July 16, 2024

Standardizing Sex Discrimination: Clerical Workers, Labor Organizing, and Feminism

Abstract: Nine to Five, a labor organization founded in 1973 in Boston, became a national and visible advocacy group for working women who sought higher pay, promotional access, and greater respect from their superiors. Its advocates who wanted more bargaining power eventually formed a national office workers’ union in 1981. The unionizing efforts on college campuses for greater pay equity and the negotiations in publishing houses for uniform personnel practices were high points for the office workers’ movement in the 1970s and 1980s, a period labor historians traditionally describe as quiescent. While standardizing workplace procedures helped to bolster some women into male-dominated positions, it also signified a weakening and narrowing of the office workers’ movement. Legal mandates came to mean opportunities for mobility into male-dominated sectors; yet the possibility of pay equity for sex-segregated work collapsed in the private sector. State and corporate policies emphasized formal equality, which empowered some women to enter new fields and gain greater financial security. However, opportunity came to mean allowing women the same opportunities as men; thus, clericals remained low paid and clerical work remained dead end. Managers, including an emerging class of professional women, did not perceive the work that clericals performed as relevant for professional positions. Clericals did not always achieve their tangible demands such as systemic wage restructuring although they won selected battles such as securing written job descriptions, empowered themselves through collective action, and influenced public perceptions of appropriate workplace behavior. Nine to Five leaders had attempted to unite clerical women as an economic class even as gender-based state and corporate policies overwhelmed their efforts. Feminism played an ambiguous role in clericals’ campaigns, on the one hand encouraging women to organize and assert themselves; on the other, focusing attention primarily on access to men’s jobs at the risk of slighting the problems of sex-segregated workers. The labor organizing efforts of clericals challenge histories that point to the emergence of antidiscrimination legislation and the growth of demographic diversity to argue for progress in the postwar office. This project exposes the limited access of pink-collar workers to fair pay and upward mobility.
Allison Elias
University of Virginia
Millicent Aron
Department of History
Date Added January 16, 2017
Date Modifed October 17, 2017
Collection UVA scholarship on sexual violence, 1974-

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