Photo: Huffington Post
For over a century now, secretarial work has been extolled as a wonderful career opportunity for women–and excoriated as dead-end busy work.Both characterizations are true.
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Office work has supported or supplemented my writing career for almost 20 years, but I still have a hard time not adding the words–aloud or mentally–“just a” or “only a” in front of the word “secretary” when people ask me what I do.
I doubt I’m the only one. I mean, can you blame us? Today’s secretary is responsible for a greater array of complex tasks than her predecessors ever were, but the word itself is considered so demeaning that most offices shelved it long ago in favour of “administrative assistant.”
Indeed, “diminished image” and low pay were given as two reasons for a secretarial shortage that began in the late 1970s. Anyone who hasn’t resided under a rock for the past century is well aware of that image–the husband-hunting, pencil-pushing, coffee-getting, dumb-bunny, sex-bomb secretary depicted in advertising, novels, movies, television shows, comic books and just about every other form of pop culture for a lot longer than you probably realise.
Consider the history of that most pernicious of secretarial stereotypes: the office wife.
Women first entered the office as Treasury Department clerks thanks to a manpower shortage caused by the Civil War.
Almost immediately, the thought of men and women working side by side, unchaperoned, caused tongues to wag. So much so that by 1894, the author of a guide to the sights of New York City did his best to defend typewriters' reputations (the word then referred to both the machine and its operator):
'On few subjects have more jokes been made, and ill-natured slurs cast, than on the 'pretty typewriter.'
'It is doubtless true that some unprincipled adventuresses, and some weak and silly girls, have entered this occupation. But the overwhelming majority of the women who operate typewriting machines are modest, industrious, and worthy of all encouragement,' he concluded.
Regarding the secretary's reputation, it didn't help matters that taking face-to-face dictation from her boss, one of the major components of her job right up until the 1970s or so, occurred behind closed doors.
Whenever he called her, she took her steno pad and pencil, went into his office--and shut the door behind her.
There, she took down his thoughts in one of several forms of shorthand (phonetic systems of rapid writing that used either letters or symbols to indicate sounds instead of words), which she or a typist would later transcribe. That, at least, was how it worked in theory. But who really knew what went on behind the door?
Lots of people were happy to imagine what might take place there, including the manufacturer of a set of stereographs from 1907 (Part of an early home entertainment technology, stereographs were cardboard-backed photographic slides that appeared in 3-D when viewed through a special holder called a stereoscope).
A card titled 'Pressing Business! You Deceitful Wretch!' showed a stylishly dressed young woman walking into the inner sanctum as the boss snuggles his secretary on his lap. The interloper, of course, is the boss's wife.
Next, her husband drops the secretary like a hot potato, as his wife grabs her rival by the hair.
'You Amorous Little Upstart! I'll Teach You Not To Hug Married Men!' was the caption. It seems that even a century ago there was an audience for the proverbial cat fight between pretty girls--and that husbands got off far too easy.
Time for a little dictation--winking emphasis on the first syllable, please--courtesy of 'Office Wife' (1961):
'Stella arrived that afternoon, dark-eyed, her lips curved into that same little taunting smile Rick had seen the previous Friday in the secretarial pool. . . . In her long, slender fingers she held a freshly-sharpened pencil and a flat stenographer's pad, flipped open to a fresh and unused page. Her nails, Rick noted, were unusually long for a girl who had to type all day. His mind asked the question: I wonder how they'd feel digging into my back?'
Trust me, you don't have to dig far to find much filthier depictions of boss-secretary relationships. The power differential inherent in the relationship between boss (dominant) and secretary (submissive) made it a natural for all sorts of sadomasochistic scenarios.
In addition to the seductive secretary who lusted for, and possibly seduced, her married boss, pop culture occasionally portrayed another type of office wife: the office playmate.
Indeed, advice writers had long suggested that women made better secretaries than men in part because of their maternal skills. A good secretary was supposed to make an appointment at the barber when she noticed the boss needed a haircut, for example, or order in a nutritious lunch if he seemed rundown (she herself was supposed to eat a hearty breakfast in case she had skip her own lunch).
As 'Good Jobs for Good Girls' (1949), a tongue-in-cheek guide to marrying the boss, noted in its chapter on secretarial work: 'Recollect / this helpful verse: / he's a Baby, / you're his Nurse!'
... 'Very Private Secretary' (1960), a 'dirty' book for men.
Indeed, perhaps no other female occupation has had more hard- and soft-core pornography devoted to it, though librarian and nurse probably give the secretary a run for her money in this department.
Want to see that again?
In the teen novel, 'Marcia, Private Secretary' (1958), a young woman learns secretarial skills and 'stumbles on a puzzling mystery. Deep in the vaults of the old library, the secret of the Lost Records had been hidden for centuries. It was up to Marcia to find them.'
Poor, professional, mystery-solving Marcia doesn't stand a chance against the office succubus at the centre of 'Tall, Blonde and Evil' (1964). 'It only took one look to see that she was always ready to take dictation ... or anything else the boss wanted to give her.'
Meanwhile, back at the office, secretaries were inspired by the women's liberation movement to demand better pay, bigger opportunities, and--horror of horrors!--refuse to make and serve coffee to the boss and his guests.
The women's movement also paved the way for young women who might otherwise have become secretaries to attend professional schools themselves. Alongside these social changes, new technologies like IBM's MagneticTape Selectric Typewriter (developed in the mid-1960s, this was the conceptual grandmother of today's word processing systems) or the answering machine pictured here meant that one secretary could work for multiple bosses--or a boss might do without a secretary altogether.
Together, the women's movement and technology largely spelled the end of the traditional male boss/female secretary twosome that spawned the 'office wife' in the first place.
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