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Documentary Studies

9to5 organizer Karen Nussbaum on “The Story of a Movement”

The Econ Extra Credit Team Feb 11, 2021
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Just over a year ago, women overtook men as the majority of the United States workforce. In 2019, employers added 600,000 men to their payrolls and more than twice that many women — 1.5 million. Economists expected women to continue edging ahead. But a shock to the system — the COVID-19 pandemic — has abruptly reversed that trend. In 2020, American men lost 1.8 million jobs while women lost 2.4 million. It’s been called a “she-cession.” 

Something similar happened with the 9to5 movement — the subject of this month’s Econ Extra Credit documentary selection. “We felt we had this tremendous momentum in the 1970s,” 9to5 founder Karen Nussbaum told David Brancaccio on “Marketplace Morning Report.” “But we didn’t see what was coming in the 1980s.” 

Just as the 9to5 coalition of female clerical workers was organizing nationally as a union, another economic force knocked them off course. In August 1981, President Ronald Reagan took a stand against organized labor, firing thousands of air traffic controllers who’d gone on strike. “It’s the opening shot on what … became a national campaign backed by the federal government to get rid of unions,” Nussbaum said. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, professional women still made progress, she said, but that progress was often exclusive to those in the middle class or above, most of whom were white.

“We’re in a similar period of upheaval [today],” Nussbaum said. The momentum many women were experiencing — gaining agency, representation and power in the workplace — has slowed down or reversed entirely. And the power of working women in America faces an existential threat. 

You can listen to the full interview with Karen Nussbaum here. Be sure to also check out our conversation with creative team behind “9to5: The Story of a Movement” here.

And don’t forget: We want to hear from you! Email us your thoughts and reactions to this month’s film at extracredit@marketplace.org. We’ll feature some of your responses. “9to5: The Story of a Movement” is still available from PBS stations here.

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