Neon Girls: Professor Worley’s First Union
By Sadie Peckens
City College English Professor Jennifer Worley recently published her memoir, “Neon Girls: A Stripper’s Education in Protest and Power.” Worley transports readers through her experiences in mid-1990s San Francisco, working at the Lusty Lady Theater, where she begins as a dancer, then unites with her colleagues to push for their rights, first forming a union and later a cooperative. In an interview via Zoom with The Guardsman, Worley discusses the process of writing the memoir and expands on its content.
The memoir begins with Worley’s first glimpse of a recruiting ad for the Lusty Lady Theater. She shares the experience of earning the job, working and connecting with colleagues. Discrimination from management led to unfair wage gaps and shift assignments and pushed the group to organize. One-way windows allowed customers to videotape dancers. The videotaping was violating and the tapes could be sold, resulting in further exploitation. The team was driven to make change.
The book outlines the challenges faced and the strong effort the team put in before ultimately forming the Exotic Dancers Union. Ground up organizing resulted in changes to discriminatory practices and ended one-way windows at the theater.
In the interview, Worley emphasized that colleagues need to connect to make change, highlighting an example from the book, wherein she had stood up to management about the one-way windows, but no one supported her. Later, a colleague called to say she agreed with Worley’s statement. “It was the one-on-one connecting, that actually galvanized the action,” Worley said.
Labor and Community Studies Instructor, James Tracy, said of the book “it’s an extremely important contribution to the field of labor studies.”
“The basic things that people organize around, a voice on the job, safety, healthcare, that’s universal to anybody who has to work for a living,” he added.
In the interview, Worley, who served as City College’s Faculty Union AFT2121’s president from 2018-2020, emphasized the importance of grassroots work, and said the real power is in people banding together.
No single person unionized the group. “We all did it together. Everyone. There’s this tendency to want this leader, a charismatic visionary leader, but really where the power comes from is connecting with people around you,” Worley said.
Worley said students who want to make change should “get off the internet…connect with people who have common interests, do it in real life, or at this moment, do it by Zoom.”
The theme of feminism is explored in the book. Anecdotal stories show the power of the women who worked at the Lusty Lady Theater, and the triumph of the workers who united together to take charge and stop oppressive practices.
When working in the industry, Worley said she and her colleagues found it was neither useful to walk away, nor to continue suffering from exploitation. “I’ve always valued feminist critiques of porn and the sex industry. When I was organizing I found other lenses more helpful in actually working on the ground and gaining rights and power for the people in it,” Worley said.
Political Science Instructor, Tim Killikelly, read the book and noted “I thought it was an interesting and important labor and feminist story. There’s a certain shame put on the women who are the workers in the sex industry. Any time that you can take away that shame I think that’s important.”
Writing the Memoir
Worley began writing the book shortly after the Lusty Lady Theater closed and she had taken in all the memorabilia. She said she had started her sabbatical project and was working on a proposal, that included archival research. “I realized that’s crazy, I’m in an archive right now. This story needs to get told,” Worley said.
For Worley, creating the memoir meant writing daily. “I would sit down and say to myself, all I have to do today is make x number of words. That was a way of shutting off my internal critic,” Worley said.
“For those who are reading this because they’re writers, take those creative writing classes, use it to exercise your writing muscle, because it’s like going to the gym. You have to work it out. Those who are more politically organized…take the organizing class in Labor and Community Studies,” Worley said.
“Neon Girls: A Stripper’s Education in Protest and Power” will be taught later this semester in Worley’s English 1B class.
Worley is thinking of a next book, likely around the topic of choosing not to have children. “What does that mean? Why are so many people going that direction, particularly women? That’s where I think I am going for the next book,” Worley said.