Jane Fonda is one of the OGs of Hollywood’s activist class. So when she arrived on Capitol Hill this week to lobby on behalf of low-income female workers, she carefully adhered to one of the commandments from the Book of Jane: Thou shalt not make it all about you.
Celebrities are “like repeaters — you know, those towers on the top of mountains that can pick up signals in the valley and spread them out wider?” she said at a Thursday press briefing amid two days of meetings with lawmakers organized by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance and the National Women’s Law Center.
She definitely gets the role of celebrities when it comes to policy issues (to bring the cameras, natch), but she also recognized how the revelations about sexual harassment in Hollywood had created an unprecedented solidarity between women who work on movie sets and those who earn their living picking fruit and cleaning hotel rooms. After the Harvey Weinstein story broke, she recalled that the farmworkers group sent a letter of support to the women of Hollywood, prompting a realization among Fonda’s fellow celebs. “If we are going to truly confront and solve these issues of workers’ rights and dignity and safety from sexual harassment in the workplace … we were gonna have to stand in kinship and love and alliance with our sisters across sectors,” she said.
Yeah, Fonda’s a pro, but she’s clearly passionate enough about politics that she couldn’t help but go just a teensy bit off-script. Asked about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the longtime liberal demurred, saying she feared her answer might overshadow the women workers’ issues she was in Washington to support. But then, she couldn’t resist: “I think it will be a catastrophe, frankly. Women’s rights, workers’ rights will be shunted to the side, and that’s just the beginning.”
Fonda sat down with a handful of reporters after the briefing to share more thoughts about her lobbying trip and how “9 to 5” would be different if it were made today.
You talked about Hollywood actresses learning about their “sisters” and their plights in their workplaces. What was that learning process like for you? Was it uncomfortable?
No, not at all. My first learning process of the kind you’re talking about happened with women office workers. First I heard stories that came from the organizer who was organizing the women who inspired “9 to 5,” and then because I was producing the movie, I interviewed office workers myself. If you talk to enough farmworkers, domestic workers, restaurant workers . . . just talking to them, you have to learn to be a good listener. And it’s a great privilege to be able to do that.
What has been the response from lawmakers on this visit?
They’ve been very forthcoming and willing not just to say “yes, we’ll co-sponsor” or “yes, we’ll sign on,” but we want to strategize as a coalition of lawmakers about how we make this as robust and important as possible.
They seem to recognize that although it’s farmworkers and domestic workers that are speaking at these meetings, that what we’re talking about in terms of policy will end up redounding to the benefit of what is becoming the workforce of tomorrow — the contract workers, the gig economy.
How do we make [female workers’ issues] relevant for everyone — for people who may or may not understand exactly what’s happening?
I think there’s a shift that has happened and continues to happen that’s allowing more privileged . . . I was going to say “people,” but it really is women — I’m sorry, we tend to have a bigger empathy gene, I think! We’re beginning to understand across class, across race, across ethnicities what other women are facing. I really think there’s a change happening, and not just because of the Me Too movement and the Time’s Up movement — it’s because of the women’s movement in general; it’s because of Trump — people are looking at things and thinking about things differently and understanding that if we’re going to survive as a democracy that there’s strength in numbers and we have to band together.
For all those reasons and more I think that the culture is shifting and hearts and minds are shifting. Now, if someone can come along and make other movies or television shows about these things, all the better. I know it’s in discussion. If we made another “9 to 5” today, it would be very different. … It’s happening, I think we just have to goose it a little bit.
As an activist, you’re often asking women to repeat stories of things that have happened to them, to relive them. Is that hard?
It can be. But I have seen women go from victims to warriors and that’s a beautiful thing.