The period from 1870 to 1930 witnessed profound changes in clerical work. By 1930 the fundamental characteristics that it still has today had been established. Clerical workers could be divided analytically into two basic groups: lower-level employees who executed routine tasks in a manner increasingly controlled and prescribed by employers; and, on a higher level best typified by private secretaries, those responsible for a wide variety of tasks who were encouraged to exercise a relatively greater degree of initiative and independence. Furthermore, clerical workers, who prior to 1870 had practically all been men, were by 1930 predominantly women. This feminization of the clerical labor force was related to the reorganization of clerical work.
Prior to 1870, offices were quite small, in general employing no more than a few clerks; consequently the division of clerical labor within them was rudimentary. Only four different kinds of employees can be distinguished—copyist, bookkeeper, office boy, and clerk. With the exception of the copyist who was hired purely to transcribe letters and other documents, these workers engaged in a wide variety of tasks and were able to learn a great deal about the workings of their firm. Furthermore, until at least the early nineteenth century, many clerks were specifically working as apprentices as a means of learning the business. After their apprenticeship, many went on to own and operate firms themselves. Much of the office work at this time was organized as an integrated whole—clerks were in a position not only to gain experience in the entire range of office work, but also to understand precisely how a particular task was related to overall office operations. Such employees were a far cry from scientifically managed clerical workers whose jobs had been reduced to the deadening repetition of a few steps in the labor process, and who had no opportunity to grasp how their tasks fit into the workings of the office on the whole.
Before 1870 relations between employer and employee were quite personal. That a clerkship was often seen as an apprenticeship meant that the employer often took a paternal role visa-vis his clerks. The small size of offices and the lack of codified bureaucratic procedures allowed an employer’s personal idiosyncrasies to have a very large effect on the tenor of office relations. A harsh or ill-tempered employer could make life miserable for his clerks; with a lenient or kindly one things could be much more pleasant. Whether or not a clerk was trustworthy seems to have been very important to employers—an indication that they were forced to rely on the personal merits of their office help and were relatively unprotected by formal rules or bureaucratic procedures.
After 1870, however, political-economic changes had a profound effect on the organization of office work. Capitalist enterprises began to expand and to consolidate, resulting in much larger corporations whose operations covered a much wider geographic area. Moreover, other ancillary institutions expanded. Witness, for instance, the expansion in both size and scope of law offices, as well as municipal, state, and federal governments. Because of their need for more record-keeping and correspondence, these growing firms and institutions experienced a dramatic increase in the volume of office work. Naturally, the demand for office workers rose rapidly as well. This increasing need was the impetus for both the feminization and the reorganization of clerical work. Some employers soon found that in order to cope with the mounting paperwork, it was not sufficient merely to multiply the number of bookkeepers, copyists, office boys, and clerks. Furthermore, their burgeoning workforce was becoming more difficult to supervise. For both of these reasons, employers found it necessary to reorganize office work.
The primary characteristic of that reorganization was an elaboration of the division of labor, with the restructuring of firms into functionally defined departments being basic. The effect on clerical jobs was immediate. Confined to working in a single department, a clerical employee was now at best able to understand only how things were done in that one department. No longer was he or she doing a job whose vantage point afforded a picture of the entire operations of a firm. Departments were often divided and subdivided into their component parts, a process that served only to further the isolation of any single office job.
The scientific management of office work systematized the division and redivision of clerical labor. Although it was by no means universal, scientific management was in the vanguard of developments in office organization. Its two major characteristics were that each component step in the labor process should be executed using the cheapest possible labor, and that most clerical workers were to be divested of as much control as possible over their work, and relegated to the execution as opposed to the conception of their tasks. The first of these tenets was often termed “efficiency” by scientific managers, who thought it wasteful to expend the more highly paid labor of a “skilled” worker on a task which could just as easily be done by a lower-paid “unskilled” worker. But, as Harry Braverman has observed, the motive force behind the change was the drive for as much profit as possible, rather than some abstract concern for “efficiency.”
The detailed division of labor was one of the ways in which scientific managers controlled clerical labor, for through its application they restricted the scope of clerical jobs and defined in very precise ways exactly what office workers were to do. Such restrictions further diminished the control that office workers exercised over their work. Placed in a position where they were unable to explore beyond the narrow confines of their individual jobs, and denied knowledge of how their own work fit into the firm’s overall labor process, clerical workers could neither understand nor intelligently control their work.
Scientific management methods of control and supervision were not exclusively indirect or structural in chracter. Scientific managers dictated to the minutest degree imaginable the manner in which clerical workers were to execute their tasks; concocted a variety of premium and bonus schemes to induce their staff to produce up to and over the management-dictated standard; and arranged their offices so that employees would produce as much work and waste as little time as possible.
It is sometimes argued that machines caused the routinization of office work and the restriction of the office worker to a few limited tasks.1 But nothing inherent in the typewriter, for instance, dictated that an individual clerical worker must operate it eight hours a day at a given rate of productivity. It was instead the particular organization of the office that tied an employee to the typewriter to the exclusion of any other duties. The successful invention and manufacture of the typewriter was a result of developments in the growth and organization of office work that made an automatic writing machine useful. As a general rule, technological inventions followed in the wake of changes in capitalism and in the reorganization of the labor process.
A second characteristic of the reorganization of office work was the growth of hierarchical structures of authority. These tended to replace the idiosyncratic, personal control of owners and managers with codified, impersonal rules. The existence of codified procedures for decision making meant that clerical workers had fewer opportunities to make decisions, and their control over their jobs was consequently diminished. A legion of rules covering all areas of office life accompanied this formalization of office hierarchy—rules about the degree of punctuality required, proper office attire, and what constituted “businesslike” behavior. The point is not that these features of office work were never dictated by employers in the small, pre-1870 office, but that the direct personal control of employers over their clerical employees was being replaced by the impersonal control of hierarchical structures and codified rules.
The elaboration of the division of labor and the creation of hierarchical structures of authority affected low-level clerical workers most directly. But the reorganization also brought into being the private secretary, whose work was typical of higher-level clerical workers.
Unlike the scientifically managed clerical worker, the private secretary was expected to take the initiative in his or her work, which consisted of an almost infinitely wide variety of tasks. The private secretary and the executive for whom he or she worked divided between them all of the duties involved in the latter’s job. The governing principle of the division was that the executive’s time, attention and energy should be saved for the “important,” creative aspects of the task, with the private secretary doing the menial parts. In practice, of course, the division of labor varied a good deal. A private secretary might be restricted to specific tasks because the executive liked to see to all details himself, or a private secretary might do most of the executive’s work. In either case, the secretary was the executive’s personal servant, with tasks defined by his personal choice.
Private secretaries often used their understanding of office operations to take the initiative in changing them. Their work, then, was an integrated whole, much as office work in general had been prior to 1870. Furthermore, private secretaries were, to some extent, apprentice executives. But their apprenticeship had become permanent. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when most private secretaries were men, some had been promoted to executive positions. But this was no longer true by 1930, when women dominated this position. Notwithstanding the various success stories of female executives who had started out as private secretaries, the literature on private secretaries began to warn that the position was by no means a stepping-stone toward management. As gender changed, there was a significant decrease in promotion opportunities. The male private secretary might some day sit in an executive’s chair; the female was, as a rule, an office wife or servant whose chances of moving up in the corporate world were virtually nil.
The relationship between an employer and a private secretary remained very personal. The division of labor between them often depended less on codified rules than on the personal characteristics of those involved; that is, on how much initiative a private secretary was interested in taking and how much the employer was willing to assign. The myriad personal services that the private secretary performed, from placing telephone calls to going out to buy sandwiches, underscored the personal nature of their relations.
By 1930, therefore, the reorganization of clerical work had produced two distinct kinds of clerical workers. On the one hand there were low-level clerical workers—file clerks, typists, office machine operators, and so on—who, to use Harry Braverman’s terminology, were not expected to participate in the conception of their work. They were to concern themselves only with its execution. This confinement to the routine execution of a relatively small number of tasks diminished their control. They had been deprived of any larger understanding of their jobs and had lost the opportunity to use any initiative. Their work had been severely degraded by comparison with office work before the late nineteenth century.
Private secretaries, on the other hand, had much more independence and control. They were still encouraged to use their initiative in the execution of a wide variety of tasks. By 1930, however, the promotional opportunities that they had once enjoyed to a limited extent had pretty much dried up. Furthermore, they were often asked to work as the personal servants of their executives, and routinely carried out some pretty menial tasks.
It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of the difference between the work of these two basic categories of office workers, especially since people often ascribed what were distinctive attributes of the private secretary’s duties to all office work. Consequently, all office jobs could be described in glamorous tones as “working as a team with an important executive” and “never having a dull moment in sophisticated surroundings.” Thus the drab realities of work in the typing pool or file room could be effectively disguised, at least in the newspaper job listings. Admittedly, low-level clerical workers were promoted. The personal histories of many private secretaries started out with an account of how an executive had noticed and appreciated certain initiatives that “that little typist or stenographer” had taken, and how she had then been hired as his private secretary. Because there were such promotions, all office work was seen as a continuum, with a low-level clerical job being the first step on the occupational ladder. But there were real differences between the two kinds of jobs.
Economic forces, which were responsible for this reorganization of office work, also prompted changes in the work force itself. The feminization of clerical work was simply the result of the exigencies of demand and supply. The rapid expansion of capitalist firms and government agencies, accompanied by the growth of correspondence and record keeping, led to a mounting demand for clerical labor. That demand was met, in part, by the availability of literate female labor. A number of factors contributed to the existence of this labor force. The economic instability of small farm and small business families both released women’s labor to the paid labor force and made the income women could earn more important. Clerical work was more desirable than other working-class jobs, both because of the higher wages it offered and the comparatively high status it enjoyed. The decline of productive work in the home also released women’s labor to the labor force, and few other jobs specifically requiring literacy were open to women. Furthermore, the supply of literate male labor was being tapped not only for the burgeoning clerical field, but also for management and professional positions, which rapidly increased in number with late nineteenth-century capitalist expansion. These factors, rather than technological innovation, explain the changes in clerical work.
Technological change did, however, facilitate the feminization of clerical work. New office machines, the most prevalent form of technological change, were gender-neutral. Being new, they had not been associated with the male-dominated early nineteenth-century office. Consequently, women hired to operate them were not met by the argument that they were employed at “men’s” machines or encroaching upon “men’s work.” The lack of such protest facilitated their entry into clerical jobs associated with new machines. This in no way suggests, it must be emphasized, that various office machines were more “suited” to female labor than to male. Although many made this claim, notably in the case of the typewriter, the fact that, outside the United States, typists were often men suggests otherwise. It was not because the typewriter was more “suited” to female labor, but because it was gender-neutral that women’s entry into the office was facilitated.
Other factors also facilitated the feminization of clerical workers. Perhaps the most important was the reorganized division of labor. Many clerical jobs, relatively integrated prior to 1870, were subjected to a radical division of labor as offices expanded. This resulted in a large number of routine, repetitive, low-level, dead-end clerical tasks, often filled by women. Thus the degradation of clerical work included a shift from one sex to another. Following an office reorganization, a male nineteenth-century bookkeeper would not, in all likelihood, find himself demoted to a low-level job in the bookkeeping department. Instead, he would probably be gracefully retired, or else put in charge of the bookkeeping department, with that department’s low-level jobs very likely being filled by women. Since they were not directly competitive with the male bookkeepers, potential opposition to them doing men’s work in this department would be muted. Reorganization thus frustrated the possibility of women directly pushing men out of jobs, a development that might have served as a deterrent to feminization.
A third factor that eased women’s employment as office workers was their recruitment as clerks in the Treasury Department during the Civil War. This radical wartime “experiment” provided an often cited precedent for hiring women clerical workers that the expanding businesses of the late nineteenth century followed.
Finally, patriarchal social patterns help to explain why women were concentrated in the clerical, as opposed to managerial, positions in the expanding office sector. In a society where men were dominant and women subordinate, it seemed only natural that men occupied the higher-level jobs.
The patterns of patriarchy also affected the extent to which office workers saw themselves as belonging to the “clerical class.” By and large, employers and managers were men while clerical workers were women. This was the case with private secretaries by 1930; and even the low-level clerical workers whose immediate supervisors were women were likely to see only men as they looked up the ladder of the office hierarchy. Thus there was a tendency, particularly obvious in the literature on private secretaries, for bosses to be seen as males first and as employers or managers second. Theirs was often perceived as predominantly a male, rather than as a class, authority.
To the extent that female clerical workers hesitated to challenge their male employers and supervisors because they were men, the gender-specific character of office hierarchies served to stabilize class relations. Women reared in a male-dominated society and shaped by patterns of male dominance in a variety of ways, both subtle and direct, were trained to submit to male authority. Thus the feminization of clerical labor meant a docile workforce and helped to stabilize the power relations between office workers and management.
The fact that female clerical workers were often identified as women first and as workers second reinforced the assumption, probably shared by many of them, that a woman’s primary role in life was to marry and raise a family. Such a perception tended in itself to distract women from their membership in the clerical class. And female office workers who gave primacy to their domestic role were likely to leave the office and the labor force when they married or, at the latest, started having children.
It should not be thought that women, voluntarily or by their “natures,” chose to emphasize their gender instead of class identification. This was a question not of choice but of women’s structural position in society. Their place in a variety of institutions made women more likely to submit to male authority rather than to challenge it openly. Certainly up until 1930, most families in the United States were dominated by systems of male authority that allowed women little formal power. It was not until 1920 that women even had the right to vote in federal elections. Women did not necessarily choose to submit to male authority; rather, they were both trained to do so from birth and, in many cases, simply denied the right to do anything else. The lack of promotional opportunities and the degrading nature of many of the jobs offer further evidence of the structural, as opposed to voluntary, basis for female clerical workers’ identification with their gender rather than with their class. Such conditions tended to push women out of the clerical labor force. A woman who had to choose between a life of domestic work and working at a deadening low-level clerical job or as an executive’s personal servant earning no public recognition whatsoever was not given much of a choice. Instead of arguing that women were simply “choosing” to leave the office in order to go home and tend the hearth, it makes more sense to maintain that their structural position in the office as well as in society at large pushed them out of the clerical labor force after a relatively short tenure within it.
Aspects of the organization of clerical work itself also militated against the development of class identity among clerical workers. The relationship between a private secretary and his or her employer was, in some ways, deeply personal. The secretary was in effect a servant, expected to be trustworthy beyond reproach and to carry out many non-business errands for him. Such duties and such a relationship militated against secretaries perceiving their work situation in structural or class terms. They were more likely to assess it in terms of their individual employer, than in terms of the conditions they shared with other private secretaries. Much as in a nineteenth-century office, the behavior of the individual employer loomed large: if he was “nice,” considerate, and so on, then the job could be enjoyable or at least not oppressive; if he was a tartar or treated his secretary like a doormat, then the job could be unbearable. That private secretaries were actively encouraged to identify their interests with their employers rather than with other private secretaries also contributed to such a perception. And it could only be enhanced by the fact that private secretaries, working alone in individual offices, were isolated from other members of their class.
Low-level clericals usually did not work in the same degree of isolation. But there were other factors discouraging them from seeing their situation in class terms. First of all, the private secretary and the low-level clerical worker were not always distinguished from each other, a confusion that was probably shared by some low-level clerical workers themselves. Furthermore, the job of private secretary was often considered the ultimate promotional goal of these workers, and one that was by no means unattainable. Consequently, thinking of themselves as future private secretaries, they identified with private secretaries and were thereby discouraged from perceiving their situation in class terms.
Competition among clerical workers, fostered by management, also retarded the development of a common class perception. The institution of bonus and premium plans, the attempts to foster a “spirit of friendly rivalry,” and even the creation of finely delineated (and sometimes meaningless) hierarchical levels within clerical work all encouraged clerical workers to compete with one another. Although management often initiated these competitive schemes in order to prod clerical workers to higher levels of productivity, they also had the effect of disguising clerical workers’ common class position.
But clerical workers grouped together in large work units had more opportunity to observe their common class interests. Indeed, David Lockwood found that the size of a firm was the best indicator of whether or not a clerk in Britain was likely to join a union—the larger the firm, the more likely the clerk was to be a union member. Clerical workers who worked in the relative isolation of small offices were likely to attribute their situation to the peculiarities of their firm, rather than to their structural position.
We return in the end to the significance of the feminization of the clerical labor force. It meant that the degradation of clerical work and the proletarianization of office workers was disguised. To the extent that female office workers were seen as women first and workers second, the decline in their position relative to their nineteenth-century predecessors’ was masked. Instead of the process being seen as proletarianization, the shift merely appeared to be from male to female office workers. Among the many assumptions about women that identified them as women a very strong first and as workers a very weak second was the idea that women were primarily concerned with being or becoming wives, mothers, and housewives. Hence their jobs were considered relatively unimportant to them—a means of filling time and earning a little extra money until marriage. Furthermore, it was often assumed that women, in part because of their past or future familial roles, were meant to be subservient to men. Finally, they were believed uniquely suited to boring, menial tasks where qualities of leadership or independence were totally unnecessary. Such beliefs could become self-fulfilling prophecies. If a woman saw that her future in office work was limited, she might well perceive marriage and domestic life as a welcome alternative. Had office work been more promising, with job possibilities offering challenges and a certain degree of power, she might have been more reluctant to marry or to quit work upon marriage. But such was not the case, and if they had the chance many women left office employment after a few years, thereby lending support to the claim that they cared mainly about being wives, mothers, and housekeepers. The process of degradation that had taken place throughout much of office work from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries was thereby disguised. The nineteenth-century clerk had not turned into a proletarian; he had merely turned into a woman.