Work, as a financial reality: The lesson of Norma Rae

It’s hard to pinpoint a year more emblematic of second-wave feminism and its emphasis on career than 1979.  In popular entertainment, The Mary Tyler Moore show had concluded its seven-year run only two years earlier, Nine to Five was exploring the realities of the “pink ghetto,” and Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) abandoned her son to pursue a career in Kramer vs. Kramer.  But 1979 was also the year of a dynamic character with a different lesson to teach about strong women and the workplace: Sally Field’s Norma Rae.

The plot to the film is generally well-known, but just to offer a brief synopsis: Norma Rae, a single mother employed in a Southern textile mill alongside her parents and most everyone else in her small town, befriends a labor organizer from New York and becomes active in the effort to unionize the workers in the mill.  I’ll get back to this.

On Monday, Patrick Deneen reviewed the book Radical Homemakers, by Shannon Hayes.  He summarized her argument:

families should step out of our badly-oriented, self-destructive consumerist culture, and seek to achieve a high degree of self-sufficiency within the contexts of community by eschewing the consumptive ethic and the corresponding felt need of both spouses – or, indeed, either – to “succeed” in the corporate rat-race.

Later in the review, he added:

what we today call ‘freedom’ or autonomy is a kind of enslavement to outside powers, the replacement of old lords (aristocrats) with new corporate lords (‘meritocrats’). Our cognitive dissonance comes from the fact that we confuse being ‘bonded’ to the home as a kind of bondage, when in fact it is the true source of our freedom.

Although the argument is smartly applied to both sexes, it is impossible to untangle the baggage of “homemaker” from its feminist/non-feminist implications.  And while I think (hope?) the damning stereotypes of the subservient, mindless stay-at-home mom are behind us, there is still an acceptable level of pride in educational and career achievements among women that frankly devalues women who don’t have an impressive resume.  This has always been true.  In the 1910s, members of the National Woman’s Party picketed the White House to gain suffrage wearing sashes bearing the names of their alma maters; a not-so-subtle conveyance that they believed the most convincing message in favor of enfranchisement was to advertise the accomplishments of middle-class women.

But while I’m always up for a good argument against meritocratic values, the dichotomy between careerism and homemaking generally pushes to the side an obvious fact: even those of us who agree that home “is the true source of our freedom” still have to make a living.  I find Hayes’ (and Deneen’s) thesis to be extraordinarily appealing, as I do with much of the back-to-basics arguments about American life.  But like most people, I don’t have the luxury of exiting the rat race for a life of growing my own food.  It’s great as an ideal, just impractical.  Compromises must be made that allow for a rejection of meritocratic values of career, consumption, status, and ambition without living in denial of the need to hold a job.

To find those compromises, I suggest looking back at the lesson of that working class hero of 1979.  Norma Rae was no enthusiastic participant in a consumerist culture; the most she confessed to purchasing was “a white cotton brassiere, size B… some Kotex pads and a Cosmopolitan magazine.”  Not exactly the shopping list of an archetypal meritocrat.  She didn’t work for advancement or recognition – she gave up a higher paying job in the same mill after it cost her friends at work – and she didn’t work as an outlet for her talents away from the home.  She worked to support her family.  She was strong, she was smart, she was independent, and she held a job… but she was no careerist.

So here’s my proposal – for both sexes: Work as a means to an end.  Go into work on time, take pride in the task at hand, take the allotted lunch hour, leave at the agreed upon end of the day.  Don’t ask for or expect a promotion.  Avoid the temptation of the rat race by learning to want less stuff.  Use vacation days and spend them at the beach in August, preferably one within driving distance.  Spend time with friends; never network.  Resist getting a Blackberry, and if that is not possible, turn it off every weekend and evening.  Always put family first.

Sure, it’s not quite as radical as Hayes’ homemakers, but radical in its own way, and a more plausible goal for most of us.

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33 thoughts on “Work, as a financial reality: The lesson of Norma Rae

  1. I didn’t think it was a particularly “deep” interpretation of the movie. Just pointing out that she was a good example of a working woman who put her family first, job second. I could’ve just as easily used the conclusion of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit as an example – that movie (and presumably book) REALLY hits you over the head with the message – but I wasn’t really a fan of that one.

    To the second point, “meritocratic values” can mean many different things, but I’m using it to mean that a person’s worth is equal to their quantifiable achievements (like the NWP example I cited, in which the implication was that the women who had attended college were more deserving of the vote by virtue of their education). Since it’s easier to pile up achievements when everything else takes a back seat, then these values generally reward people who are willing to put their families and communities second to their personal ambitions.

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    • Kramer, Never saw the movie. The book is a cheap cop-out: he doesn’t want to work hard enough to get ahead, so instead he’ll subdivide some property he happens to own, and become one of the idle rich.

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      • @Mike Schilling, Not a great movie in my opinion – too full of middle-class post-war angst and so many subplots that the narrative isn’t smooth in the least. I know at one point early in the film they had discussed subdividing the property, but (as I recall) whether they move forward with that plan or not is left unanswered at the end. But his rejection of the career opportunity and his admission that he’s “one of those 9 to 5 guys” who would rather have time with his family than do what it takes to get ahead is, I think, the one positive take-away.

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    • @Lisa Kramer,

      I have to disagree that Norma Rae put “her family first, job second.” Deciding to organize the mill put her livelihood at risk and risked social isolation in the community. If she was really putting her family first she probably would have kept her mouth shut.

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      • @Scott, I thought about this a lot before my original post, and I do think there’s a good argument to be made on your side. After all, she does spend less and less time at home after becoming involved with the union. But at every opportunity she makes it clear that she is working to meet a specific goal that 1) will end; and 2) is for the benefit of being able to support her family and presumably (since it is a union she is organizing) be able to give more of her life to them.

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  2. I think part of Deneen’s point is that whther we have the ‘luxury’ of being more or less pecuniary in how we order our priorities and spend our time and energies depends in part on what things we want to have in our lives. There are any number of things that make up you overall quality of life that you may(! – I don’t know anything about your life) be uninterested in surrendering, but that strictly speaking you could. Or maybe you have stripped your life absolutely to the barest essentials possible. But the point is that the sacrifices in question – those that could free us from being beholden to proving our economic worth to a private actor somewhere in the economy on a daily basis – by definition could never be easy ones. T truly reorder our economic lives would require actually….reording our economic lives. If this doesn’t necessarily require a complete withdrawal from seeking money in exchange for voluntary work in favor of subsistence agriculture, it nevertheless doesn’t make much sense to consider it to require transformations to our lives comprehensive enough to be considered in that kind of ballpark.

    That said, I am in general etremely sympathetic to people in the lower income brackets (being one such person) who daily face a cultural and media environment that is crafted by powerful and well-compensated minds to elevate and promote the value of unnecessary (which is not to say worthless) consumption over for example choosing a simpler life (ie one with less nice things, including things we currently feel attached to to the point of considering them necessities though they are not) in order to decrease dependence on outside economic agents. I even have sympathy for those who cannot manage merely to resist the power of the consumer culture enough to avoid hopeless indebtedness despite also fully engaging (to the maximum of their abilities) in the voluntary work-for-currency economy. Such is the persuasive power of the information-advertising-consumerist cultural matrix in which we live our lives.

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    • …sorry:

      “…it nevertheless doesn’t make much sense to consider it to require transformations to our lives comprehensive enough to be considered in that kind of ballpark.”

      It doesn’t make much sense not to, I meant.

      …Btw: Welcome to the League! Your perspective is extremely welcome here in my opinion, for some fairly obvious reasons.

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    • @Michael Drew,

      “I even have sympathy for those who cannot manage merely to resist the power of the consumer culture enough to avoid hopeless indebtedness…”

      I am curious as to why you have such sympathy. They get to enjoy the consumption. Why should we feel bad that they experience the pain that goes along with it? I mean, OK, so they simply cannot watch TV ads for Cadillac Escalades without buying one. They buy one. They get to drive it and derive whatever benefits accrue to people who drive Cadillac Escalades. Good for them. On the downside, Cadillac eventually expects to be paid. Such is life.

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      • @Sam M, I don’t know that I feel sympathy about the excessive consumption, but it is often indicative of a troubled mind. I say this because my mother is one of these people. She has five I-pods, seven laptops, several dozen types of soap, three hi-definition plasma televisions etc. etc. etc. Also, to be bluntly honest, she has a drinking problem which is very much attached to the compulsive consumption. (For the record, I talk about all of this here because, of course, my birth name isn’t Rufus F.) However, she does not have any debt. Nor does she have any savings as far as we can tell.

        Anyway, the problem, as I see it, isn’t that there are commercials or consumption is evil, or any of that. It’s that she has a certain personality type. My experience with addicts is that they have two character traits: 1. They are deeply unhappy, which, by the way, is a big part of human existence, but 2. They are totally unwilling to experience suffering or boredom or malaise; instead, they try to avoid it at all times through these compulsive behaviors. It’s not just that these things don’t make them happy- it’s that they know that, but still can’t stop doing them out of fear that, otherwise, their life would be more unhappy.

        In terms of the larger society, the images in the media need to be taken with a huge grain of salt, and I think we all know that. Nevertheless, there isn’t much cultural support for the truth that life contains a certain measure of suffering that cannot and should not be avoided.

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      • @Sam M, I have it cuz I’m a pushover, and a poor one at that, and I see how our culture devalues those who have less than those around them even while making it possible to attain things without first collecting the means to purchase them with cash in hand, and promotes that behavior as assiduously (or did until eighteen months ago) as it does the underlying consumption. *Obviously*, mileage in the realm of sympathy for people in various different sets of circumstances will vary immensely from person to person.

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        • @Michael Drew,

          OK. I guess I just see a difference between understanding and sympathy.

          In the case Rufus mentions, there appears to be some underlying mental or emotional problem. I have sympathy for such people, sure, in much the same way that I have sympathy for people who have gall bladders or heart valves that don’t work properly. Such people are sick.

          But other people are operating at full capacity and making choices. When you do that, you suffer the good with the bad. If you are young, one thing you can do is impress certain girls by doing dangerous stunts on skateboards. I think this is foolish, but some people don’t. So they get the girls. They also crack their skulls a lot. Such is life. Some people try to impress their friends by picking on weaklings. Sometimes this works. Sometimes the weakling fights back and embarasses you. Such is life.

          In don’t think that in either case it’s all that useful to blame the girls who like to watch skateboard tricks or friends who like to watch people get beat up. If you take it upon yourself to please such people, that’s your problem.

          And if you try to impress “society” by buying shoes or cars or vacation homes you can’t afford… good luck with that. I’m a signaller, just like everyone else. But each one of these signals costs me something, whether in economic or other terms.

          I work long hours. If I worked less, would my family starve to death? No. We just like some stuff. If I gave up that stuff and worked less, I might be able to coach my kids soccer team and spend more time with them. Either way, it’s my choice, and I shouldn’t complain about the consequences.

          People who buy non-essential crap they can’t afford need to either suffer the consequences, find additional revenue, or find cheaper signalling strategies.

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          • @Sam M, I didn’t say anything about complaints. People choose what they do. And they do suffer the consequences. And those include the devastating effects of overwhelming indebtedness. In my experience people who find themselves in that situation know exactly who is to blame. But I also see a system that in many cases overpowers good people’s better judgement. And so I have sympathy. Sympathy is not something that vacates responsibility. It is just understanding of the circumstances or environment that led to the choices that brought about a painful result. I think your attempts to downplay the power of the environment I am describing are frankly laughable.

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            • @Michael Drew,

              I am not downplaying the power of the environment at all. I succumb to it! I am curious as to why you think I neigher understand it nor appreciate it. The power of the force that drives young bys to impress young girls is almost inexplicable. The power to keep up with the Jones is not to be understated. Which is why I don’t understate it.

              At the same time, the benefits that accrue to such people are real enough. Otherwise, people would not bother. So… people pay whatever price they pay. Many time, that price seems foolishly high to me. But to some people, my decision to work more hours and coach fewer hours is foolish. Other people will think I am foolish for coaching at all.

              Either way, I think it would be extremely odd for me to expect or receive “sympathy” from people who choose otherwise. Like someone should sit around and say, “Poor Sam M. The environment he operates in puts a lot of pressure on him to work more and coach less. Poor guy doesn’t get to spend nearly enough time with his kids. If only society would encourage him to coach more, he might do so and therefor be happier.”

              Well… nonsense. If I want to spend more time with my kids, I should shut up, tell my boss I am not coming in on Saturday, and buy less crap. Will having less crap impact me in negative ways? Sure it will. Will lesser golf clubs and lesser vacations and a lesser car change my social standing? Yep. Does society put any pressure on me to regret the choices I have made? Uh huh. But that’s true of point which I occupy on my utility curve.

              Does society pressure 24-year-old guys with minimum wage jobs to drink Grey Goose and buy 56-inch plasma TVs? It sure does! And when they do those things, they love it! Until the bill comes due.

              Crying a river about it doesn’t seem to offer much upside.

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            • @Michael Drew, You did admit to being a signaller, so I take your point. I am just saying two things: 1) as you say, the only people who don’t pay an economic price for this are thiefs, and they pay other prices; and 2) the environment we speak of does not operate differentially according to income, so it is callous for those with greater means to call for those with far fewer to live within their means, because it is an entirely different thing to resist the environment in different economic stations. As a result, since the economic cost is borne whether in immediate expenditure of save income, or in the in some ways deeper damage of excessive debt, the situation of the poor in a society that so values people by their acquisitions is inherently worthy of sympathy.

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            • @Michael Drew,

              Fair enough. Only this:

              “the environment we speak of does not operate differentially according to income, so it is callous for those with greater means to call for those with far fewer to live within their means”

              I guess we just disagree. Bill gates has greater means than I do. He can afford a Lamborghini. I can’t. But I still think he’s well within his right to say, “God, that was stupid,” if he hears that I went and bought a Lamborghini. And I CERTAINLY think that has no moral obligation to feel sympathetic to my plight. In fact, I think the world would be a better place if smart people like him made it known that they think very little of knuckleheads like me spending $500,000 on a car. At least in some cases, the fear of shame will keep me in line.
              Why would I NOT buy a Lamborghini if all the rich people in the world got together and felt bad for me when I couldn’t make the payments? perhaps they would start a fund or something.

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            • @Michael Drew, I guess I’ll just have to repeat myself to say that to express to sympathy for the situation a person has gotten themselves into with bad decisions, (especially when we’re stipulating powerful forces that degrade better decision-making while not absolving people of the need to overcome them), when the consequences are being lived through and not avoided, is not to deny that the decisions were in fact bad, not right, stupid, etc. You can have sympathy while not denying responsibility for the situation lies with the person experiencing it.

              I’ve had to say this multiple times now even though I’d have thought it wouldn’t need to be explicitly stated even once to be understood.

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            • And the thing is, while you repeatedly make up examples that you see as unsympathetic (Lamboghinis, 24-year olds, Grey Goose, 56 inches), I think you know perfectly well these forces operate in much more pernicious ways that prey on insecurities and even necessities that are in fact far more human and understandable than the examples you give. People have to look appropriate for their jobs. They have to get to their jobs. At their jobs, they face judgement for the kinds of tools they have for use. None of this exculpates buying more car than you can really afford or giving into the desire to have one’s personal business tools match up with their company’s competitors or business partners. But these are the kinds of things that can lead a person down the wrong path (especially when layoff time comes and bills don’t stop coming), not buying Lamborghinis. And such mistakes are what the advertising industry exists to induce. If vodka and home entertainment is what led to the problem, then obviously the sympathy factor is reduced or eliminated. I mean, did you think I was offering a blanket moral absolution for all profligate spending on credit, so that coming up with a few particularly indefensible-sounding examples would make me see the error of my entire approach?

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            • Really, your use of the Lamborghini example just illustrates my point. What is it you don’t understand about the way in which the possibility that having to give up a Lamborghini as a proportional sacrifice to personal financial responsibility is in some way a proportional sacrifice for you as compared to Bill Gates to, say, having to give up dressing at a level that doesn’t put yu at a social disadvantage in your workplace is as compared to someone of your income range — is completely beside the point? You (and Bill Gates) can take for granted exactly the things that someone else has to agonize over. Just because there are things you have to give up too makes that all sevens? That’s ridiculous. Lamborghini marketing doesn’t come into play for the lower classes because it’s not even a relevant product to their lives. On the other hand, the power of advertisements and salesmen for smart phones and work clothes is not as visible or salient for you, because it’s not an issue of whether or not you’re going to buy those things – you are. If you want to tell yourself that that difference in what is required to maintain financial responsibility for you as compared to lower wage earners is not at all unjust because of your willingness to work long hours and other meritocratic traits of yours, be my guest. But that doesn’t change the fact that that difference exists, that it means that people have to live lives that consist of having to make choices that you simply can’t or won’t imagine as real (as evidenced by the examples you have offered of the type of choices you imagine them to be), or that that reality is one that is quite worthy of sympathy, whether the better or the worse choice is made in any particular case.

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            • @Michael Drew,

              Well, now the goal post appears to be positioned a little differently. At first, you were talking about the power of “consumer culture.” Which suddenly includes people buying clothes they need for work? Is the mechanic who buys a shirt that says “Earl” on it included?

              In my view, the discussion of consumer culture revolves around people buying things they don’t necessarily need. Feeding your kid a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would not count. Taking your kid to Tavern on the Green six times a week would. Is that a ridiculous example? Sure. But I use it for a reason. You are correct that there are different levels. It’s not really a problem that people buy too many Lamborghinis. But people certainly do get themselves in trouble with car payments. Some of these people need the car for work, and get trounced by a $200 a month payment. But other people opt for a hulking SUV instead of a subcompact. Because SUVs are (or at least were) cooler than subcompacts. They like them better. They are nicer and more conmfortable and more likely to impress the fraternity brothers, etc.

              THAT is consumer culture. And sure, I guess GM spends a lot of money on advertising. But somehow, I managed to watch all thos esame ads and not buy a car I cannot afford. I assume you saw the same ads. Did you buy a car you cannot afford?

              Some people did. So I have to assume that they are really, really stupid. Or that they took a risk and lost. Or that they value the signalling so much that bought the car to enjoy t as much as possible and suffer the consequences.

              Seems to me that only the first scenario should elicit any kind of sympathy. But it hardly seems charitable to assume that millions of people are so dumb as to be duped into buying Cadillacs because of celebrity endorsements from Toby Keith and Bob Seger.

              I have four kids. Pretty soon, they will be coming home from school and bugging me for crap because Jimmy or Susie has it. Sometimes I will succumb. Sometimes I will say no. But in no case will I ‘feel bad” for their plight, or put myself into debt.

              I’ll reserve my sympathy for people who can’t afford to eat, or who can’t afford a good education. Insufficient ability to participate on modern consumer culture, coupled with a decision to do so anyway?

              No tears.

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    • @Michael Drew, Great comment. I think the problem with being able to “reorder our economic lives” is more about the simple fact that we can’t unmake past choices so any change we want to make has to take the reality of those choices into consideration. Indebtedness isn’t just about people who have fully bought into a consumer culture and want to acquire luxuries – it’s also about student loans to private schools or hospital bills for the uninsured. A lot of people stay on the treadmill not for the ability to afford comforts but for the need just to stay above water.

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  3. Well heck, I’m all for choosing to de-emphasize professional life in favor of hobbies, leisure, family or any other priority. So long as the person doing so is choosing to do so then go nuts.

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  4. I do think this method prevents you from going nuts. I’m about to enter a profession with a really crappy job market, which is something we’re all supposed to worry about. But I’ve found it’s a lot easier to realize that I can’t do anything about the job market and just try to take pleasure in whatever work I can get. It’s certainly easier than worrying all the time.

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  5. As for women in the job market, I remember a girl I once dated telling a professor that she planned to work outside the home and the prof chuckling and saying, “That’s great, but given the economy, everyone’s going to be working outside the home!”

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    • @Jaybird,

      I have never been convinced by this. Know why my dad worked? A paycheck. He loved having kids and a family. He like being able to support us. He didn’t “hate” his job. He was a mechanicm and he was good at it. But he wasn’t much of a car guy. He didn’t like tinkering with them.

      He loved football and drinking beer, though. And the job paid him enough to house us, feed us, pay for cable and a few cases of Genessee on occasion.

      That seems about right to me. And more than enough.

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  6. Okay, fine. “If all you want to do is make a lot of money, it’s pretty easy to make a lot of money… if, of course, that’s all you want to do.”

    I work as a guy who is an Admin in a computer lab. It’s my job to tinker, fiddle, and mold. I also provide a minor amount of psychotherapy. I happen to be married to a chick who works at a University Lyeberry.

    I find myself regularly saying “maybe I didn’t survive the accident.”

    This, seriously, is heaven. I’ve no idea how in the heck *I* got here, but I’m pleased that I can share it with all y’all. Have you tried the wine? Seriously, you need to try the wine.

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