The Private Secretary
In 1934 the author of The Personal Secretary contended that there was a fundamental difference between a stenographer and a secretary. A stenographer needed only the intelligence to understand what was being dictated to her and what she was supposed to do with it, the accuracy to carry out “the routine of her work,” the judgment to decide “familiar, easily learned, routine matters,” and the loyalty to be trusted with “confidential matters . . . within the relatively unimportant range of routine dictation.” Furthermore, “her personality makes less difference, as she comes into contact with relatively few people, practically all of whom are fellow-workers. She seldom meets the outside people on whose good will and opinion the success of the business rests.”1 The secretary, by contrast, was all that the stenographer was not, and performed a much more demanding job.2
That a secretary used to be privy to secret matters, and that to this day a “secretary” may be someone in an exalted position, suggests that a clerical worker who was a secretary was quite different from those clerical workers who were stenographers, typists, file clerks, or office machine operators. The latter performed one small segment of a finely broken-down division of labor in a routinized fashion. The private secretary, by contrast, was encouraged to take the initiative in performing tasks and was often entrusted with a very broad range of office jobs.
By 1910 attempts to define the difference between secretaries and other clerical workers, notably stenographers, had begun. In 1916 one author described the work of a typist as “purely mechanical.” But “the stenographer’s work,” he argued, “comes a little higher because the stenographer executes the thoughts of someone else. A secretary must think independently, and at the same time execute the thoughts of another.”3 And in 1924, a Carnegie Institute of Technology survey, which included questionnaires distributed to both employers and secretaries, sought to determine precisely what were the duties and traits of a secretary. Employers, the survey concluded, “were all agreed that the stenographer does purely routine work—‘she is a diligent, faithful, human machine.’” Secretaries, on the other hand, were said to be distinguished by their initiative, responsibleness, interest in work, and executive ability.4
There seemed to be general agreement among employers, secretaries, and those studying the latter that real differences existed between a secretary and a stenographer. The exercise, or lack, of initiative was a major distinction. But initiative was not necessarily inherent; it could be developed. Indeed, stenographers were advised that the best way to advance to the position of secretary was to show some inventiveness. Stenographers who became private secretaries were those who “took upon themselves without instruction from their employers such tasks as the management of callers, the keeping of appointments, and the accomplishment of other detail work of their employers. Because they were wide awake and took an interest in the work of their employers, these stenographers soon picked up many bits of information concerning their employers’ business, their methods and policies, and their activities. . . . The more information of this nature they secured, the better able they became to decide upon matters that came up when the chiefs were busy or were away.”5
People were seldom precise about the meaning of “taking the initiative,” since secretaries would do so in a variety of ways. The general idea, however, was that they should figure out for themselves what jobs needed to be done and how to do them, rather than waiting for work to be assigned. Here, for instance, is how one secretary acted on her own:
The weeks went on and I had been doing this secretarial work for about eight months, when Mr. Blank was hastily called away on a business trip lasting a fortnight. . . .
He left with a hurried good-by and practically no instructions save that any mail might be held until his return, or, in the event of its being urgent, should be referred to one of his assistants. That wasn’t particularly pleasing to me, for I thought that if I were a real secretary I ought to be able to handle that correspondence myself. Then I began to wonder if I couldn’t, and then I decided that I would. . . .
In regard to the business material I asked advice occasionally, but on the whole I managed it myself. Visitors I likewise disposed of—graciously, I hope; with celerity, I know. The result was that when Mr. Blank returned there were but three or four matters which actually required his personal attention. I showed him the rest of the material, together with carbons of my replies, and explained how the various affairs stood.
“Why,” he exclaimed with a pleasant smile, “it’s very nice of you to have kept things up for me in this way! No one ever did it before.”
And the next week brought me a ten-dollar salary increase and the practical certainty that I was making good.6
Another writer encouraged secretaries to trust their own judgment when it came to introducing new office methods, and cautioned them against self-deprecating thinking such as “It has never occurred to those higher up to adopt this plan. It is only I, a mere hireling, thinking this. I am not paid to think. I am paid to do the things thought out for me by others. Therefore, the thoughts that occur to me are of no value.” Instead, secretaries were advised to trust their own experience: “the people who are going to devise the better means of perfecting office work are those whose daily tasks put them in close touch with the faults of the systems now in use.”7
Employer correspondence was one area where secretaries could assume responsibility. Gladys Torson advised that the secretary capable of “polishing off the boss’s letters” should go a step further and “write many of his letters for him. . . . Write as many letters as your boss will let you, because this is one of the ways in which you can be of the most help to the average man.”8 Earlier, another writer had warned that “the secretary should not be timid about undertaking the answering of any letter which is not of such importance in nature as those taken in to the chief.”9 The fledgling secretary, he acknowledged, would at first have to check with his “chief” to assure that the work was being done correctly, but after a while he would be on his own. The secretary can thus be very valuable. After all, “the true executive has not much time for anything but creative work. He can very easily waste two or three hours a day by personal attention to his mail.”10 But there were also warnings against secretaries being too independent: “Too much independence or initiative or individuality—too much ‘I’ really—almost no employer wishes.”11
Correcting an employer’s mistakes was often left to secretaries. “Theoretically, the secretary is supposed to put down on paper just what is said and just as the dictator said it. As a matter of fact, he should do no such thing, for a busy man in dictating letters will often be guilty of errors which would make his letter ridiculous if it were written just as he dictated it.”12 Moreover, the secretary should be sure that his employer worked systematically. “This he can usually do by first planning the system for his employer and then getting him to adopt it unconsciously. . . . It is the secretary’s duty to keep after his employer so that he does his work, but there is, of course, great need for tact and diplomacy in getting the employer to adopt a system.”13
Secretaries were encouraged to organize their own work schedule, as well as that of their employers: “you must . . . take an intelligent attitude toward the planning of your work. You are not told by your employer in just what order or at just what hours you should put through the work he places in your hands. You cannot turn to ask him ‘What shall I do next?’ You must turn to yourself with that question, and you must answer it with good judgment.”14 On the whole, private secretaries were being encouraged to think for themselves, at a time when principles of scientific management were imposing more and more control over lower-level clerical workers.
Secretarial work also encompassed a large variety of tasks. In 1910 one writer found it “difficult to imagine a profession less controlled by routine than that of a private secretary. Each day differs from the preceding one, and there is never a dull succession of drab weeks. Instead, the brain is kept alert by the questions and perplexities of the hour, and the ability to perform the daily duties ‘judgmatically’ grows with the months and years of experience.”15 Another study concluded that all the secretaries shared “the unshakeable belief that her particular job was absolutely unique and that the information she gave could scarcely be helpful as it was not representative.”16 That secretaries believed in the uniqueness of their individual job suggests that secretarial work did indeed vary a good deal, and that many tasks common to all secretaries could be combined in an infinite number of ways.
Charters and Whitley seem to have been the first to undertake a systematic investigation of these tasks. They found that “the median number of duties performed by an individual was about 130 with three-fourths of the secretaries performing less than 210 duties each.”17 Of the 130 tasks most frequently performed, over sixty involved correspondence and writing. Twenty-five fell into the category of a general knowledge of office procedure; fourteen were concerned with the physical maintenance of the office; fifteen involved the secretary acting as the personal emissary or extension of the employer, answering the telephone, greeting callers, even “getting rid of cranks and beggars”; ten covered the organization of the office work—the secretary’s, the employer’s, or that of other office workers; while only three fell into the category of personal errands for the employer.
This breakdown seems to indicate that almost half of the tasks the average secretary did involved correspondence and writing. In compiling their list of secretarial duties, however, Charters and Whitley made a more detailed breakdown in these areas than in others. For example, they separated “open mail” and “seal mail,” as well as a large variety of intermediate steps such as “fold letters” and “insert letters in envelopes.” But when the secretary acted as the employer’s personal emissary, they only listed “meet callers,” omitting “bid farewell to callers,” which might be seen as analogous to “seal mail.” Thus it is difficult to determine precisely what proportion of their time secretaries devoted to various tasks.
Nonetheless, the complexity of secretarial work certainly emerges. It is possible to determine what percentage of the secretaries studied by Charters and Whitley were performing the various duties. For instance, 84 percent said that they composed letters on their own, while only 70 percent indicated that they sharpened their own pencils. Sixty-two percent made engagements or appointments for their employers, but only 50 percent ran errands. And more secretaries (42 percent) took care of flowers than planned work for others (37 percent). Some of this variance may have been due to office size. In a large office, where there were enough workers to merit a division of labor, one employee might well sharpen all the pencils, clean and oil typewriters, be responsible for office supplies and for locking desks and safes, and so on, thus relieving the private secretaries of those tasks. The literature on secretarial work stresses the ability to write some of the employer’s business correspondence. In 1917 one author concluded, “the writing of letters is probably the most common duty of secretaries. . . . The employer may be an excellent letter writer, but he seldom has time to dictate word for word each letter that leaves the office.”18 This commentator also described the situation of Frank Campbell, a secretary who received a telegram from his “chief,” saying that he would not return from his weekend in the country until late Tuesday afternoon, and that in the meantime a speech on bonus systems should be prepared for him.
At five o’clock [on Monday afternoon] Campbell was back at the office. He cleaned up the few remaining business matters of the day and departed for home—and work, for he had to write the speech that night if it were to be done at all.
It was late that night before Frank Campbell had finished the skeleton outline and the rough draft of the speech, but the sound sleep, induced partly by fatigue and partly by the consciousness of work well done, left him much refreshed the next morning.
Mr. Forbes did not arrive at four o’clock as he had telegraphed Campbell. But at 5:30 he walked rapidly into the office and greeted the somewhat worried Campbell.
“I was detained by a tire blow-out,” panted Mr. Forbes. “Must hurry along and get dressed. Is the speech ready?”
“Yes, sir,” said Campbell. He reached into the desk drawer, pulled out the typewritten speech and the outline which he had typed on the note cards. These he handed to his chief, who hurriedly glanced through the material, nodded to himself once or twice, and then rushed out of the office, stuffing the sheets into the pocket of his duster.
When Mr. Forbes arrived at the office at 9:15 Wednesday morning, he first answered the greeting of his secretary and then said, “The talk made quite a hit last night. But where did you get such good ideas?”19
Writing tasks went with the job. A secretary was expected to know how to take dictation, transcribe shorthand notes into a written text, use the typewriter accurately and quickly, and be able to compose letters and documents. But there was other work as well: The secretary was expected to be familiar with the entire office routine.
An accurate typist can copy legal documents without error. A well-trained switchboard operator can handle many active lines at once. A superior dictating machine operator can transcribe evenly and well from successive records. A competent bookkeeper can be relied on for correct accounts. But a secretary must expect to be doing, watching, thinking, talking, listening, starting this, finishing that, waiting, co-operating. And all these activities will be bound up in tasks very different from one another in kind and in importance and in length of time required for their completion.20
A private secretary was expected to have a thorough knowledge of the filing system, although the actual filing might be done by others. “Also, he will give directions, even though he does not file letters himself, as to how certain letters are to be filed.”21 Nor was the secretary limited to the details of office procedure; he or she might well be “called upon to advise with his executive in large questions of policy. Since this is so, the private secretary, besides having a knowledge of the duties of a private secretary, should have a sound, broad knowledge of business in general and a specific knowledge of the particular business of the employer.”22 This was often true of private secretaries to professionals, especially in a relatively small office. Thus the duties of a physician’s secretary were said to include receiving patients, making engagements, answering the telephone, keeping accounts and records of patients, aiding in the editing of medical publications, assisting in laboratory analysis, and helping, under direction, in minor operations.23 A secretary in a law firm was accountable for “all kinds of systematic filing, clerical office work, accounting, private correspondence, library work, court reporting, and executive supervision of a staff of clerical assistants and office routine.”24
While a general knowledge of office procedure might involve the secretary in such exalted tasks as “advising with the executive in matters of policy” and supervising other office workers, he or she was also expected to take a part in physically maintaining the office. By 1940 a writer assumed that private secretaries were women, and advised them that they would be expected to inject a “woman’s touch” in the office. She took it for granted that a woman would know better than her male boss how “to hang pictures or to pick a suitable spot on the wall for his pet wall-eyed pike.” They could also arrange flowers artistically if they were lucky enough to work for a man who liked them. However, secretaries were urged to “remember that the majority of offices are the bailiwicks of men, not women, and ruffles and kindred frills are taboo.”25
The secretary was also required to be a personal emissary or extension of the employer, and thus might make appointments or even serve as the employer’s conscience when he was tempted to stray from the dictates of proper business behavior. “The secretary should strive to prevent his employer from breaking an engagement. It is better for the secretary to incur the displeasure of his chief for the time being, so long as he gets him to keep the appointment.”26
Secretaries were also often advised to get to know their employers as well as possible, so that they would be familiar with their every personal preference, and would be able to “put themselves in their employer’s shoes” in their absence. Thus the model secretary was “to find out how the employer wants everything done and then to act in that way”—in effect to be an extension of the employer. The secretary should even learn about “the friends and acquaintances of the employer and about the important callers at the office. . . . The secretary will soon learn, for example, which friend is to have the right of way in luncheon engagements, who has the privilege of walking unannounced into the private office, and so on. The secretary, moreover, should strive to get into the good graces of his employer’s friends.”27
The organization and supervision of office practices, still another category of secretarial work, was one more way in which secretaries functioned as an extension of the employer. In supervising other office workers, they were operating as delegates or representatives of their employers. While overseeing other office workers was not a primary secretarial task, it was a responsibility for some. One writer found the secretary an important liaison between (male) employers and (female) office workers. This “trouble-shooter” should be “someone who has been through the mill herself and understands the problems of the girls: someone able to estimate how much work a girl should be able to turn out in a day and how much work each man in the office has to do.”28
Secretarial work also included personal business and errands for the employers. Again not a priority, this was nonetheless part of the job. It covered making hotel and train reservations; handling money, which might well involve handling the employer’s personal as well as business finances; depositing, writing, and cashing checks; and taking care of the check book and bank book. Personal errands were not a major portion of secretarial work, but they still rankled:
One girl has to amuse her employer’s two children every Saturday morning. It’s a great day—for the kids. Distinguished visitors are apt to be hit in the eye with a misdirected ball, books are dragged from the shelves to build houses on the floor, but still the routine of the office must run smoothly on. The secretary is a capable young woman and usually manages to greet a caller and at the same time graciously kick a train of cars from before his feet. She can remove a regiment of soldiers from a chair even as she waves a guest into it, and playing horse with a rope around her waist and “Git up!” yelled in her ear, does not prevent her from calmly answering the phone and even typing an occasional letter.
But one day when she found an eight-year-old crawling over her desk, his feet dragging over her neat pile of papers into ruin, she spanked him!
No, she didn’t lose her job. She’s too valuable.29
In addition to minding employers’ children, secretaries fetched and fixed their lunches, shopped for their gifts, and even ran errands for their wives.
In all of these aspects of the job, the secretary was expected to demonstrate initiative, to do the things that needed to be done without always asking permission. Such a secretary was a far cry from the lower-level clerical worker of scientific management, who was expected to execute a small number of routinized tasks at a fixed speed. Secretaries were expected to think, and to understand how their responsibilities fit into the entire business operation.
The Private Secretary as Buffer
The private secretary in effect served as a buffer between the employer and the outside world. Acting as the personal emissary of the employer, he or she handled callers and regulated their access to the employer; undertook personal errands and protected him from involvement in the minutiae of daily life; and “learned the ropes” of the businesses and bureaucracies to be dealt with, thereby saving him from having to concern himself with large numbers of mundane albeit important details. The point here is not that the secretary enabled his or her employer to become an ivory-tower recluse. Rather, the secretary enabled him to conserve his energy. Protected from distractions and mundane tasks, he was thus free to do the “important” work and to make the “important” decisions.
According to a monograph of the Federal Board for Vocational Education, “the trained secretary relieves the executive of all detail by keeping him informed as to the important happenings in the business world that may be of particular interest . . . by gathering data for the preparation of papers and speeches, by standing between him and the public . . . and in every way by keeping the executive’s time for the more important managerial responsibilities devolving upon him.”30 In one 1934 survey of secretarial traits and duties, both employers and secretaries ranked “handle callers” in the most important class of duties. Many offices were designed so that the private secretary’s desk was adjacent to the employer’s office. Thus stationed, he or she could intercept callers, deciding whether to turn them away, ask them to wait, or usher them into the employer’s office; could take phone calls and decide whether or not to transfer the call to the employer. One book devoted an entire chapter to the subject of “Managing Callers”:
The secretary meets and manages callers. The correct performance of this duty is important because it means a saving of from one to three hours each day in the executive’s time—hours that can easily be wasted if every caller at the office is granted admittance to the chief. Again, the employer will be subjected to many annoyances, worries, and disagreeable experiences if beggars, cranks, and others of such types are freely admitted. This duty of acting as buffer between the employer and the caller is difficult, for it involves the exercise of great tact and discretion on the part of the secretary if he is to be at all successful. The secretary, in other words, must be able to “meet the people.”31
The author explained in detail how to distinguish between important and unimportant calls, stressed the importance of courtesy to all callers, and described how to pull an employer away from overlong calls. The entire chapter aims at safeguarding an employer’s time and, toward this end, is willing to contemplate duplicity. Thus it suggests that all callers be given appointments for the following day. The employer could then look over this schedule and decide which ones to keep. Should cancellation be in order, then “the secretary can say that ‘Mr. Harrow was unexpectedly called away and will be unable to see you until next week,’ or, ‘Mr. Harrow is still busy on the matter he was working on yesterday and will be unable to see you,’ or some other reason can be given.”32
The secretary can screen telephone calls and transfer only those calls deemed of sufficient importance. He or she might also place calls for the employer, thereby sparing him the tedium of waiting for the person called to get on the line. This sometimes led to secretaries jousting for their respective employers:
In certain cases where both men concerned are important men, the secretary of each will try to get the other principal to the ‘phone before his own chief takes the phone. Secretaries do this in order that they may save their own employers the trouble of saying, “Hello, Mr. Blank?” and of then finding out that the person talking at the other end of the wire is Mr. Blank’s secretary.
In some cases the battle of wits between the two secretaries, each striving to get the other man on the wire before he puts his own employer on, lasts for four or five minutes. Various subterfuges and stratagems are used. One secretary will say, “Yes, Mr. Smith is here and is ready to talk. Put your chief on,” The other secretary will say: “Just a minute”—and then a few seconds later will say, “Hello, is this Mr. Smith?” hoping that in the meanwhile the other secretary will have put on her own chief. As a rule, however, where the employers are of about the same importance in business, the secretary who is calling up the other man should give in.33
The secretary was “the gateway to the employer,” according to one writer. “If the gate swings easily, a man or woman glides into his or her appointment with the employer’s interview already well begun. And it is fully as important that, if you can meet people with understanding, you will be able to turn away those whom your employer refuses to see, and with a grace that does not send them away ‘queered.’”34 Another observer considered that part of a secretary’s job even included protection from the “female vamp.”
“It’s part of my business,” said the attractive young woman in charge of a physician’s office, “to have plenty of errands which take me into the room where the doctor has a woman patient. I keep going in and out and leave the door open behind me. You should see the looks I get sometimes! But the doctor asks me to do it. It’s part of my job.
“You would be surprised at the things women will do when they want to get a man. And if the door is shut, even if everything is as proper as an interview with [Herbert] Hoover, they can go away and tell anything they want to about what has happened. But with me in the room half the time it’s hard to get by with anything, even a story.”35
Thus did the private secretary act as intermediary and as buffer. Consequently he or she was endowed with considerable authority, and could determine whether a caller merited attention and, to a certain degree, whether the employer should be exposed to his callers. Furthermore, by seeming to require a buffer, an employer’s importance was enhanced. He was indeed an important person, whose time was far too valuable to be wasted on such details as arranging an appointment or dialing a telephone. His secretary, conversely, being less important, could spend his or her less valuable time on just such trivia.
Even writing doggerel for the employer to send to his sweetheart might be included among secretarial responsibilities:
Your eyes are stars of the summer night,
Your cheeks are a pair of roses,
Your lips—well, I’d be happy quite
If they were where my nose is.
“That’s the best I can do,” growled the harassed-looking man, tearing a sheet of paper from his typewriter. “Let the old man do his own stuff.”
The other men in the office grinned in sympathy. They had all been at it, the past week, writing poetry for the boss. You see, the chief had a sweetheart who demanded a fresh stanza dedicated to her charms every day. But he had gone away on a vacation and, wishing to have perfect rest, had left the poetry job to his secretary. For the first week the secretary kept up under the strain, but after that she had to call in outside help, and all the men in the office had taken a hand at it.
“I really wasn’t hired to write verses to his lady friends!” exclaimed the secretary in some indignation.
Well, perhaps not. But there are a lot of things, as this girl discovered, which a secretary does for her employer that are not mentioned when she takes the job. It’s something like a bride on her wedding day. She doesn’t get the idea when the organ is throbbing with the strains of “Oh, Promise Me,” that “Love, honor and obey” is going to mean hunting collar buttons and washing the baby’s clothes. Neither does the secretary always realize, when she is engaged at thirty-five per, that she may be asked to do almost anything for her employer, from picking out his tie to buying his wife’s birthday present.36
There are comparable examples. One secretary was expected to help out an employer with his current love affair. She “was familiar with the whole thing, knew the lady well, ordered her daily flowers, and helped select her presents.” The employer even solicited advice from his secretary when he wanted to break off the affair.37 More frequently, the secretary was directed to buy gifts for wives and friends of the employer. One confidential secretary, describing her rise to this lofty position, noted: “I had also begun to execute all sorts of personal missions for Mr. Blank. I did considerable banking and made numerous purchases of various kinds, even Christmas presents when that season rolled around.”38 In the survey of valued secretarial duties and traits, employers stated: “she had kept track of my Christmas list for me from the previous year”; “she keeps me from going home empty-handed on birthdays and anniversaries.”39
Secretaries not only bought gifts for their employers’ wives. They also ran errands for them. One secretary was fired because she refused to run any more.
A scrap of silk was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. One bitter day in February, when a driving sleet was fairly rattling the windowpanes, she called up and asked me to match some samples at a Fifth Avenue shop near Fiftieth Street. She apologized for asking me to go out on such a dreadful day by explaining that she hated to take the limousine out in such weather! I know that this sounds incredible, but it is the simple truth.
The errand meant a trip of at least an hour and a half. My desk was piled with work that must be finished in time to catch the last mail. Even if I cut my lunch hour short, I would have to strain every nerve in order to clear my desk by five o’clock.
I thought of these things, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to use them as an excuse. I simply said that I was sorry, but that I would be unable to match the samples for Mrs. Brown on that or any other day. She was as surprised as if I had struck her. No doubt she thought me a monster of ingratitude.
The next day happened to be Saturday. When I opened my pay envelope, I found two weeks’ salary and notice that my services would not be further required.40
Nor was it unusual for a secretary to be asked to fix food for the employer, and sometimes to share it with him. Lauretta Fancher cited the case of a secretary in Philadelphia whose boss was a “food crank” and who joined him in a regular lunch of lettuce and milk.41 Another “used to make milk toast for his breakfast. . . . No matter what was going on, I had to drop everything at eleven o’clock in the morning and again at three in the afternoon, and trot out for his glass of milk and plate of graham crackers.”42
Secretaries often did their employers’ personal banking. One employer, when asked what secretaries had done for him that “pleased him very much,” answered, “She handles my personal checking account. I never can make it come out even, but she fixes it up—I think a girl should know something about banking.”43
Most of the evidence about the personal errands that secretaries ran for their employers comes from accounts written by secretaries themselves about the ups and downs of their work. These stories, published in such popular magazines as Collier’s, Ladies Home Journal, and American Magazine, provide a colorful glimpse of what a few secretaries, at least, thought about their jobs. One subject that figured prominently in those thoughts was running personal errands for the boss, and resenting it. Employers, on the other hand, placed very little emphasis on personal errands. In fact, the only ones that they mentioned were personal banking and gift buying. This is hardly surprising: the employer who demanded his milk and crackers at eleven every morning was not too likely to brag about it.
Such tasks were only the most prominent form of the personal errand. Dialing and answering the telephone, opening and sealing letters, even composing speeches and letters were all personal services performed as part of the secretary’s job routine. These innumerable acts of minor servitude, rather than the less frequent present-buying, constituted the bulk of such errands and were at the heart of the division of labor between employer and personal secretary. They were so much taken for granted that they were seldom remarked upon by either in the literature on personal secretaries. They were a fundamental feature of office work, assumed as a given and passing without question.
The Personal Secretary as Servant
The very work of acting as buffers and of running errands casts light upon the objective place of private secretaries in the world of work. They were servants. Thus the literature places trust and deference high on the list of desired qualities.
In the first place, a secretary was supposed to defer to the opinions and judgments of his or her employer. “Adaptability”—“she puts up with the views of the individual above her to the point where it is quite against her own make-up”—and “personal pleasantness”—“she is not always determined to have her own way”—were stressed.44 Sometimes deference had its limits. One secretary recalls:
I started working for a Mr. Lyons, who owned a good-sized letter-shop. He wanted some one who, as soon as she was familiar with the work, could take charge of the office and the twenty-some girls who were doing the typing. He had spent four hours in interviewing me to make sure I was the right person. The first morning he handed me the checks to make the deposit and suddenly screamed: “Look at them, look at them, look at them!”
“I am looking at them,” I said.
“Now, that won’t do,” he said. “I may be snappy, but it doesn’t mean you have done anything. I have a great deal on my mind.”
“No. That won’t do.”
It was eleven o’clock when I left. I had worked two hours.45
But this same woman chose subservience with another employer when, working as a bookkeeper, she was asked to get a feather duster for the office.
“A cloth is much better,” I said.
“What?” the president said. “We always did have a feather duster.”
When the president left the room, I said to the secretary: “Does he really want a feather duster?”
“Sure. He always used to have a feather duster. He likes to slap it around in those file-boxes on top of the desks and make the dust fly over everything. When he gets started with a feather duster the dust rises up in clouds thick enough to choke you.”46
She bought the feather duster.
“Secretaries are actually glorified valets,” one writer candidly observed. “They must know the meaning of personal service and what it means to a busy man. Naturally a man likes to have his wants attended to, who doesn’t? You are in the office to serve your employer. Don’t feel that you are too dignified or too well educated or too something else to serve him.”47
Nonetheless, most writers acknowledged that there were times when deference was not in order—for instance, when the secretary knew that the employer was making an important mistake. Even then, however, diplomacy and tact were advised. The secretary, in making corrections, was still expected to defer to his or her employer’s feelings and ego. When Gladys Torson suggested that secretaries try to break their employers of “bad business habits,” she warned that since “no one likes to think that he is being reformed . . . any measures you take will have to be diplomatic.”48 In a chapter entitled “Soothing the Tired Business Man,” she offers the following example of how the good secretary catered to her boss’s psyche:
At first the man was inclined not to like his new secretary; he thought she was too mouselike, but he soon found out what a joy it was to have someone walk quietly into the room, answer him in a soft voice, and sit in the chair without squirming while he dictated. He could splutter and mutter as much as he liked but his secretary only smiled sympathetically, as though that were the way a man is supposed to act in an office. She didn’t force her personality into the picture (yes, she had one, too) and gradually the man’s nervous tension began to relax.
“I don’t know she’s there, most of the time,” he said, “and yet I feel confident that she is getting down what I am saying, that she understands me and sympathizes with me and my problems. I’ve been a different man since she came to work for me. She doesn’t act as though she thought she was smarter than I am. Maybe she is, I shouldn’t be surprised, but I have to think I’m smart these days or I couldn’t hold my own in business.49
Deference included being a good listener. “Every secretary who ever pounded the keys,” one writer concluded, “will admit that there are times when she has had to be a safety valve. And a sponge. Listen when he feels like talking. Absorb, sympathize. And keep her mouth shut.”50 Sooner or later, she noted, most employers got around to complaining about the fact that “their wives did not understand them,” while the secretary lent a sympathetic ear. Another observer, in agreement, blamed their wives: “I wish the boss’s wife would listen when he wants to talk about himself. Apparently she doesn’t, for I have to spend half an hour every day listening to what he did and said about things I already know by heart.”51
Most studies of clerical labor comment on this pattern of subservience and enlarge on it. The authors of Secretarial Efficiency admonished secretaries “to acquire skill in carrying through work not in a go-as-you-please manner but in a go-as-your-employer-pleases manner.”52 As far as the author of “How I Became a Confidential Secretary” was concerned, this was the essential difference between a stenographer and a secretary. “The former makes herself and her work the dominant features, while to the latter her employer, his requirements and his characteristics are the chief end and aim of her thought. She subjugates her own personality in every sense of the word; yet she is not servile.”53 Remarkably enough, one of the examples that the secretaries in the Charters and Whitley study gave for what they meant by the trait “intelligence” was the ability to “always put self in employer’s position and get his point of view.”54
Deference could go well beyond catering to an employer’s opinions, feelings, and peccadilloes. It might even involve the sacrifice of a personal life for the job. “Personal pleasantness,” a desirable job trait, meant that a secretary could “put aside her own plans and do good work even though disappointed because they fell through.” “Willingness” included “sacrifices personal interests to the good of the organization.”55 Indeed secretaries were expected to make virtually every aspect of their personal lives secondary:
Since the secretary spends more than two-thirds of her time away from the office, what can she do about planning those hours intelligently to serve her secretarial efficiency as a whole? She can establish regular habits for exercise, sleep, recreation including reading, and for any home responsibilities she may have to carry. She must balance the budget of her time as she balances the budget of her money. If a secretary spends all her free time reading magazines, or attending the movies, or taking hard exercise, her expenditure of time is as poorly balanced as if she spent all her money on clothes. The time that is at your personal disposal should be enjoyed as a change from work. As to friends, amusements, sports—choose whatever will combine to make you worth the most to your employer.56
The duty of secretaries was to serve their employers, and in this respect they became servants. Not only were they to take dictation, answer the telephone, and perform the myriad other duties that came with the job; they had also been hired to serve—to cater to their employer’s feelings and whims.
As well as deference, trustworthiness was of critical importance. It meant the ability to keep a secret, and included using deception, if that were the only way to avoid disclosure of private affairs: “Although the secretary has certain information and although he realizes that his questioner knows that he has the information,” one observer wrote, “it is common practice for him to say that he does not know.”57 There was, another writer declared, “an unwritten code of high honor among true secretaries as to the privacy of their knowledge; they do not entertain their friends or their families with what does not belong to them.”58 The author of “The College Woman as Secretary,” claimed that the most important qualification that a secretary could have was “character,” which included “trustworthiness” and a “fine sense of honor.”59 Still another study prized “reticence”—which meant that the secretary was “careful about mentioning business affairs in public places where people overhearing might make use of information.”60
“Honesty” was also highly regarded among secretarial qualities. It covered such actions as not appropriating “office supplies for personal use,” “doing an honest day’s work—that is, she does not loaf on the job, but gives full value for what she receives,” and not concealing “information the employer should have.”61 Honesty included not taking bribes:
it would certainly be a betrayal of trust to accept these small bribes to do that which the secretary would not otherwise do. . . . The secretary should avoid accepting the gifts, if he can. But if he finds that it is impossible under the conditions to refuse the small gift or to send it back, he should keep it with the idea fully known that it is not in any way to influence him to favorable action for the giver.62
Loyalty to the “chief,” after all, was primary. A secretary could “be friendly with all the [office] girls but not too intimate with any of them.”63 She was expected to sacrifice any potentially close friendships with other office workers so that her employer would not doubt that her primary loyalty lay with him.
Private secretaries, behaving as trustworthy personal servants, often functioned as extensions of their employers. They did the detail work, the trivia, but they might also be expected to direct and supervise other office workers. In his study of the duties and traits of the personal secretary, Nichols defined “executive ability.” It consisted “not only in directing detail work but in acting directly for, or in place of, her chief.”64 Another study provided a list describing the secretary with “executive ability”:
she can get work out of people without friction
she can administer the details of the office
she can “boss” when necessary—that is, give people the impression of authority
she is not so easy on her subordinates that they take advantage of it
she plans work for the others in the office
she makes the work run according to schedule and without confusion
she handles the personnel problems that come up in the office in the way most conducive to harmony
she gets direct action on matters that come up
she supervises the office work
she employs assistants65
Not all secretaries had “to answer questions or decide matters for other members of the office force,” as Charters and Whitley put it. Indeed, a majority of the secretaries they interviewed did not. But forty percent did:
Six said they had to decide matters of punctuation, spelling, sentence construction, the form of letters, etc., for stenographers and clerks. Three had to distribute work among the other members of the staff. Nineteen directed the work of one typist or stenographer, who asked questions with regard to all phases of office work. Eight secretaries planned the work of two stenographers and answered all their queries. Two secretaries planned the work of three girls, two supervised five girls, one had charge of six stenographers, one had charge of fourteen girls, and one supervised all female employees of the organization, which necessitates settling disputes of various kinds, answering questions, and so on.66
Emphasis was placed on the secretary’s appearance and personality. Because secretaries were an extension of the employer, how they looked and behaved reflected directly on him. The gracious secretary would “give the impression to callers that no matter how trifling the interview might be I should have been glad to have seen them if at all possible”; “make people feel that she is doing a lot for them”; and “smooth people over when they are irritated.” And “tact” marked the secretary who did “not offend queer people by in any way emphasizing or calling attention to their queerness,” and did not remind “poor patients . . . of their poverty in any way.”67
In 1924 one writer indicated that male and female secretaries differed in the ability to make their personalities reflect well on their employers:
In so far as any general statement can be true, male secretaries are more likely not to possess suitable manners than are female secretaries; perhaps because it is man’s nature to be more unrestrained and more independent than women, perhaps because men are not so sensitive to the effects of manners as women are and hence do not appreciate their value. It is a fact, moreover, that some male secretaries at the beginning of their work feel that it is unmanly, a sign of effeminacy, and affected to show to a caller, for example, such little attentions and civilities as asking him whether he will have a chair, and whether he would not care to look at a magazine while he is waiting to see the chief. Some male secretaries have the belief that it is businesslike to be curt and brusque in their speech and actions; that in this democratic country everybody is equal and that therefore they need not show proper deference to superiors, older persons, and women; and that, in general, gentility in manners is an indication of weakness and not becoming to a real man. If a secretary has such beliefs and if he acts according to them, he will soon learn his mistakes. Not only will a disregard of manners offend callers and others who come in contact with the secretary, but crude manners will create a poor impression of the chief. . . .
Women secretaries, although they know as only women can know the value of manners, often have the faults nonetheless of being careless in observing the amenities of the position and indifferent to the necessity of putting themselves out to accommodate callers at the office.68
Although indicating that the manners of a female secretary better represented her employer than did those of a male, the author was not one to say that women were preferable to men as private secretaries.
Appearance was as important as personality. One writer cautioned male secretaries that “slovenly, careless attire is a great handicap. Odd, ill-fitting clothes and flashy or sporty dress are offensive to good taste. The best way to dress is in such conformity with convention that the dress arouses no unfavorable comment. . . . As [the secretary] knows that his dress will not be an object of criticism, he is not afraid to go among important people.”69 The author of The Efficient Secretary advised women secretaries neither to underdress nor overdress. Women, he cautioned,
are apt to wear fluffy, frilly, chiffon-like garments and unnecessary furbelows, or they are apt to fly to the other extreme and dress in tweeds and cheviots, cut in masculine lines.
That the first extreme mentioned is never in good taste and never permissible for business wear goes without saying. The latter is permissible, to be sure, but unbecoming, except when worn by a woman who is dainty, girlish, and very feminine. When worn by a woman who is at all large or ungraceful, dress tending toward masculinity increases the appearance of ungainliness.70
This last comment suggests that at times private secretaries were seen as extensions of the office furniture as well as of their employers, valued for their decorative effect. In one study, a definition of “attractive personal appearance” includes “she must look like a lady: I don’t want her painted, rouged, perfumed to such an extent that it will be an offense to me and my patients. She should dress like a lady, not extreme silk stockings, and high-heeled shoes.” It emphasized “grooming”: “her clothes are in good repair, not in obvious need of mending, with hooks and eyes and buttons missing, lace torn, trimming partly ripped off, etc.”71 The author of “One Secretary as per Specifications” was most explicit on the importance of a secretary’s decorative value:
The telephone tinkles. The clerk holds the French instrument to her ear with her left hand and writes down the incoming order with her right:
“An exceptionally attractive, intelligent young woman, not over twenty-five; must be educated and well bred, with charming personality; a natural blonde, five feet eight inches tall, and slender; a smart wardrobe necessary.”
Laying down specifications very much as he would for a yacht, Charles Hewling Ballinger, vice president of Mastings and Co., automobile manufacturers, is ordering a secretary.72
The decorative function, mentioned only in connection with female secretaries, was denied by some: “The duties of a private secretary have been gilded to such an extent by the popular novelists and playwrights that the prevailing idea among the uninitiated is that letter-writing in a fair hand constitutes the most difficult of the tasks imposed, and that, when not occupied with correspondence, the secretary stands in effective attitudes in a more or less well-lighted background. However familiar this may be in theory, practice speedily pinpricks this peaceful and alluring bubble.”73 The writer then went on to explain how complex and demanding the work actually was. It would be hard to determine if many secretaries were, in fact, hired primarily on the basis of their personal attractiveness, as Elizabeth Ragan suggested. That the subject came up at all indicates that a secretary’s appearance was of some importance. Understandably so, since a secretary’s attractiveness reflected well on the employer—he had an attractive extension of himself in the office. Then, too, some employers found a certain amount of sexual gratification in having attractive women around them. Finally, as the job became identified with women, there was mention in the literature of the secretary as the “office wife.” This at a time when wives were still thought of as extensions and reflections of their husbands.
A man chooses his secretary much as he chooses his wife, and for much the same reasons. She looks good to him. He sees a slim, engaging young woman with a frank smile and readiness to approve of him, who yet retains a wholesome respect for her own qualifications, and he decides instantly: “That’s my secretary.” The alliance—shall we say business love at first sight?—works about as marriages do.74
As this writer points out, the “office wife” was valued not only for her appearance, although it may have had much to do with why she initially was hired. She was also expected to be competent, enhancing her attractiveness with efficiency. Arguing that the actual wives may not have been doing their jobs well, one author believed that “every man needs a woman’s tenderness and her pride and faith in his ability, to buck him up in the fight he must make in these days of terrific competition.”75 Another secretary, concurring with this ideal, provided a remarkable set of parallels between the “office wife” and the actual wife:76
TO PRODUCE SATISFACTORY RESULTS, THE SECRETARY AS WELL AS THE HOUSEKEEPER HAS TO COMBINE SKILL AND KNOWLEDGE WITH HER PERSONAL TRAITS
Casting the private secretary as the “office wife” was in some ways the ultimate in making secretaries surrogates for their employers. After all, the general cultural assumption had it that a wife was a loyal extension of her husband. The characterization of the private secretary as the “office wife” implied that her loyalty to her boss was similar to that of a wife to her husband. Certainly, nowhere was it recognized that an employer and his paid worker, the private secretary, might have conflicting interests.
Private secretarial work by its nature endowed secretaries with knowledge about, and, consequently, power within, their offices. Instead of being restricted to a narrow range of tasks, as lower-level clerical workers were, private secretaries were in a position to know a great deal about all that went on in their office. Relatively free to acquire knowledge about the workings of an office, and encouraged to take on as many responsibilities as they could handle, secretaries were often in a potentially powerful position. Their knowledge of the office and its procedures enabled them to manipulate those procedures if they so desired. For example, a departmental secretary in a university, familiar with the institution’s operations, might be aware that the important person to speak to about financial aid was the assistant to the director of the Financial Aid Office. For she would know that the assistant really made all the final decisions, since the director spent his time doing outside fundraising for the university. Or a secretary in an insurance company might be acquainted with the head of the mail room, and would use that personal relationship to have mail shipments delayed until her last-minute letters could get into the day’s mail. In addition to this ability to manipulate office procedures, secretaries had the power to control, to a certain extent, the contacts between their employers and the outside world. Presumably secretaries followed their employers’ general wishes in screening callers, but nonetheless their position as guardians of the gate gave them some control over the employers themselves. Secretaries also had the power to withhold their work. “I know a secretary who does the right thing by her boss’s letters except on days when she is annoyed with him. On those days, which fortunately aren’t frequent, she transcribes material exactly as it is dictated to her. Having seen some of her transcriptions on these ‘off’ days, I told her this seemed like a terrible revenge.”77
The private secretary certainly had more power in the office than the lower-level clerical workers. But it was a power that went largely unrecognized. As Frances Faunce put it, “the combined details of what a secretary attends to often have a far-reaching effect, but they seldom bear her name. They are a part of what may be called the ‘secret service’ of the profession. It is like team-work that does not care so much who makes the goals as how many are made by the team.”78 Such anonymity was rarely rewarded. At times the value of a private secretary was publicly recognized, but that did not mean promotion, though the secretary might have all the credentials for the opening. In fact, a secretary’s competence and power were usually recognized only in well-worn office folklore. Thus an employer would introduce his private secretary as “Miss Brown. She really runs things around here.” (Laughter from all parties.) This remark may have been pretty close to the truth, but making it a joke diminished the secretary’s real importance.
The private secretary’s position as a buffer between the employer and the details of the outside world served to enhance the employer’s importance and to reinforce the hierarchy within the office. Indeed, when performing essentially personal services such as dialing the telephone for the employer, the secretary was acting as his servant. This reinforced the notion that those people at the top of the office hierarchy, who merited such a servant, were different and more important than those at the bottom, who did not. Other aspects of the office hierarchy—such as the fact that those at the top were paid much more money than those at the bottom—were thereby justified. The deference that private secretaries were expected to show their employers also reinforced the office hierarchy. It not only underscored the employer’s importance, but also belittled the secretaries’ competence and knowledge, their judgment and opinions. It contributed to a state of affairs where private secretaries were paid much less than their employers and where promotions to managerial positions were very rare indeed. Thus deference not only made secretaries’ knowledge and competence less important; it made them seem less important.
It is very hard to find any statistics exclusively about private secretaries.79 For example, the comprehensive survey of the labor force, Comparative Occupation Statistics for the United States, 1870 to 1940, breaks down clerical occupations into the following categories: agents, collectors, and credit men; bookkeepers, cashiers, and accountants; clerks “except ‘clerks’ in stores;” messenger, errand, and office boys and girls; and stenographers and typists.80 Presumably, private secretaries were subsumed in one of these categories. Consequently, it is difficult to derive any information about differences between male and female secretaries. Two places where “private secretary” was treated as a separate category indicate that the overall feminization of clerical workers also applied to private secretaries. In 1902 only 34 percent of all Massachusetts private secretaries were women; in a 1926 survey the figure was 84 percent.81
Reluctance to hire females for clerical work in general spilled over into questions of their suitability as private secretaries. In 1910, for example, the secretary to the future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis noted that “those women who are now filling positions as confidential secretaries are still considered something of an experiment, and there are many business men who have not yet grown sufficiently accustomed to placing confidence in a woman’s discretion and ability to enable them to appreciate her possible worth in business and utilize her capabilities.”82
The hesitations faded, however, as a growing number of women filled the positions. An advice handbook of 1917 was addressed exclusively to men; the 1924 edition was intended for both sexes. By the 1930s, the handbooks were being addressed exclusively to women: witness, for instance, Faunce and Nichols’s Secretarial Efficiency (1939) and Gladys Torson’s “Ask My Secretary . . . “: The Art of Being a Successful Business Girl (1940).
The feminization of private secretaries can be accounted for as part of the trend toward feminization in clerical work as a whole. But other factors also help to explain the phenomenon. First, in a male-dominated society such as the United States, custom dictated that women should defer to the greater knowledge and better judgment of men. As has been noted, deference was an important aspect of the private secretary’s job, and employers may have found that deference was easier to extract from a female private secretary than from a male. Second, female private secretaries were thought to be entirely satisfied with their position in life, and unlikely to aspire to managerial positions. An employer seeking someone permanent would try to find a woman, avoiding male applicants who might be moving on to bigger and better things. “In some offices,” one writer stated, “the private secretary is an understudy of the chief and expects to be promoted to an executive position later. This is especially so where the secretary is a man. In other cases the private secretary is not being groomed for a more responsible position. She has achieved a permanent status which is entirely satisfactory to her. Increased financial rewards will be achieved through making herself more valuable to her employer and finding new ways to serve him efficiently and, for his point of view, profitably.”83 In 1921 the author of Women Professional Workers warned women that if they wanted to rise to management positions, they would do well to avoid secretarial ones. “The days are fast passing when the office boy, the junior clerk, or the stenographer with little education can forge ahead and become a manager or an official of the company.” She advised women seeking business careers to “ask themselves whether secretarial training as now given is the best approach to management.”84
There was, then, good reason why female private secretaries became the norm. In a society where it was assumed that women were not looking for important positions in the labor market, and that they worked only out of economic necessity or to mark time before marriage, the dead-end position of private secretary would seem perfectly adequate. For men, on the other hand, aspiring to rise in the labor market hierarchy, the position of private secretary would not seem ideal. Women made fine private secretaries because they should not and would not expect anything better; men, having greater expectations, did not. Or so the justification went.
The case of the private secretary shows that not all clerical work was subject to the kinds of degradation promoted by scientific office management, even though it is not clear that the private secretary’s job required more skill than the pre–Civil War clerk’s. Furthermore, many aspects of the private secretary’s job show that the personal nature of the relationship between employer and employee in the office has not entirely disappeared. First of all, the very fact that the secretary was expected to behave as the employer’s servant testifies to the personal relationship between the two. Second, personal secretary and employer were in essence sharing one job: the secretary did many of the minor, routine or menial tasks, while the employer’s energies were saved for the creative, “important” aspects of the work. This division of labor between employer and secretary was often not a hard-and-fast affair. Instead, secretaries were encouraged to continually expand the scope of their duties, so that lines of demarcation between what was secretary’s work and what was employer’s were likely to be uncertain. This uncertainty would necessitate constant personal negotiation between employer and secretary.
Various aspects of the work and position of private secretaries distinguished them from other clerical workers. Several factors encouraged them to consider that their social and economic position derived primarily from the peculiarities of their individual job rather than from their membership in the clerical working class as a whole. The wide variety of tasks that were the province of the private secretary could be combined in an infinite number of ways. This encouraged private secretaries to think that their own particular job was unique and had little in common with the work of other private secretaries. Private secretaries who were expected to behave as servants towards their employers might well conclude that the characteristics of their work depended very heavily on the personal characteristics of their employer. A grouchy boss who treated his secretary like a doormat was likely to create a very different work atmosphere than the kindly executive who was willing to give his secretary a certain leeway in all sorts of matters, such as precisely when he or she arrived at and left work. Furthermore, their physical isolation from other office workers discouraged identification with them. The fact that private secretaries were expected to devote their primary loyalty to their employers, and that, as extensions of their employers, they were often put in positions of authority over other clerical workers only increased their isolation.
Still, one feature of private secretaries’ work shows that they, too, were being proletarianized: the decline of promotional opportunities. Until about 1920, writings on private secretaries often mentioned that the job was good training for an executive position, implying that some private secretaries could make that upward move. But such talk faded after 1920. By the 1930s, some writers were even warning private secretaries, by now primarily women, that if they aspired to be executives, they should not start out as private secretaries. That job had now become the end of the line.
The feminization of private secretaries reinforced the notion that the job included being the employer’s subordinate, the employee who performed the menial, routine and unimportant aspects of the work that they divided between them. In a patriarchal society it was natural that a male employer should give orders to and receive services from his female private secretary, and “natural” that, when a man and woman divided the work between them, the man should do all the creative, “important” parts and the woman all the routine, “unimportant” ones. Where a male executive commanded a male private secretary, there was potential for tension: the private secretary might resent being ordered about by another man, and an ambitious male private secretary might be champing at the bit to attain an executive position himself. Where a male employer commanded a female private secretary, such tensions were less likely. Not only was it “natural” for a woman to take orders from a man, but many women might not even aspire to an executive position, such a position being “unsuitable” for women. In this way the feminization of private secretaries was a stabilizing influence on the “proletarianization” of the position, and served to mute its impact.