Fighting Distortions and Erasures: Working Women in Mainstream Media Production

Aimee Loiselle

Working women have told stories in many ways. They laughed while swapping tales in smoking areas, bus stop shelters, dance clubs, and honky tonks. They stood at kitchen counters and sat around breakroom tables. They sewed quilts, wrote newsletters, and assembled scrapbooks. Despite many hindrances, working women in the late twentieth century also told their stories to movie, radio, and television producers. The women understood the stakes in a media-mediated society, where meanings and narratives not only inform but help constitute political-economic practices and conditions. As storytellers, they participated in ongoing contests over who “deserves” acknowledgement as the American working class, a concept formed by cultural structures as much as by physical work and its relationship to the means of production. 

Low-income women knew that cultural legitimization brought leverage, advocacy, and policy support, flawed as they have been in the United States. Their goals, however, did not seamlessly align with those of media professionals, who were working to advance their careers as producers, directors, screenwriters, and experts. In pursuit of investors, donors, and the widest possible audience for their particular product, media professionals made creative choices that often commodified, distorted, or, at the least, included the women’s words in a highly selective way. Private commercial producers, such as Hollywood studios, were especially aggressive in taking control of raw cultural content for their profit-making ventures. Working women did not tolerate choices that conflicted with their goals and fought for their version of the stories even when they faced elite creative professionals.

Gloria Maldonado and Crystal Lee Sutton were two working-class women who recognized the stakes involved in mainstream media and the urgency of addressing distortions and erasures.[1] In the 1970s and 1980s, they were vocal union members who organized to make demands about their working conditions and global trade, and they fought to influence how people envisioned the American working class and unionizing. Maldonado and Sutton were not naïve or credulous women excited to receive attention from culture elites. They envisioned themselves as valuable participants and were concerned about the media producers’ creative decisions.

Maldonado was a Puerto Rican needleworker in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s who became active with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and labor groups in the metro-area. That vibrant city scene included the Hispanic Labor Committee, which was affiliated with the influential Central Labor Council, and labor studies programs at institutions such as City University of New York (CUNY). Through this network, Maldonado pursued opportunities to contribute to the union movement as an education director and business agent and to challenge the terms of globalization.

Following her ILGWU and Hispanic Labor Committee successes, Maldonado applied for a job at the Rutgers University Labor Center with the encouragement of Eddie González. He was a colleague who learned Rutgers wanted to hire a Hispanic woman to design programs for working women and contacted Maldonado.[2] In the summer of 1974, she left for New Brunswick to coordinate labor extension activities and hoped to involve more women workers, expand metro-area organizing, and raise awareness of the history of labor struggles.[3]

Sutton was a southern white millhand in Burlington and Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, in the 1960s and 1970s who joined the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) and in 1973 quickly became one its most vocal members. When she signed her card, the TWUA southern campaign to organize the J.P. Stevens Company was in its tenth year. After she was wrongfully terminated and expelled from the Delta #4 plant, the union included her in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) grievance on behalf of three workers. At the same time, Henry Leifermann, a freelance journalist in Atlanta, contacted the lead union representative to get interviews for an article about the southern textile industry. Although Sutton had been active for only two months, Leifermann picked her as the central figure.

He liked that she was a “real good talker” and provided material for a personal strand that would carry readers through an article with abstract topics such as industrial economics and poverty. This personal strand appealed to a popular fascination with poor white southerners as seen in television shows such as The Real McCoys (1957-1962), The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968), and The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971). Sutton lived, labored, and organized in the demarcated geographic space, which made it easier—more valid and convincing—for readers to transpose her into the imaginary.[4] Sutton also served as a gendered twist on the emerging narrative of the beleaguered, abandoned American working class, which suited a growing mainstream curiosity about and attention to women’s liberation.

In August 1973, the New York Times Magazine published Leifermann’s long-form article, and it caught the attention of editorial staff at Ms. magazine, a new liberal feminist periodical attempting to reach a wide audience with ideas from women’s liberation. They asked Sutton to participate in the pilot episode of Woman Alive!, a 1974 PBS-Ms. magazine television show created, written, and produced by women for women to highlight “new possibilities, alternatives, and choices.”[5] While they were shooting footage in Roanoke Rapids, Leifermann signed a contract with Macmillan Publishers to write a full biography, Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance. It was released in 1975 to mediocre reviews.

Two women movie producers, however, discovered this refined cultural material and wanted it for their first independent project. Alexandra Rose and Tamara Asseyev had years of experience at major studios and in 1976 formed their own company. They used the “life story” of Crystal Lee Sutton, the version Leifermann and Woman Alive! had extracted from the larger collective and historical context, in their pitch to respected director Martin Ritt. He was interested and insisted on hiring the married couple Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch as the screenwriters. They were also Hollywood insiders who had won awards for adapting books into screenplays, and Ritt had collaborated with them on previous films.  Frank and Ravetch read the biography and got to work on a “Crystal Lee” script.

The surge of women’s liberation in the 1970s had forced an intensive, if partial, reckoning with patriarchal and sexist practices in business. Ambitious women such as Rose and Asseyev, who needed a multi-million-dollar budget for their “Crystal Lee” project, fostered and capitalized on these social shifts. They also knew Ritt was admired for making movies about ordinary people and had connections at Hollywood studios. Like the two women, Ritt was in need of a big commercial hit after years of making movies that people considered laudable but not box-office successes.

Rose, Asseyev, Ritt, and the Ravetches were aware studios prioritized net revenues and preferred to revamp established movie formulas with a gloss of newness. Women’s liberation had enough attention in the mainstream that studio executives were open to considering a script with a woman in the conventional male lead role, a simple change that gave a formula the requisite contemporary gloss. A spate of movies with white working-class men as heroic (and anti-heroic) underdogs—Joe (1970), Dirty Harry (1971), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Saturday Night Fever (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978)—reached a peak with Rocky (1976). Rose & Asseyev Productions used its success to persuade executives that “Crystal Lee” was a viable project, telling them that she was “a female Rocky.”[6] Ritt added that the movie would not be a “downer” because it was “about a girl who turns into a woman who can work, who can love, who can fight, who is as close to a complete woman of superior dimensions as any in film history.”[7] Twentieth Century-Fox approved a $5 million contract.

 The production team sent the initial script to Sutton, but she refused to sign a release or offer her support because of two creative choices. First, Ritt wanted an enticement for audiences, so he and the Ravetches “came up with the relationship between the organizer and the girl,” an unconsummated but sexualized flirtation between the Crystal Lee character and the union representative. It inflected the movie with heterosexual desires without undermining the dignified woman hero, who stays respectable in her appropriate milltown marriage.[8] Sutton repeatedly argued this was a distortion that betrayed her and the labor movement. The rift was not a simple creative disagreement, but a question of strategic positioning. She knew anti-union workers and management opponents called women labor activists “whores” and “sluts” to intimidate them.

Sutton was also upset about the decision to focus only on her when the union drive included thousands of millhands organizing for over a decade. In the early years, Black workers entering factories in substantive numbers for the first time had sustained it. As a result of civil rights labor activism, particularly successes with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Black men and women had punctured the rigid segregation of southern mills. They proved more willing to join the union and expand civil rights activism into the TWUA, which increasingly cooperated with the NAACP on grievances and lawsuits.[9] Despite Sutton’s efforts to change the script or block the movie development, the production team, with Ritt as director and Sally Field as lead, went ahead. The team invented new names, removed the claim it was based on a true story, and changed the title to Norma Rae.

Following the March 1979 release of Norma Rae, Sutton did an interview with People magazine and said she had not received payment for the movie or for the New York Times Magazine article and biography on which it was based. While Sutton mentioned the possibility of a lawsuit, her immediate concern was the ideology of Norma Rae. “The thing is, I wanted it to be a movie that was right—about the union, about what we went through,” she said. “In the movie they make like it’s only me that’s important, and there were so many others.”[10] With the help of a fellow labor activist in the U.S. Postal Service, Sutton launched a public speaking business called “The Real Norma Rae” and sent flyers to colleges, unions, and civic groups. For three years, she received regular paid invitations.

In April 1980, when Field won her first Academy Award for Best Actress, her speech disappointed Sutton. Field said Norma Rae was “a gift given” to her by Twentieth Century-Fox, Rose and Asseyev, the Ravetches, and mostly Ritt. “Marty Ritt is Norma Rae,” Field said. “He has fought all his life to put on films that are courageous.” Sutton had hoped for a comment on the labor movement or at least the millhands. She told a reporter, “[Field] deserved that award but she could have talked about the union or the boycott or the workers who made it possible for her to get that award. I don’t see how she could have forgotten to say something in front of a million people. She didn’t take the chance to help when she could.”[11] Sutton refused to relent in the ongoing contests in the arena of cultural politics.

While Sutton contested Norma Rae and used its success to reassert her notions of the working poor and unionizing, Maldonado was challenging the cultural erasure of Puerto Rican women who worked in the textile and apparel industry. From 1983 to 1987, she participated in the production and distribution of a public history project, “Nosotras Trabajamos en la Costura,” created by three scholars: Rina Benmayor, Celia Alvarez, and Blanca Vázquez, all daughters of needleworkers. Benmayor, a co-founder of the Puerto Rican Studies Program at Hunter College-CUNY, raised funding from several educational and philanthropic organizations for a project with and about Puerto Rican needleworkers. It was part of Voices of Migration, an interdisciplinary and archival effort to gather materials for El Centro, a repository of collections related to the diaspora.[12]

The “Nosotras Trabajamos” project started with oral history interviews that focused on women’s wage work and union activism. In one interview, Maldonado expressed her goal for the scholars’ project. “They say the third generation, like my grandchildren, don’t know what the struggle was,” she said. “But through your effort, they will get to know. You’ll get this thing out, you’ll publish it, and I hope you get enough publicity so people will really know about it.” Maldonado was not only telling personal stories; she was participating in the arena of cultural politics.

The oral history transcripts became source material for photography exhibits, bilingual panels, and an award-winning radio documentary. These documents still do cultural work from the archive, serving an alternative narrative of the American working class that represents women of color, colonialism, and decades of labor migration from the Global South to the Northeast United States. Without these archival and public history productions, there would be fewer challenges to the dominant narrative of scrappy white workers in gritty industries and the way it operates to constitute labor policy, employment conditions, worker resistance, and other political-economic practices.

In September 1984, Benmayor and El Centro sent out posters promoting the initial events: a running slide show with narration, a photography display, and a bilingual panel with needleworkers. Benmayor, Alvarez, and several needleworkers also presented a workshop about doing oral history.[13] The events were participatory and transitory, but also partially recorded for the archive. While these events were happening, the three scholars wrote multiple drafts of a radio documentary and worked with audio technicians to record and edit it. Benmayor mailed a cassette copy to each needleworker for feedback. In 1985, local community radio stations broadcast “Nosotras Trabajamos en la Costura,” which was the project’s most refined and far-reaching cultural product. Metro-area listeners heard a narrator explaining the history of Puerto Rican needleworkers with quotations from the women, including several lines from Maldonado.[14]

The radio documentary had an extended period of promotion and distribution because it won awards. In early 1986, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters selected “Nosotras Trabajamos” as one of five winners for best community broadcast. At the Women at Work Broadcast Awards, the National Commission on Working Women gave the documentary third place in Radio Public Affairs/Documentary. These accolades prompted Radio WADO to contact Benmayor to re-air the documentary during the spring of 1987.[15]

This later broadcast led Maldonado to question the use of her words. Someone called after it aired to tell her that when some ILGWU members heard the documentary, they thought it hurt the labor movement because Maldonado seemed to say the union caused problems for workers and she was the only Puerto Rican woman in leadership. It was not the first time colleagues had been annoyed by her assertiveness, but it was the first time her comments were part of a public radio show with a general audience. Maldonado contacted the Oral History Task Force to say she was receiving criticism from Puerto Rican organizers and to question the scholars’ use of her interviews.

Unlike Sutton, Maldonado and the needleworkers had their names and words included throughout the “Nosotras Trabajamos” project, participated in public events with the producers, and were invited to approve a final version of the documentary sent on cassette. The scholars celebrated the Puerto Rican women and their work and opened collaborative spaces for telling their stories. The needleworkers did not, however, have creative control or participation in the writing, distribution, and promotion of final products like the documentary. Yet Maldonado still challenged the scholarly production team’s creative choices.

Benmayor sent Maldonado a letter expressing the task force’s concern. She believed the negative response derived from confusion and assured Maldonado the radio program placed full responsibility for the difficulties of garment workers on “those who move jobs and capital around the world, with federal support and sanctions.” Benmayor thought the misunderstanding about women in union leadership might have arisen from listeners conflating “our statement that Puerto Rican and Black women have not risen to the top ranks of leadership” with Maldonado’s statement that she was the only Puerto Rican woman leader in her local. If listeners mingled the two comments, they might have concluded that Maldonado said she was the only Puerto Rican woman leader in the whole ILGWU, “but neither you nor we say this.” Benmayor mentioned the cassette and where they had sent it, and asked Maldonado to let them know if there was “anything you feel uncomfortable with” so they could edit it before the next broadcast.[16] The archive at El Centro is silent regarding any response from Maldonado.

Mainstream media, both private and public mixed commercial productions, have tremendous force in the arena of cultural politics, and working women recognized it. Elite producers, in Hollywood and academia, have access to and dexterity with the means of such cultural production. Even with the credentials and professional network to acquire the sizeable financial capital and technology required for major media, however, elite producers do not have absolute hegemonic control. The results are not inevitable. Sutton and Maldonado contested the use of their stories, asserted their own creative ideas, and envisioned their own goals for the movie and radio documentary. They imagined themselves as participants in the production, not simply as contributors who supplied raw material for the producers’ storytelling. Sutton forced the movie production team to change the title and jammed their distribution plan. We cannot know if Maldonado requested a change to the cassette version of “Nosotras Trabajamos,” but we know she changed the scholars’ post-production experiences and the archive.

Although each woman participated in mainstream media projects with the intention of influencing public conversation about work and unions, only Sutton, an attractive white southern millhand, became the focus of big private commercial producers. The popularity of Norma Rae and effusive praise for Field forced Sutton into visibility in a way she did not choose and without remuneration—yet granted her a platform for public speaking and a basis for demanding payment. She eventually received over $85,000 from two lawsuits. Maldonado asserted her voice and made a place for herself in public history and the archive, but documented information about her dwindles after the 1980s and she did not receive payment. Puerto Rican women workers still do not have mainstream representation as industrial labor or as the American working class.

When low-wage women workers organize to make economic demands, their success rests on the cultural terrain as well as on careful workplace planning and labor’s strength as a political force. The cultural terrain includes the catchy slogans and captivating images crafted for a union drive, and the fights over mass media production and control of dominant conceptions and meanings for the American working class. These meanings help to constitute—to shape, limit, direct, and fuel—political-economic policy and practices, enactments of citizenship and sovereignty, and daily treatment of different workers. Sutton and Maldonado attended to the distortions and gaps in popular media not simply to make a personal correction, but to fight in this cultural arena over the public understanding of work and unions.

Author

Aimee Loiselle is an assistant professor of history at Central Connecticut State University. She studies recent US history with a focus on women workers in global manufacturing and with attention to popular representations of work and wealth. Her book, Beyond Norma Rae: How Puerto Rican and Southern White Women Fought for a Place in the American Working Class, follows women textile and apparel workers in their struggles over working conditions and their efforts to shape meanings for the working class in the late twentieth century.

Notes

[1]Stuart Hall, “The Origins of Cultural Studies,” prod. Sut Jhally, Media Education Foundation, DVD (1989).

[2]I use the terminology and identities workers or organizations used in their documents and interviews. Language is contested and changes over time, and “Hispanic” was a term of assertion in the 1960s and 1970s.

[3]“Gloria Maldonado,” 8/8/84, 14-16, Box 229, F 3, Series XIX: Audio-Visual (1973-1999), Oral History Transcripts, Centro.

[4]“Crystal Lee Sutton,” Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls: Personal Histories of Womanhood and Poverty in the South (1986), 216; Mary Bishop, “The Diary of a Union Organizer,” Charlotte Observer, May 7, 1978, D1-D3, drawer #2, in Crystal Lee Sutton Collection, Alamance Community College.

[5]“Briefs on the Arts: Woman’s Program Receives Grant,” New York Times, Aug 15, 1973, 28, clip, Box 7 Special Proj, F 4: Woman Alive! Clippings, in Ms. Foundation Records, 1973-2008, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College; Woman Alive! Finding Aid, MC 421, Schlesinger Library.

[6]Jennifer Borda, Women Labor Activists in the Movies: Nine Depictions of Workplace Organizers, 1954-2005 (2010), 109; Mollie Gregory, Women Who Run the Show: How a Brilliant and Creative New Generation of Women Stormed Hollywood (2002), 146-48.

[7]Aljean Harmetz, “Martin Ritt Focuses on Labor Strife,” New York Times, 25 Feb. 1979, D19; Borda, Women Labor, 109; Gregory, Women Who Run, 146-48.

[8]Pat Aufderheide, “A Mensch for All Seasons,” In These Times, 16-22 Apr. 1980, 14.

[9]Donald D. Osburn, Negro Employment in the Textile Industries of North and South Carolina (1966); Richard L. Rowan, “Part Five: The Negro in the Textile Industry” in Negro Employment in Southern Industry (1970); Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (1985); Victoria Byerly, Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls; Timothy Minchin, Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of the Southern Textile Industry, 1960-1980 (1999).

[10]Lelia Carson Albrecht, “The Real ‘Norma Rae’ Is Anguished by the Hollywood Replay of Her Life,” People, April 30, 1979, 11, 43.

[11]Washington Post Service, “Real ‘Norma Rae’ Now Seeking to Organize Her Life,” Hartford Courant, Nov 4, 1980, A2A; Marian Christy, “Crystal Lee—Tough as Steel,” Boston Globe, Jan. 28, 1980, 24; Zoe Trachtenburg, “Real Norma Rae” letter, Los Angeles Times, Apr. 27, 1980, O2.

[12]Rina Benmayor, “For Every Story There is Another Story Which Stands Before It,” Stories to Live By: Continuity and Change in Three Generations of Puerto Rican Women (1987), 3-5.

[13]“Interviewing Ladies Who Worked in Garment Industry,” Sept. 30, 1984, Box 3, F 61 Workshop, Oral History and Audiocassette Collection, Centro Records, Puerto Ricans in New York: Voices of Migration Project, Centro.

[14]Multiple cassettes, Oral History and Audiocassette Collection, Centro Records, Puerto Ricans in New York: Voices of Migration Project; and Nosotras Trabajamos poster, 1984, Box OS IX, Series XII: Research Task Forces, Centro.

[15]Letter from National Federation of Community Broadcasters, Wash, D.C., Jul 15, 1985, Box 158, F 1 Nosotras Trabajamos en la Costura, Series XII: Research Task Forces, Centro.

[16]Benmayor to Maldonado, May 18, 1987, Box 158, F 1, Series XII, Centro.