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A look back at Norma Rae

The story of Crystal Lee Sutton, the real life “Norma Rae,” reveals how cultural change in the 1960s and 1970s created an economic shift for working class women in the South.

Ph.D. candidate Joey Fink discussed her ongoing dissertation on Tuesday about the many “Norma Raes,” a term coined by the 1979 film “Norma Rae” to describe a woman who holds a strong opinion and acts as a leader and activist for a cause, much like Sutton and her character in the iconic film.

The film “Norma Rae” is based on the biography of Sutton’s life, and how gender, class, and social expectations shape working class women’s politics of the time.

Sutton worked as a towel folder at J.P. Stevens Textile plant. This working class woman began to work closely with union organizer Eli Zivkovic, and the plant soon fired her for her activist work.

In the film “Norma Rae,” Sutton (portrayed by actress Sally Fields) stands on a desk and raises a cardboard sign reading UNION. The women in the factory all cut off their machines.

Sutton received a police escort out of the building. Although she was fired and arrested, her literal stand led to The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union’s representing J.P. Stevens workers in 1974.

Sutton did not have a spotless reputation. Though the 70s was blooming into a time of acceptance, the conservative South still looked down on a woman who had an extramarital affair and a child out of wedlock.

Fink shared this pivotal detail in Sutton’s story to point out that during this time to be a woman activist was seen as being “sexually deviant.” Many women were silenced by their own sexuality.

Sutton brazenly faced her own sexual history and stood up for unionized labor. Fink pointed out that the question remains as to how many women kept quiet in fear of their own indiscretions being exposed.

“There’s a lot of strong, independent, ballsy women in my family who may not have been on the frontlines of labor campaigns, who may not have identified as feminist but nonetheless the role that they played in my life, it was about standing up for yourself, for others and justice,” Fink said about her family’s role in her interest in activism.

Fink conducted her dissertation research through several personal narratives and the Southern Labor Archives at the GSU Library, earning her this year’s Reed Fink Award for using these archives for her dissertation.

For more information on the Reed Fink Award or any of the other archives visit www.library.gsu.edu under the tab labeled Collections & Archives.

1 Comment

  1. There was absolutely NO objective content in this article. Absolutely no discussion on Norma Rae, it just states that there was in fact a discussion somewhere, about something. Congratulations on nothing.

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