Girls Watch Movies: Norma Rae

In light of certain events in the news lately – namely, the attacks on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – the time seems ripe to highlight the struggle for workers’ rights in America. I do so while holding up a gloriously flawed female role-model whose story is told in a classic American movie. Today, GWM lauds the righteous indignation and pluck of Norma Rae.

The 1979 movie Norma Rae is about social justice on several levels. It is as much about the hypocrisy of small-town morality as it is about gender inequities within a family as it is about the struggle to unionize a small textile factory in North Carolina. The film follows the life of Norma Rae Webster, played in the film by Sally Field (who won an Oscar for this performance). Norma Rae is a single mother of two who works exhausting hours at the local textile mill and lives with her parents to scrape by. She is known for her big mouth, as well as her propensity for sleeping with married men, both of which tend to get her into trouble. Her life isn’t going anywhere new anytime soon until a labor organizer from New York named Reuben Warshowsky shows up.

Norma Rae is initially hesitant to get involved with Reuben and the United Textile Workers of America. But, she decides to join after her recent promotion in the mill alienates her from her co-workers, and forces her to realize that the management is only “speeding them up to weed them out.” When she leaves her higher wage position to go back to the threading room, Norma Rae starts utilizing her big mouth to promote solidarity and equality amongst her peers.

As she stubbornly struggles for a better life, Norma Rae is forced to take great risks. Her relationship with her father, whom she adores, starts to fall apart once Norma becomes affiliated with the union. Her faith community also turns its back, lacking the courage to cross racial barriers for the greater good. Norma’s young marriage, too, is at risk because her commitment to the union means less time to fulfill her roles as wife and mother.

We watch while Norma Rae suffers the loss of her job and her reputation, yet she is still undaunted. When Norma Rae is fired, her peers shut down the mill and, when she is subsequently hauled off to jail for disorderly conduct, Norma Rae comes home, wakes her children, and explains to them what she’s been fighting for and why. At the film’s conclusion, Norma Rae and her community conquer their Goliath and prove that one voice spoken with conviction can make a difference, even if that voice is the Southern drawl of an under-appreciated woman from the Styx.

Norma Rae takes on so many social justice issues that it could overwhelm the viewer if it weren’t so well told. Yet, because of the compelling performances and story-telling, it mobilizes and inspires us, instead, and makes each of us embrace our own potential to be agents of social change. This movie is a treatise on the importance of holding to our ideals and protecting our integrity, in spite of the sacrifices it might require. As entertaining as it is, it’s also an ideal story for rising leaders. Consider it a training manual of sorts. If only all training manuals packed this kind of punch.

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