You know her face, and you know her infectious giggle. You probably know at least a couple of her songs, and you may have heard her make a crack or two about the size of her own bosom.
But did you know that Dolly herself has been derisively called a lesbian, a feminist, and a communist—sometimes in reference to the film for which "9 to 5" was written? Or that in the early 1980s, co-star Jane Fonda was known as much for being a political radical as a work-out guru?
Never put Dolly Parton in the radical-feminist-lesbian-communist camp before? You're probably not alone. But these are the facts: Dolly's first filmed female bonding was in the company of lesbian actress Lily Tomlin and radical activist Jane Fonda, who publicly opposed the Vietnam War and stood in solidarity with Black Power activists during the 1970s. As Parton described it, the three were a dream trio.
Parton, Tomlin, and Fonda were each a part of the action of the 1960s and 1970s struggles for women's empowerment and civil rights. Jane Fonda was a renowned (and sometimes hated) activist, fundraising for the Black Panthers and famously traveling to North Vietnam during the war to expose U.S. atrocities in the region. Tomlin, a comedian and actress, had been with her life partner Jane Wagner since 1971, although she did not officially "come out" to the press until 2001. And Dolly herself, although she avoided making any big political statements during that era, had risen to fame on the wings of the 1970s enthusiasm for more female-centric music and pop culture. She and her long-time best friend, Judy Ogle, have also been rumored to be in a lesbian relationship (despite a decades-long marriage to her husband, Carl), rumors she denies.
Dolly's private life notwithstanding, the women's movement in the 1970s pushed for causes ranging from lesbian rights, sexual assault awareness, and reproductive health to economic empowerment. And by the late 1970s, it looked like some of their demands were becoming a reality. The percentage of women working in administrative and management level jobs was on the rise, and it was no longer unheard of for a woman to be a CEO or a lawyer. Women had already been a part of the working rank and file—now, hypothetically, the opportunities were even broader. But what about the "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigots" of the world?
Yep, these guys still existed: this is where Nine to Five came in, with a totally 1980s tale of sweet female revenge.
Parton was perfect for the movie's main role: a tackily beautiful but put-upon secretary who everyone falsely believes is using sex to get ahead. Fonda and Tomlin play beleaguered female employees of the same firm, and the three women team up against their chauvinist pig of a boss to turn the tables (in a pretty absurd way—but we're not gonna give any spoilers). Though it was her film debut and a meeting of three great comic actors, the movie's lasting legacy is still the title song, written by Parton for the film.
To exaggerate just a little, we think the song reads more like a communist manifesto than a feminist manifesto. Parton's songwriting calls the modern workplace "a rich man's game" and talks about how all her hard work just lines the pockets of the bosses. Sounds a little Eugene Debs-y to us. But however you interpret the political outlook, "9 to 5" also just talks about a basic fact: in a capitalist system, productivity depends on a large number of people working every day.
So, why all the frustration?
Workers' anthems have emerged in every era, but there are a few reasons why this one was important right then. In the early 1980s, the income gap between rich and poor was growing. Americans were living in the wake of a divisive war, the change caused by social movements, and a deep economic downturn. President Reagan's famed "Reaganomics" policy of tax cuts and deregulation provided relief for some, but millions of others were jobless. Some felt like Reagan was helping out Wall Street without doing enough for Main Street. The American workforce was frustrated, and Parton's catchy tune struck a chord.
Dolly Parton's own personal history made her message of working people's solidarity even more believable. Born in 1946 in rural Tennessee, Parton was part of a family of twelve children and lived out her childhood on a shoestring. When asked about being poor as a kid, one of Parton's responses was, "The kids peed on me every night. We slept three and four in the bed. [...] That was the only warm thing we knew in the winter time. That was almost a pleasure to get peed on because it was so cold." (Source)
Although Parton's mother stayed home to care for the kids, and neither of her parents ever had "9-to-5" type jobs, she knew from experience what it was like to feel trapped by work and poverty.
On the flip side, though, by 1980 Parton was already a savvy businesswoman, running a wildly successful career. In 1985, she opened the Dollywood theme park in rural Tennessee near her hometown. It's an amusement park and family vacation spot with the lovely country star as frontwoman. Following up a couple decades of hit albums with that major investment, it's probably safe to assume that in the days of Nine to Five, Parton wasn't actually languishing in poverty or toiling away for "the man" every day.
But it didn't matter that Dolly was already way too rich to be complaining—the song has since been associated with the film's message of female solidarity in the face of workplace misery. In 2008, Parton released a Broadway musical based on the film with new original music by Parton. Even though red baiting is somewhat back en vogue, "the man" has yet to come after Dolly personally. And her anthem for the working woman has never gone sour in the public eye.