Norma Rae (1979): New Screen Heroine, Played by Sally Field

Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae is a fictionalized account of Crystal Lee Sutton, the textile worker turned labor activist, living in a Baptist town in the Deep South.

Set in the summer of 1978, the narrative begins with the arrival of an outsider in what appears to be a dormant town. His arrival sets in motion events that will forever change the town and its workers. The film’s outsider hero is Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Liebman), a Jewish labor organizer from New York. Dressed in tennis shoes, blue jeans, and a T-shirt, he projects the nervous, intellectual energy associated with Jewish culture and the Big City.

In the first sequence, Norma Rae (Sally Field) realizes that her mother, Leona Witchard (Barbara Baxley), has not heard what she had said twice. She rushes her to the doctor to examine her hearing. At first, the cool Dr. Watson dismisses the case’s seriousness, “it happens all the time.” His advice is to find another job. “What other job” screams Norma, “In this town, this is the “only job.” “You’re nothing to any of ’em,” she tells her mother–and herself. Indeed, the workers are vastly exploited: They are overworked and underpaid. Lunch breaks are too short. A sign in the dining room instructs: “Give your chair to a spinner, they only have 15 minutes.”

As other workers, Leona shows traces of beauty gone; she works with her face buried in a spider web of threads. Norma’s father, Vernon Witchard (Pat Hingle), doing backbreaking stoop labor, later dies on his job. In film’s most emotional scene, Norma grabs a piece of cardboard, scrawls in large letters “Union,” gets on a table and holds the sign. At first, the workers are bewildered, then slowly, one by one, they shut down their machines. The deafening noise gradually turns into a meaningful silence.

The film provides a new type of screen heroine, one that occupies an important place in the gallery of uniquely American heroines, Alice Adams, Frankie Adams, Alice Hyatt. A 31-year-old widow, Norma Rae is the mother of two children, one illegitimate, the other born shortly before her husband died. Norma strikes a unique friendship with Reuben.

The two protagonists could not have been more different, though they are not social types. A leftist intellectual, Reuben is engaged to a Harvard University labor lawyer. His favorite leisure activities include poetry (Dylan Thomas), Chinese food, and the Metropolitan Opera. By contrast, Norma has never traveled and has not read much. In fact, she has never met a Jew, thus initially possessing similar stereotypes about Jews as the other town’s inhabitants. “I heard you all have horns,” she says, “What makes you different” Reuben answers in one word, “History.”

However, they share in common true grit and strength to recognize a good cause and fight for it, which is more important for their friendship than similarity in backgrounds. Norma Rae, like Melvin and Howard, epitomizes the democratic ethos, the potentially open quality of American life.

Norma Rae is depicted as a woman of loose morality. In an early scene, she is in a motel with a married man. Once a week, she is taken out and gets, as he describes “a big steak, pralines, and sex.” When Norma tells him “there’s a lot of gossip,” and that she has decided to terminate their affair, he slaps her in the face, reminding her “you’re here to make “me feel good.” But in sharp deviation from conventions, Norma is neither punished for her promiscuous sexuality, nor for giving birth out of the wedlock. “Did you get married” asks Reuben. “He didn’t bother,” Norma replies. As for her husband, he died in a barroom brawl, six months after her second child was born.

Norma Rae also stands out in choosing “not” to sentimentalize the town, despite its many social ills. There is racism against blacks, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, religious fanaticism. For example, upon arrival, Reuben is accused by Norma’s father of being a “crook, agitator, and Communist.” When Norma is promoted to a supervising job, her family and friends show overt resentment, suspecting she might side now with the management. Her father says he doesn’t “like to be pushed” by his own daughter, and the other workers don’t talk to her. Disgusted, she quits her job and goes back to work on the floor.

Nor does the film idealize New York’s union leaders, who reproach Reuben for using a woman with such “low reputation.” They may be committed to unionism and other causes, but when it comes to interpersonal relationships, they too possess stereotypes and rigid norms. Fearing a woman like Norma might give the union bad name, they demand that he ceases to use her; he defiantly refuses.

Courtship and marriage are far from glamorized. In Norma’s life, being married is just one status, not the most important one. The proposal of Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges), who works in a gas station, is one of the most original and unsentimental in American films. “I don’t owe a nickel in this town,” he says, “I can fix anything electrical. I’m alright after my first cup of coffee.” Having said what he considers basic, he proceeds: “I turn my paycheck the minute I get it. And I come straight home from work and I stay there.” Norma, too, is matter-of-fact. She asks Sonny to kiss her, because “if that’s alright, then everything else will be.”

Nature in the film is represented by the lake, where Norma and Sonny spend a relaxed day in the country. It is also the place where Norma and Reuben go swimming. There are two refreshing points about this sequence. First, they don’t make love and the scene is devoid of any romanticism or eroticism. Second, Reuben and Norma are not observed by others and there is no gossip. One almost expects the swimming scene to follow the conventions (sensationalism, gossip) of a similar scene in Peyton Place (l957).

The violation of these expectations makes the scene all the more pleasurable. Norma spends more time with Reuben than with her husband, a good, trusting man. At first, Sonny complains that she has neglected her domestic chores: cooking, washing, ironing. He is also envious that, when taken to jail and has only one phone call to make, she calls Reuben, not him. Expressing his resentment to Reuben, the latter sums up Norma’s personality in three brief sentences: “She stood on the table. She’s a free woman. You can either accept her or not.”

In a feat of jealousy, Sonny confronts his wife, suspecting she might be unfaithful to him. Here too, Norma deviates from other screen heroines: she hasn’t slept with Reuben, but admits, “he’s in my mind.” As a mother, Norma is not the self-sacrificing type. “I’m a jail bird,” she tells her children,” I’m not perfect. I make mistakes.” “You’re gonna hear many things about me, but you’re going to hear them from “me first.” She then tells her children the truth about their respective fathers.

The scholar Robert Ray claims that ideologically Grapes of Wrath and Norma Rae are virtually the same movie, regardless of their superficial differences: male hero versus female hero, right(c)wing (John Ford) versus left-wing director (blacklisted Martin Ritt), farm work versus city work. His interpretation suggests that, “both films propose that political problems can only be solved by messianic, individualistic leaders.” However, individualism is a long-enduring attribute (myth) of most American films, particularly the social problem films.

Ray oversimplifies the comparison between the movies, stating that both “portray workers as powerless, lazy, and fearful.” According to Ray, Norma Rae, seems different because it employs the standard Hollywood strategy of assimilating (and co-opting) a fashionably dissident individuals potentially threatening to the prevailing ideology, in this case, feminism, defused by having Norma Rae appear dependent on the male labor organizer.

By American films’ standards, Norma is a feminist heroine, demonstrating that an uneducated but resilient woman could acquire political consciousness (the first necessary step in any protest movement) and could also introduce normative and structural changes. Feminist critics have argued that Norma gains consciousness with the assistance of a man, implying that without a man she would never have changed.

But under the circumstances in which she lives, was it possible for Norma Rae to achieve change without the assistance of a male outsider? Could change have originated in that town by any of the local residents, male or female? For a Hollywood film of 1979, Norma Rae made a strong statement about gender, labor and politics.