Just how accurate is Norma Rae?

“So I thought if the union had done that much for him, I wanted to have the same thing.” -Crystal Lee Sutton, on why she pushed for unionization


When attempting to translate a real life occurrence to the silver screen, Hollywood often gets lost in the glitz and glamor it thinks it needs to sell the story; however, not so with its production of Norma Rae.

Norma Rae accurately portrayed the hard life that southern textile workers had: the long hours, the poor wage, the resulting poverty, and just what happened to workers when they tried to better themselves. While the movie is absolutely partisan to the side of the worker, it forces the American people to feel sympathy for their plight. It does more to advocate for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) side than the previous decade of campaigning and boycotting by the union had.

The film tells the tale of Crystal Lee Sutton, the real life “Norma Rae,” who worked in the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. The producers of the film continuously consulted Sutton to make sure that Sally Field was portraying her character well. In real life, Sutton was focused on unionization, not feminism; the strong female lead that Field played was not an exaggerated version of Sutton. Sutton’s focus was not for the advancement of women, it was for the advancement of union and any bold moves, including the quintessential part of the film where she holds up the cardboard reading, “UNION,” is taken verbatim from her life.

The movie was also released at a very opportune time; American society was becoming rather receptive to feminism and feminist issues. In the early 1970s, the National Organization for Women (NOW) saw an upswing in their membership; Title IX was passed in the 1972 Education Amendment; and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company settled a discrimination lawsuit which forced them to pay $38 million in back pay to over 15,000 women.[2]

The only problem with the film is that it gives the impression that Norma Rae was the only woman involved with the unionizing cause; in actuality, there were various other people involved, including Eli Zivkovich, who was the main catalyst for her interest in unionizing in the first place.

As for Sutton’s own problems with the movie? She told reporters she really only had two. Sutton said that unlike Field, she did not skinny dip with the union organizer. In fact, she asked her co-organizer, Zivkovich, “Isn’t it a shame that we didn’t have that much fun?”[3] Her other point of contention also focused on Zivkovich; he was a middle-aged Serbian from Pennsylvania, not a good-looking Jew from New York.[4]

The film does a considerably good job relating the story of Crystal Lee Sutton and her attempt to make the J.P. Stevens plant allow unions. It emphasizes the intensely hard life the Southern mill workers had and the consequences the workers suffered, including being fired, if they tried to unionize. While some liberty was taken, mostly in regards to Zivkovich, the producers achieved its purpose: to tell the tale of Sutton and to release a successful pro-union movie at a time when unions were severely frowned upon by the American public. The producers, Tamara Asseyeu and Alex Rose, garnered the sympathy of the American public and allowed the ACTWU to reignite their cause and boycott against Stevens.


[1] (2010) Norma Rae: Part 2. Retrieved October 30, 2010, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUFI9FZ79sY.

[2] Toplin, Robert Brent. History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

[3] Sullivan, Patricia. “Labor Organizer Was Inspiration for ‘Norma Rae.” The Washington Post. Available from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/15/AR2009051503323.html. Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.

[4] Ibid.

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