Labor Day 2012: Women’s labor in the movies

It’s Labor Day here in the U.S., and while it’s a day that never held a particularly strong significance for me growing up (because like most kids, I was happy that it was the first day off of school after the beginning of the new school year), as an adult, I’ve come to understand it as something quite significant.  Although American Labor Day provides a day off of work for many people which is often filled with barbecues, family get-togethers, big sports games, or even powwows and other festivals, its history holds quite a profound importance, and the struggle to represent labor holds enormous benefits for most people.

American Labor Day was first celebrated in 1882 and became a national holiday in 1894, celebrated on the first Monday of September every year.  Like most countries, labor has played a major role not only in politics, but in the business world here in the U.S.  Because of organized labor action, we have the eight hour work day, the right to organize unions, on the job safety standards, and much more, including organizing actions surrounding domestic workers.  These are results of labor action – and continued labor actions – which affect the daily lives of American workers.  One of America’s most famous labor organizers is a woman by the name of Mary Harris Jones (called “Mother Jones”), an Irish-born woman who co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World, helped mineworkers to organize, and was at one time called “the most dangerous woman in America.”

We see labor everywhere – on commercials, on sitcoms (often domestic comedies which incorporate housework – washing dishes, picking up after the kids, picking kids up from school, making dinner), and on hour-long dramas (often workplace dramas, most popularly medical or law enforcement – doing surgery, dealing with a patient’s death, nabbing the bad guy, doing a stakeout).  Through film, though, there can be more of an exploration of labor and the types of labor that we provide.  It can be a theme of a film in a way that it can’t (or can, but with difficulty) be a theme of an ongoing series.

This Labor Day, I want to honor some films from my own life which I feel celebrate, explore, and represent the labor of women in its many forms.  Sometimes it’s domestic, sometimes it’s on-the-job, sometimes it’s political.  In doing this, I like to think I’m not only honoring these films as important contributions to the discussion of women’s labor, but also as important contributions by filmmakers.  (Along the lines of domestic work, my friend, Marian Evans, of the fantastic Wellywood Woman blog and podcast, has recently started a project of her own on Pinterest called “Keeping an Eye on ‘The Washing'” in which she explores how the act of doing laundry is represented in writers’ and artists’ work, and how it affects their lives.  Visit the project here.)

What are some of your favorite (or even not so favorite) films that show women’s labor?

What do you think the best women’s labor film of all-time is?

Leave a reply below!

Norma Rae (1979) explores the struggle for a small town to organize a labor union for its textile workers.  Sally Field plays “Norma Rae,” a single mother who takes it upon herself to work with a union organizer from New York to persuade her fellow workers in the local textile mill to stand up for their rights and to demand protections, which can only be achieved by organizing a union.  The most famous scene from the film, and perhaps the most powerful, is when Norma Rae storms onto the floor of the plant where she, her aging father, and most of her friends have worked all their lives, writes “union” on a piece of cardboard and stands up on one of the tables.  She slowly turns around, showing the sign to all workers on the floor, as her bullying and union-busting bosses stand around her ready to haul her off the floor.  Slowly, but surely, Norma Rae’s fellow workers begin to shut off their machines in support of organizing a union.  Even writing this is making me tear up, and it’s one of a very few scenes in any movie that never fails to make me cry.  (Not to ignore the domestic side of the film, the story also shows how difficult Norma Rae finds it to balance her union organizing work, her day job in the mill, and her homelife where she has a lot of demands placed on her by her kids as well as her boyfriend, played by Beau Bridges.)

Waitress (2007) is written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly.  It tells the story of “Jenna,” played by Keri Russell in what I think is her best role ever.  She’s a master pie-maker, and serves tables in a diner in a small town with two of her best friends (one of whom is played hilariously by Shelly).  With an abusive and domineering husband at home, who controls her every move, she suddenly finds herself unhappily pregnant.  Unsure of her life – she wants to leave it all behind – she ends up having an affair with her doctor, played by the awesome Nathan Fillion (who is also married).  Faced with a crisis of conscience, she’s able (with some urging by the late, great Andy Griffith who plays a regular in the diner), to face her fears head-on and make the best decision for her and her newborn baby girl.  I like this film not only because it’s wonderfully written; not only because it stars Shelly (who I fell in love with when I first saw Hal Hartley’s masterpiece, “Trust”); not only because it’s funny, sweet, sad and painful, but because it mixes both “workplace” and “domestic” work.  Jenna does very domestic work – she’s the resident pie-maker (and invents some outrageous flavors, and everyone loves her pies – but she does it outside of the home.  There have been many films that deal with the lives of waitresses, but rarely, if ever, have I seen a film that does it so respectfully.

(Note: following the murder of Adrienne Shelly in 2006, her husband, Andy Ostroy, founded the wonderful Adrienne Shelly Foundation which is dedicated to helping women filmmakers. Visit the Foundation.)

Household Saints (1993) is directed and co-written by Nancy Savoca, and based on the novel by Francine Prose.  The film follows three generations of Italian-American women in New York – the mother-in-law of Tracey Ullman (married to Vincent D’Onofrio), Tracey Ullman herself, and Ullman and D’Onofrio’s daughter, played by Lili Taylor.  It’s based both in the home and on the job (D’Onofrio works in a butcher shop).  Taylor’s character is followed from a young age; she is a girl who becomes very religious and enamored of the “Little Flower,” St. Therese of Lisieux, who was a devout Catholic who died at quite a young age.  Taylor commits to prayer and a life of domestic service, both activities which consume her life.  At one point, her parents fear she may be having a mental breakdown and she ends up in a hospital where she does her best to continue to give her life in service.

Jane Eyre is a story written by Charlotte Brontë which has been adapted time and time again for the big screen (and is one of my favorite stories).  Its most recent adaptation, directed by Cary Fukunaga and starring Mia Wasikowska (as “Jane”) and Michael Fassbender (as “Rochester”), was released in 2011.  Jane is a young girl who is being raised by her aunt, a woman who despises her and favors her own children over Jane, despite the fact they constantly torment and bully Jane.  She is soon sent off to a cruel situation at a boarding school from which she eventually graduates, then moves on to a role as a governess for a dour yet aggressive man, Mr. Rochester, who cares for a young ward, the daughter of a former friend of his.  Needless to say, Rochester is quickly won over by Jane, with whom he falls in love, but there are a number of twists!  Throughout the film we witness Jane in her daily activities with Adele (the young ward), as well as with Rochester, who demands her presence during most of his activities as he wants to be near her.  Jane’s life is filled with quite a bit of silence and down time in the large, virtually empty house – this was her job, like it or not, filled with satisfaction or not.  During the time period, being a governess was one of a very few jobs for women, and it was a highly circumscribed position.

The Huffington Post did a piece on the “7 Best Working Women Movies,” which focuses on the workplace.  Take a look at the story and clips here.

7 thoughts on “Labor Day 2012: Women’s labor in the movies

  1. Great idea for a post! And let me highlight The Color Purple — because we shouldn’t only pay attention when white women work, nor should we overlook domestic labor. (Too bad The Help was so lame, because it gets at a lot of the right ideas except in such a weak way.)

    • Absolutely – thanks for this addition to the list! These are just some of my favorite films from my life, but I regret there being little racial diversity even in a short list of four movies. I’d like to follow this up with some of the additions and suggestions that are coming in.

      – Kyna

  2. Many tx for the mention, Kyna! This made me think, and will be at the back of my mind all day! There was a kinda golden age in the 80s? Connie Field’s The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980)? (See also NIne to Five (1980) with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton? Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers (1983) about women who make movies. More recently, there’s Niki Caro’s North Country (2005)?

    • Hi Marian, thanks for these wonderful suggestions and additions! Like I mentioned to Didion who also commented, I’d like to do another post with some of the additions people are making. I like “Nine to Five” very much (not one of my four faves like I listed here) but a movie I saw as a kid and never forgot (I’m a HUGE Lily Tomlin fan, and Dabney Coleman, by the way). Didn’t know about Connie Field’s film, though. Have to check that out!

      – Kyna

  3. A British addition to the list – Made in Dagenham from 2010 about female workers at the Ford car factory going on strike for equal pay

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