Review Press, 2022, foreword by Jane Fonda).  Writing the book has been a moving experience. I’ve loved remembering what a gas we had and how we basically believed we could do anything!

We didn’t realize all our dreams, but isn’t that always the way it is? We did make change. Pregnancy discrimination was legal when we got started. It’s not anymore. Sexual harassment was legal when we got started, and there wasn’t even a name for it. That’s changed. There are more career ladders for college-educated women today. The wage gap has narrowed. Back then the wage gap between men and women was 57 cents — women earned $0.57 for every dollar that men earned. Today, the gap is $0.81. That’s a big improvement, though it’s not perfect by any means, and the gap is widest for women of color.

In many ways harder to be a working person in today’s economy than it was in 1973. The precarity of jobs, the lack of job security, the gig jobs, the second-by-second computerized monitoring and the relentless pace, the 24/7 jobs, the fact that it can take a patchwork of two or three jobs to put food on the table.  People don’t have pensions, they don’t have vacations, they don’t have health care.

At the same time, though, I see reasons for hope. There’s an upsurge of support for unions.  We see people organizing – retail workers, warehouse workers, restaurant workers, care workers, grad students – in ways that remind me of the organizing of the 1970’s and 1980’s.  back then. Things are bubbling up.

I want to make the point before we end that I feel there was something unusual about what we did.  We were a blend of the women’s movement and the labor movement.  The historian Lane Windham has said, “They created their own kind of feminism – a workplace feminism, and it was powerful.”

Many women who joined our organization made a point of telling us that they were not feminists. I did think of myself as a feminist, in the sense that I felt that women were not being treated fairly, and that making sure that women were treated fairly was my goal.

But a lot of women didn’t see it that way. They would say, I believe in equal pay for equal work, but I’m not a feminist. Eventually, some of those women started to think, you know what? Maybe I am a feminist. But we didn’t make it a litmus test.

The broad-brush image of the women’s movement as bra-burners and man-haters wasn’t a fair characterization, but it was intimidating.  We created a safe space for people who looked at the way the women’s movement was presented in the media and thought, that’s not me.

Also, unlike other parts of the women’s movement, we didn’t eat each other alive. We couldn’t get enough of each other. We all felt like part of a joint venture. Somehow we sort of scooted past a tendency to get deep into arguing about theory, or rigid practice.

MJC:  So, what should be done today to replicate that kind of approach?

EC:   We had a 9 to 5 reunion a couple of years ago. Of course, there can’t be a 9 to 5 meeting without a survey, so we asked everyone to fill out a questionnaire.  We asked, what’s your advice for today’s activists? People said all kinds of things. Really listen. Reach out to somebody who’s not like you. Keep your focus on the boss. Don’t form an organization without knowing what you want to do.

But I think what struck me the most was when somebody said, “There are some amazing activists out there. They know what they’re doing. They’re following their own noses, just the way we did back then.”

We sought out our elders and listened to what they had to say. We were eager to learn from people who had experience.  But we also just went for it. We figured it out as we went along. I think that’s what needs to happen with today’s activists, and I think it will.

MJC: I think that’s wise, and I think you’re right. The reason we want to preserve this history of our time is so that people have that as a resource if they choose to access it. Because I think some of the things that happened could be replicated. Some of the strategies could be, if not replicated, at least the source of inspiration.

EC: Yes. There was a woman in her 80s in Boston named Florence Luscomb. She had been a suffragist.  She would come and speak at our outdoor rallies on National Secretary’s Day and she would say, “When I was five years old, my mother took me to see Susan B. Anthony.” My heart would just swell. I’ve always been hungry to be connected to the women who came before me. And it’s been very gratifying that some of today’s activists tell me “We stand on the shoulders of you who came before us.”

MJC: I think that’s why it’s important. All your books, but the book you just wrote about your experience in the women’s movement, and the working women’s movement, is a valuable resource and I thank you for that.