20 Questions with Ellen Cassedy

Ellen Cassedy

20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.

“For me, what makes a story sing is the blend of the personal and the social, the small and the big.” Ellen Cassedy was a founder and longtime leader of 9 to 5, the national association of women office workers. Her book Working 9 to 5: A Women’s Movement, A Labor Movement, and the Iconic Movie, published last year with Chicago Review Press, is her first-person account of this exciting movement, which began in the early 1970’s, mobilizing women across the United States to organize for rights and respect on the job. The movement inspired the hit film starring Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin, as well as Parton’s enduring anthem. 9 to 5 is still active today. Cassedy is also the award-winning author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, in which her journey to connect with her Jewish family roots expands into a wider quest. She was a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, a speechwriter in the Clinton Administration, and author of two previous books for working women. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications. She joins me this week on 20 Questions to talk her coming of age as an activist, what compelled her to commit 9 to 5’s story to paper, and much more.

Where is your favorite place in the world to be?

On a train with a book, rocking in my seat and looking out at the passing scenery.

Favorite book of all-time?

Girl in Movement by Eva Kollisch. A vivid memoir of a young woman activist. 

What is your earliest memory of becoming an activist for women’s rights in the workplace?

Fifty years ago, ten of us women office workers in Boston started out sitting out in a circle talking about our jobs. Low pay, unequal pay, training men to be our supervisors, having to do favors — all kinds of favors — for our bosses. One woman said a student came into the office, looked her right in the eye, and asked, “Isn’t anyone here?” (“I’m here!” she thought. “Can’t you see me?”) Another woman lamented, “They call us girls till the day we retire without pension.”

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

Both. I’m also both an optimist and a pessimist.

Biggest pet peeve?

Loud sneezes.

Favorite holiday?

National Secretaries’ Day (now known as Administrative Professionals Day), the last Wednesday in April, designated as a day for bosses to reward their secretaries for a year of hard work with a bouquet or a box of chocolates. In the early ‘70s, our organization 9 to 5 took over this holiday with the slogan “Raises, Not Roses.” We invited secretaries to report on the most outrageous errand they’d ever been asked to perform. Winning bosses included: the boss who asked his secretary to sew up a hole in his pants while he was wearing them; the boss who fired his secretary for bringing him a corned beef sandwich on white bread instead of rye; and the boss who handed his secretary a suspicious package, saying, “This could be a bomb. YOU open it.”

The last series you binge-watched?

The Restaurant — like Downton Abbey, but in Sweden. I loved the part about the waitress who becomes a union organizer.

What inspired you to commit the story of the 9 to 5 movement to paper?

The January 2017 Women’s March, when hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets. Many of them had never been in a demonstration before. I wrote for them. I tried to write the kind of book I was hungry for when I was starting out — a book that would inspire but also be honest about the hard parts. I wanted to offer tips on organizing, but also encourage people to chart their own path. As the old labor song says, “Every generation’s got to win it again.”

Most expensive thing you’ve ever shamelessly splurged on?

A treadmill desk. Which I have never used.

The last book you finished?

Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions: A Novel in Interlocking Stories by Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi

Which authors would you say have influenced you the most?

My mother. She was a children’s book author who taught me to love the English language and took me to civil rights and peace demonstrations.

How would you describe the importance of storytelling, especially in an age of isolation?

I love stories that are “up close and universal” — ones that offer an intimate perch from which to learn about a wider world. For me, what makes a story sing is the blend of the personal and the social, the small and the big.

Best book you’ve read in the last year?

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver.

One movie that will always make you cry?

I never cry at movies. But Julia Reichert’s documentary 9 to 5: The Story of a Movement always gives me chills. Since Julia passed away recently (way too early), I won’t be surprised if it brings me to tears the next time I see it.

Favorite quote of all-time?

Karl Marx: “Workers of the world, unite!”

One song you will never be sick of?

Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” An enduring anthem!

If you could have one writer, dead or alive, to compose your obituary, who would it be and why?

Peter Dreier, author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. I’ve often pondered what I call the question of “the duck and the wave.” Do activists really matter, or are we just ducks floating on the surface, riding the waves of economic and cultural change? Peter has a great feel for that question.

As a writer and artist, what would you say is the best way to rest or decompress?

I should say taking a walk, but I’m more often found on the couch with a crossword puzzle.

One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?

Playing with my 4-year-old granddaughter. There’s nothing like batting a balloon around the room or talking in a squeaky voice to put everything in perspective.

What can we expect to see next from you?

My translation of Weaving Hands, a novel by Rashel Veprinski. I’m passionate about discovering little-known works by Yiddish women writers and making them accessible to an English-language audience. Just as the voices of women office workers were too long ignored, these are precious unlistened-to voices that deserve to be heard.

Follow Ellen Cassedy on Twitter and Instagram and buy Working 9 to 5: A Women’s Movement, A Labor Movement, and the Iconic Movie wherever you buy books.