From Working 9 to 5 (Chicago Review Press, 2022), (c) Ellen Cassedy


At the school for organizers, I took notes at a furious pace. I was glad to be back in a classroom, and this time around I felt I might well be preparing myself for a career. Also, the 9 to 5’ers back home were counting on me, and I was determined not to let them down.

“Organizers build democracy,” I scribbled. “Organizers inspire people to think and act in ways they never dared. Organizing is the art of getting people together and helping them build structures through which to express their concerns and improve their lives.”

I loved Heather Booth, the main teacher. On the very first day, with her cap of dark hair and her lime blouse tucked crisply into navy slacks, she looked strong and smart, and also warm. How sure of herself she seemed! As a college student, she’d been among the thousands of northern students—most of them White like her—who went down to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to help southern civil rights activists register Black people to vote. On campus, she’d fought for women’s rights and an end to the Vietnam War. When the student movement splintered and petered out, she saw a need for another kind of activism and studied with the veteran community leader Saul Alinsky to learn new ways to mobilize people in the 1970s. Alinsky was renowned for organizing people in low-income communities, using public embarrassment and the threat of mass unrest to win concessions from the powers that be. But Alinsky didn’t place much value on training women organizers, Heather found. So she decided to take on that job herself.

“Women have been the backbone of most organizations,” she wrote. “They make the phone calls, lick the stamps, ring the doorbells.” Yet because women occupy few of the leadership roles, she went on, “many of the real concerns of these women are not put into the programs.” Heather thought big: “We want to reach out and join with most women. We cannot be talking about a few hundred or even thousands, but millions.”

The brand-new Midwest Academy was the first step toward reaching those millions, and we eighteen women and two men were the first students. All day, from nine in the morning till after dinner, we were instructed in the ABCs of organizing.

I was terrible at all of it.

Used to being an A student in school, here I was at best—at best—a C. In a role play where I was assigned to play the mayor of Gary, Indiana, trying to wring concessions out of the board of U.S. Steel, I couldn’t open my mouth. When we were sent out into a neighborhood to raise money for a consumer group, all I collected in two hours of door knocking was a measly six dollars. I don’t know what I’d expected “vying for power” to be about, but my heart sank at the notion that this might be it.

My fellow students were a lot better at it than I was. Most were older, more confident, more poised. Some were leaders of the National Organization for Women, the feminist group founded in 1966, which boasted tens of thousands of members. Others worked for unions or lobbying organizations, or were part of the nationwide campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. They were used to making decisions, speaking in public, traveling to new cities, starting new chapters.

In comparison, I was young and green. The main thing I knew how to do in meetings, I realized, was to pick up on people’s hesitations and bring them out into the open. “I’m confused,” I would say when I saw that other people were confused. Bringing up the rear with the stragglers, I left it to others to lead the way. Leading from behind, you might call it. It was something I did without thinking, a valuable technique that we 9 to 5’ers would refine and use to great effect over the years. But it wasn’t enough. To move from being simply a participant to being an organizer, I needed to learn how to do other things as well.

One thing I wasn’t quite so terrible at was singing. In between lectures and role plays, we joined hands and belted out the lyrics to Helen Reddy’s new hit song:


I am woman, hear me roar

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I am strong

I am invincible I am woman!


For a few days, we sang “The Internationale,” with its stirring first lines:


Arise, ye prisoners of starvation! 

Arise, ye wretched of the earth

For justice thunders condemnation 

A better world’s in birth!


Then some of the students complained that they didn’t feel comfortable singing a socialist anthem. Nor did they like the gospel hymn that moved me deeply:


We are soldiers in the army

We got to fight, although we got to cry

We got to hold up the bloodstained banner

We got to hold it up until we die


Clearly, we were going to need some new songs. Back then, we couldn’t have imagined that Dolly Parton would end up would writing one of them—and that it would shoot to the top of the charts.

Everyone had a one-on-one meeting with Heather, and I proudly brought a stack of our newsletters to mine. I watched as she turned the pages.

“Very nice,” she said. 

I beamed.

In the pause that followed, I understood that she thought the newsletters were actually kind of pitiful. All they offered was an opportunity to complain. They did nothing to get women joining, moving, winning.

A couple of days later, Steve Max, the other teacher, sat down with me to underscore the point. 9 to 5 was operating on the “rock pile theory,” he said, and that would never get us anywhere. The point was not to get people into a meeting room one by one—to pile them up and keep them there until it was time to figure out how to move forward. Instead, we should start by doing something—something effective. When people heard about it, they’d come flocking, eager to join in.

Our meeting with the personnel director at Harvard? Yes, it had been something, but not something effective. Sure, the man’s hands were trembling, but so what? We should have demanded something we could actually win and then let everyone know about our victory. Steve said we should focus on three goals:

  • To win reforms that improve people’s daily lives.

  • To make sure that when people win reforms, they see those gains as rights they’ve achieved through their own collective power.

  • To alter existing relations of power, weaken the domination of the few, and strengthen the hand of the many.

I wrote it all down.

Back and forth I went between the room I’d rented in someone’s sweltering apartment on the South Side of the city and the church basement on the North Side where Heather and Steve imparted their wisdom. Through the bus window, I stared out at the hugeness of Chicago, the big, noisy metropolis that the poet Carl Sandburg had dubbed “Hog Butcher for the World”:


Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

Stormy, husky, brawling,

City of the Big Shoulders


The river rolled by, crowded with barges, followed by giant industrial lots that went on for acres. Then came the Loop, the financial district, with its mile after mile of buildings full of women workers, all waiting to be organized.




Heather and Steve began to prepare us for going out into the field. Basic training. Boot camp. I was told to wear a watch, to make a daily to-do list, to carry a notebook and a stack of index cards. Part of organizing, it turned out, was being organized.

Maybe the reason I’d raised only six dollars going door-to-door, someone suggested, was the way I looked. I packed away my T-shirts, my blue jeans, and the baggy corduroy jacket I loved. I went to a department store and bought the cheapest respectable-looking outfit I could find, a red-white-and-blue checked rayon top with a matching skirt. I hated it. Worse yet, I walked into a hair salon and had my mop of red curls chopped off. My new do was so severe that I could barely stand to look at myself in the mirror. But if that’s what it took . . .

Three or four of us were assigned to a women workers’ outreach project called Women Employed, housed at the Chicago YWCA. Our job would be to leave leaflets in ladies’ rooms in office buildings and approach women in public parks and company cafeterias during their lunch hours. Heather demonstrated how an organizer should move through the lunch line. Be loud, she said. Attract attention. “Macaroni and cheese again? “What’s in this salad, anyway?” We were even told what to eat—coffee, pie, or a small sandwich—in order to leave the maximum time for conversation. Our instructions were:

  • Maintain eye contact.

  • If you’re nervous, remember they are too.

  • Keep your goal in mind. You want them to come to a meeting.

Keeping a goal in mind—that was a new one for me. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that you needed a plan for everything, even a conversation in the park. It all seemed very strange.

Out into the financial canyons we went. We prowled like spies through the palatial department stores and strolled into cafeterias and employee lounges as if we belonged there. Hearts pounding, we breezed by the guards in the lobbies of big insurance companies. We scurried into bathrooms and left stacks of leaflets on the windowsills and counters.

Most of the women I approached in the company cafeterias brushed me off, but once in a while I managed to get someone to talk to me. A department store employee named Diane allowed me to join her at her lunch table, where she let loose with a long list of gripes about her low pay, her boorish supervisor, and her skimpy vacation. Her coworkers were as unhappy as she was, she said. Keeping my goal in mind, I suggested that she distribute our flyers and bring some of her friends to meet me for lunch the following week. She said she would. I was thrilled.

But the next time I called her, she told me she’d decided not to pass out the flyers after all, and she didn’t set up the meeting. I never saw her again.

Another day, I spent an hour at a table with a group of women who whipped themselves into a bitter froth of indignation. Then they went back to work, and . . . well, now what? Steve told me I should have interrupted their rant to ask, “Have you talked to other employees about these problems? What did you decide to do?” If all they wanted to do was complain, I should have brought the encounter to a close.

Every Wednesday, we held a collective lunch meeting for everyone we’d met during the week. I invited Debby, Joyce, Lydia, and Kay. None of them came. What was I doing wrong? “You should have called them that morning to remind them,” Steve said, “and you should have enticed them with something urgent you were going to be talking about.”

Steve and I talked in detail about everyone I met. People were so complicated. And they had so many excuses for not coming to a meeting. Susan had a church meeting every Wednesday. Brenda was moving to New York. Laverne worked till seven o’clock. All of this on top of the big reasons, the real reasons—fear of getting fired, fear of change, fear of looking silly in the eyes of coworkers, fear that none of it would amount to anything.

“Be patient,” Steve said. “You’ll have to eat a lot of lunches to get one or two women to come to a meeting.” He assured me I’d get the hang of it.

I wasn’t so certain.




Five years earlier, Grant Park was where police had clubbed antiwar protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Now at lunchtime all was serene on the park’s green lawns. Women with sandwiches sat in twos and threes on benches under the trees. Each day, with a clipboard under my arm, I’d stand for a moment gathering my courage, then plunge in.

“Hi, we’re taking a survey of women’s jobs. Can you talk for a few minutes?”

Two women who worked at a giant oil company told me they couldn’t think of a single thing they didn’t like about their jobs. Then I asked about their salaries.

“I’ve been on the job for seventeen months,” the first one said, “and I still haven’t gotten a raise. I only make $525 a month.”

The second one gasped. “You do? I only make $490!”

After that, more problems came pouring out, and I walked away practically skipping with joy. Then my footsteps slowed. I’d forgotten all about having a goal. I hadn’t asked them to come to a meeting or even gotten their names.

I was determined to do better. The next day, the first woman I approached said she didn’t want to talk because she was eating her lunch. That was par for the course, but as I was turning away, I heard her next words: “And besides, I don’t really care.”

I felt like slapping her. I lay down on the grass, pressed my face into the earth, and escaped it all by falling asleep.



By the end of the summer, I’d filled two notebooks. I wasn’t a superorganizer yet. Maybe I wasn’t an organizer at all. But I expected more of myself. I was no longer satisfied with being a follower. I wanted to help set a direction. I was a bit more confident, and better at getting on with whatever I was supposed to be doing, even when it felt hard. I could take a deep breath and march into the ladies’ room at an insurance company, or accost a woman in a cafeteria I wasn’t supposed to be in, or approach a stranger in the park.

Heather and Steve gave me some parting advice. Be more audacious, they said, less transparent. Be open and human, but stay on task. And, Heather added, in addition to keeping my hair cut short and trying to dress like the rest of the downtown workforce, I should consider carrying a lipstick in my purse. “You never know when you might need it,” she said.

As I was packing for home, someone from the 9 to 5 group called me in tears. My friends had sent me off to find out how to turn our cozy group into something big and effective. Now they were scared. What was I going to do to them when I got back?

I understood their anxiety. I was scared too. Would I be able to lead them to a new place? Would they be able to follow?

At the graduation ceremony, there were speeches and rounds of applause, photographs and hugs, and a freshly composed anthem scribbled by a couple of the students:


Action is the key to power

If you want to win

There’s a school that teaches tactics

It’s where we begin!


It was night when my plane took off. The lights of the Loop disappeared, replaced by the black expanse of Lake Michigan. In my suitcase I carried my notebooks full of knowledge. Ahead lay Boston, where all that I’d learned would be put to the test.



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