The Ideological Debate
When women first started to work in offices, their presence was regarded pretty much as an oddity, and either praised as a courageous experiment or castigated as a ridiculous mistake. For example, an 1875 engraving showed a shocked man entering an office “taken over by ladies.” They were preening themselves before a mirror, fixing each other’s hair, reading Harper’s Bazaar, spilling ink on the floor—in short, doing everything but an honest day’s work. The engraving made women working in an office seem ludicrous.1 Only in the 1890s was the question of such work for women debated in earnest. By then female office workers were no longer an oddity, and the sheer weight of their increasing numbers seems to have provoked a debate that was taken dead seriously by its participants.
The controversy over whether or not women should engage in office work took place within the context of the broader debate about whether or not women should work outside the home at all, a debate that endured throughout the period of this study, 1870 to 1930. The more specific question of female office work was still hotly disputed in 1930, forty years after it first surfaced. That this was so seems surprising. After all, fully a quarter of all employees in clerical occupations in 1900 were women and by 1930 they made up half of this workforce. (See Appendix, Table 4.) Furthermore, the percentage of women was much greater in certain sectors: in 1880 they constituted 40 percent of all stenographers and typists, exceeded 75 percent in 1900, and made up over 95 percent by 1930. (See Appendix, Table 1.) But as long as people were still arguing over whether or not woman’s place was exclusively in the home, the question of women as office workers would continue. That it had become moot was irrelevant.
Those opposed to female clerical workers used three arguments: first, that “woman’s nature” was not suited to clerical work; second, that women were physically incapable of such work; and third, that women were taking jobs away from men.
Opponents of female clerical workers maintained that women had been trained to be, and were destined to become, wives and mothers. Domestic concerns, it was argued, were critical to the development of women’s character. These had made them the standard-bearers of a higher moral code than existed in the workaday world outside the homes, or, as some claimed, had allowed them to become flighty and temperamental, protected as they had been from the mundane necessities of non-domestic life. No matter how it was defined, femininity was an integral part of women’s personalities. And, argued opponents of women office workers, that femininity was inappropriate to clerical work or was in danger of being forfeited to the harsh realities of office life. Women simply would not survive as clerical workers; or if they did, it would be at the expense of their precious femininity. Both interpretations led to the same conclusion: women should devote themselves exclusively to that domestic sphere that was their original destiny. If women were unsuited to the rigors of clerical work, they should stay at home anyway. And if their femininity and consequent ability to be good wives and mothers would be damaged by office work, then it was not worth the sacrifice.
The case for the female office worker rarely challenged this view of woman’s nature. In the first place, virtually no one suggested that woman’s domestic role was not her most important one. Instead it was argued that office work actually made women better wives and mothers: it provided training in being systematic and well organized, which would be useful in future household management, and it offered an opportunity to experience first-hand the daily problems that their future husbands would face. Second, women’s higher moral caliber—on which all agreed—would not be lost in the office. Rather, it would improve the business world. Third, defenders of women office workers tended to deny that women were flighty and temperamental. Finally, they argued that, while women certainly were possessed of femininity, they were in no danger of losing it in the office. They also assumed that, once married, female clerical workers would leave the office, femininity intact, to go off and build their domestic nests. Some supporters of women office workers thought that it was possible for women to be both wives and office workers, although no one seemed to think it possible to combine motherhood and a day at the office. The feminist argument—that women’s potential had never been tapped, and that women were entitled to try any employment—was unusual indeed, even among the most ardent defenders of female office workers. It suggested, after all, that domestic life was not necessarily the goal for all women, an unmentionable and unforgivable violation of the dominant moral code and of fixed gender-specific roles.
One of the opening shots fired by the opponents of female employment was Marion Harland’s article, “The Incapacity of Business Women,” published in 1889. Harland did not equivocate: “it will be taken for granted that men conduct all branches of what is known as business—manufacturing, merchandising, professional, and even educational—more systematically and successfully than women.”2 To prove his point, Harland compared the typical male and female office worker:
The office-boy is ruled up sharply by line and plummet, not only as to work, but deportment. He must be punctual, move quickly and quietly, leave all thought of frolic and out-door companionship behind when he crosses the threshold of his place of business; he must be prompt and respectful in speech to employers, and civil to customer, client, and caller—or he goes! The girl stenographer and typewriter “giggles and makes giggle” with the girl bookkeeper, and has tiffs (audible) with her enemy, the “old-maid” cashier. One and all, when reproved for negligence, breach of rules, or inefficiency, they retort, or sulk, or—most likely—snivel!
The explanation for this state of affairs lay in “the fact that women look forward to marriage as a definite means of support, and hold but loosely that which they may be called upon at any moment to give up.” As a remedy for their incapacities, Harland recommended that women “undertake the allotted labor with the forceful purpose of performing it as if it were the one and only object in life.” For, he concluded, “the steadfast industry, the discipline of speech and conduct, the concentration of thought and energy upon the matter set before one for accomplishment, that are essential to business prosperity, are the best conceivable preparation for the high and holy sphere of wife, housekeeper, and mother.”
Shortly after Harland’s article appeared, another writer, Clara Lanza, also took up the subject of the proper “woman’s sphere.” But this time the argument came down solidly in favor of female clerical workers, “the work of a clerk being admirably adapted to the sex.” Lanza asked the head of a large publishing house whether he preferred to hire women or men as clerical workers:
“Women,” was the answer, “are much to be preferred for a number of reasons. They are capable and industrious, and, so far as my personal experience goes, absolutely reliable. Besides, a woman is more conscientious about her work. . . . I wouldn’t take men in place of these girls in any circumstances. Men are troublesome. They complain about trifles that a woman wouldn’t notice. The office boys don’t suit, or the temperature of the building is too hot or too cold, or the light is not properly adjusted. Then, if they have a slight headache, they stay at home. Most of them are married, and their wives fall ill or their mother-in-law comes on a visit, and all these things are made an excuse for absence. The women come whether they have headaches or not. They never want a day off to attend a baseball match. They undertake the work with a full understanding of what is required of them, and they are steadfast in the performance of their duties. We treat them well and never refuse to grant them any trifling favor.
Lanza also claimed that businessmen preferred female stenographers because they were better trusted with business secrets. While admitting that some hired women because their labor was cheaper, she maintained that “efficient women can command as high salaries as men.” Lanza found that “the girls make good wives.”
There is nothing in clerical training that detracts from the finest womanly qualities, and men have outgrown their admiration for feminine helplessness and have come to look upon independence as something worth having. Clerical training educates the mind to accuracy in details, punctuality in the daily affairs of life, economy in the adjustment of time and quickness of perception. Perhaps this is the reason why so many men choose a wife amid the deft-fingered clerks in preference to the society misses. The woman clerk has studied the value of concentration, learned the lesson that incites to work when a burden bears heavily upon her strength. She knows the worth of self-reliance, and the fine courage that springs from the consciousness that a good result has been accomplished by a well-directed effort.3
There are several interesting aspects of Lanza’s argument. The critique of male clerical employees can be found elsewhere, and virtually word for word, in criticisms of female office workers. Moreover, her support for women in offices was based on “woman’s nature,” the rationale for Harland’s opposition. But since Lanza concluded by noting that many clerical workers eventually married and what good preparation clerical work was for matrimonial life, she left the impression that women’s ultimate goal was just what Harland had affirmed: the “high and holy sphere of wife, housekeeper, and mother.” Harland and Lanza were at odds on the issue of women office workers, but their assumptions about woman’s nature were identical.
One of the qualities ascribed to nineteenth-century women, or at least to those from bourgeois or professional backgrounds, was a high level of moral idealism. Their finer moral spirit, it was argued, would be damaged if they entered the dog-eat-dog world of the business office. Theodora Wadsworth Baker in Harper’s Weekly weighed the benefits and losses that would occur if women’s idealism and business pragmatism were mixed. “Experience in business,” the author concluded, “broadens a woman’s mind and makes her views more practical.” While “it may rob her of some of her romance, . . . the experience which is a substitute for it is far more valuable. She will be less of a dreamer, and more of a thinker.”4
Moral idealism and moral superiority were, for Baker, part of “woman’s nature.” Such beliefs apparently took a beating after 1910. So did the argument that women should not work in business offices because their fine-spun spiritual ideals might be sullied. Notions about woman’s nature partly shifted after the 1880s and 1890s, and so did the grounds used in arguing that her nature made woman unsuitable for office work. By the 1920s woman was no longer portrayed as the protectress of higher values. Instead, she was depicted as scatterbrained, unable to concentrate on the business at hand in the office, too temperamental and emotional for the impersonal world of work.
In 1920 an article entitled “The Feminine Failure in Business” depicted the potential female office worker as a well-to-do woman speculating about what she would do if widowed. She would start a business career “modestly enough, private secretary to the president of a big bank or corporation or something of that sort.” But her eyes would be fixed on matrimony, and the corporate president would be unable to resist the “pathetic and lonely” sight of his secretary dressed “simply in black and white—half mourning, you know.”5 Another writer cautioned against using women as reception clerks: “It is just as inadvisable to have a girl at the reception desk. Nine out of ten girls are temperamental. On one day they are likely to flirt with every male vistor. On another day they are likely to be flippant. On still another they are likely to be unduly sarcastic. The tenth girl, who possesses the right qualifications for the reception desk, can be utilized in a more responsible position.”6 The theme of woman’s unstable temperament was still being sounded in 1929. An article on “The Temperamental Typist” claimed that certain women regarded “their inability to get along with their fellows as a special gift from Nature.” Such pride in moodiness prompted many employers to complain and wonder why their female employees could not “forget their own personalities for a few hours a day.”7
Significantly, critics of women office workers no longer urged women to leave clerical jobs; instead they merely complained about their behavior. Clearly, the number of female clerical workers had grown so large that even their opponents had to accept their presence. Some even admitted that a few women were able to overcome the handicaps inherent in woman’s nature. But those who did so were then accused of losing their feminine qualities and becoming “mannish.” Counseling against this danger, one writer concluded that women office workers would have been better off had they never left the home. Contact with the business world tended to make woman cynical, severe, and falsely independent. Gone would be her “pretty superstitions, her treasured beliefs in men, and her happy, careless, girlish little ways.” Fascinated by the excitement of business, the “very young woman” would forego the prospect of “tame housekeeping”: “her immature judgment is not capable of giving correct values to the things of life.”8
Others argued that it was entirely possible for a woman to maintain her femininity in the office. Harriet Brunkhurst cited the case of a woman who carefully distinguished between her positions as worker and woman in the office where she worked alongside her husband: “I take my share of the office work as a man partner would, no favors and no shirking. It is business, not pretense with us. At the same time, if I forget my umbrella, I would not think of returning for it, nor would I think of going upstairs for something he could get for me. I am his wife, not his business partner, then.”9 One of the few to recognize that there were drawbacks in a life exclusively devoted to home and family, Brunkhurst argued that a married woman could be of great help to her husband in his business. Her activity, moreover, would keep the mother of grown children from having too much time on her hands and meddling unhealthily in their lives. Even the woman whom she quoted, who required chivalric deference from her husband, did not look forward to returning to the isolation of her home.
The claim that office work did not rob women of their femininity was generally invoked. Rather than defining “femininity” in different terms, supporters of women clerical workers were, by and large, content to turn opposing statements on their heads. Some, however, depicted women in terms markedly different from the conventional perspective, suggesting that women were perfectly capable of clear, efficient, rational intelligence: to oppose women entering the office because of some mistaken notion about their “nature” was ridiculous. George Gissing’s The Odd Women is in large part the story of two English women, one of whom, Mary Barfoot, inherited some money and set up a school to give salable skills, particularly stenography and typewriting, to women who had to work.10 The second woman, Rhoda Nunn, was paid a salary to help Barfoot with the school. Both women were feminists intent on endowing women with skills and values that would enable them to make their way in the world on an equal footing with men and would provide them with concrete economic alternatives to marriage. Gissing describes Mary Barfoot as a woman who “could have managed a large and complicated business, could have filled a place on a board of directors, have taken an active part in municipal government—nay, perchance in national.”11
Barfoot challenged those who argued that women should leave office work because they were displacing men. She did not contend otherwise. Rather she defended women office workers on the ground that women were entitled to develop their potential: “If woman is no longer to be womanish, but a human being of powers and responsibilities, she must become militant, defiant. She must push her claims to the extremity. . . . I don’t care whether we crowd out the men or not. I don’t care what results, if only women are made strong and self-reliant and nobly independent! . . . There must be a new type of woman, active in every sphere of life; a new worker out in the world, a new ruler in the home. Of the old virtues we can retain many, but we have to add to them those which have been thought appropriate only in men.”12
Gissing was one of a select company who did not assume that women’s ultimate goal was a domestic life of housekeeping and motherhood. The heroine of “His Wife’s Place,” for example, had dual motives: economic necessity and the desire to build a good life for herself and her husband. Nonetheless, her idea of a woman’s capacities, and of her appropriate role, differed sharply from that endorsed by opponents of women clerical workers. “His Wife’s Place” described the dispute that Carter and Mary Payan, a young married couple, had after the husband’s return from overseas military duty during World War I. Mary, in his absence, had returned to her premarital work as office manager for an automobile dealer. By the time Carter returned, she was earning four thousand dollars a year. She had bought many of the home furnishings they had planned to save for, and had also managed to put two thousand dollars in a savings account. Carter returned to his old office, but earned annually seventeen hundred dollars less than Mary. Stung by his own image of the proper roles for husband and wife, and needled by acquaintances because Mary commanded such a high salary, Carter demanded that she quit her job and return to the home. She refused: “To her way of thinking, four thousand dollars a year was four thousand dollars a year. It had a concrete meaning to her of investments which should return them an income so long as they lived. . . . She wanted that. This was not because she was essentially mercenary, but she was eminently sensible. Investments and an income meant safety; it meant a family solidity which nothing else could give.”13
Angered by Mary’s response, Carter again demanded that she quit. She again refused and, after a bitter argument, he walked out of the apartment, about to leave town for good and give up on their marriage. But she urged him to seize a business opportunity as manager of a car agency. He would have to borrow from a bank, and live off his wife’s earnings until the agency was established. Mary tried to persuade him:
“Don’t you see the wonderful chance, if only you will look at it in the right way? We have pooled our lives, Carter. Why not, for just a little while, pool our earnings so that—oh, so that we can have a real family?”14
Carter was tempted, but manly pride made him reluctant. However, he changed his mind upon seeing the bank president, who complimented him on having a wife as practical and talented as Mary and also told him that the condition for a $10,000 loan would be her guarantee:
“Do you know,” said the president, “that a wife like yours is the greatest asset a man can have? I thank God my wife was like her. We married on nothing. I was a grocer’s clerk. She was a dressmaker. We made a partnership of it for the first few years; both of our backs were to the wheel. We saved enough so, at twenty-five, I could start a tiny grocery in a country town. She helped. Every cent she made we saved—and when the store was started she kept the books, and on Saturdays worked behind the counter. Those were different days—in those days marriage was a real partnership, and both parties gave it all they had. It seems to be different now.”
Carter stared at the president. He had seen his wife, a handsome, wonderfully gowned woman apparently a grande dame. She was a leader in society, a woman universally admired for her character and for her ability and for her culture. It did not seem possible.
“She made me,” said the president. “It wasn’t her savings alone, but the force she put behind me. She compelled me to succeed. It looks to me as if your wife were the same sort.”
“Times have changed,” Carter said weakly. “I am twitted about it.”
“By imbeciles,” said the president sharply.15
Women’s Physical Capacities
Although the main argument against female clerical workers was that woman’s nature and office work did not mix, and that woman’s place was in the home, other objections were also advanced. Women, for example, were considered physically or biologically unsuited to such work. An article of 1920 on “The Feminine Failure in Business” blamed woman’s physical inferiority on her menstrual cycle:
In the case of girls past their adolescent period there are physical obstacles to success in business which every employer of women in offices and shops fully understands. The loss of the services of women employees for several days each month is a serious problem where salaries are paid regularly and the “docking” system for absences is not in practice. The fact that women are less strong, less agile, less enduring under continued mental strain than men, makes it evident that woman in contest with man must be granted something more than a fair field and unrestricted competition.16
A male stenographer for the U.S. Congress, who recorded congressional pontifications, offered his opinion on why women were not employed in this occupation: “they haven’t the physical endurance. A reporter has to have the constitution of a Missouri mule.”17 In 1929, the author of “The Temperamental Typist” felt that the physical reasons given for women not working in offices had been repeated so often that there was no need for him to do so.18
The debate over whether women or men were physically more fit for office work had been going on for quite some time. Even Scientific American had examined the question “Are Men Better Typists than Women?” in 1913. It sought an answer in some “interesting scientific tests” done by a certain J. M. Lahy. What emerged was an unintentionally hilarious account of tests measuring muscular sensibility with the “myo-esthesimeter,” the strength of the hand with the “Regnier-Cheron dynamometer,” the tactile sense with the “Weber compass,” and auditory reaction time with the “d’Arsonval chronoscope.” After detailed descriptions of these various instruments, with careful attention paid to their degree of accuracy, the results of testing six women and five men, judged to be “strictly comparable” (exactly how they were comparable was not explained), were summarized. “Good women typists,” Lahy found, demonstrated “tactile and muscular sensibility,” an “excellent memory for letters,” and “keen and sustained” attention; but they had a “relative slowness of auditory reaction.” For their part, the men “surpass women in rapidity of auditory actions and, consequently, in speed of work, but are inferior to women, perhaps, in power of sustained attention.” Lahy ended by acknowledging that his sample was too small to be conclusive and that his results “are merely indications which may be confirmed or invalidated by future researches.”19
These “indications” provoked a response from C. E. Smith, the author of Practical Course in Touch Typewriting, who favored women office workers, arguing that women surpassed men in manual dexterity. He also claimed that a typewriter keyboard was more suited to women than to men, since the latter were often handicapped by their “extremely large and strong fingers.” This was “especially the case when all the fingers of the hands are employed in striking the keys, which is the only scientific method of operating a typewriter.”20 Having-made the case for women’s greater manual dexterity, Smith went on to observe that many women had won typewriting speed contests and concluded that “the fact that nearly all of the world’s work in this line of endeavor is in the hands of women, and that in open competition for so many years they have carried off the premier honors, seems to me to be worthy of consideration and to entitle women to be considered equal, if not superior, to the opposite sex as typists.”21
That women did not have the physical endurance to withstand the grueling pace of office work was the biological grounds for opposition to women clerical workers. Their menstrual cycles, presumed to incapacitate them several days out of every month, were also cited. Proponents, however, usually asserted women’s greater manual dexterity when calling upon biology to support their position. This emphasis on female manual dexterity was a double-edged sword. For it could justify the contention that woman’s place was indeed at the typewriter, but not much higher in the office bureaucracy.
The third issue that repeatedly cropped up in the office-work debate was that of women displacing male workers. Opponents of female office workers argued that women prevented men from getting good wages. Such deprivation in turn reduced the number of men who were financially able to marry and support their wives. Eleanor Whiting, for instance, affirmed that “sometimes [men’s] wages are cut because of the competition of women; sometimes they are displaced altogether by women. The young man who should marry and become the head of a family finds himself displaced at the counter or in the office by a young woman who may be obliged to struggle single-handed with poverty for years because the man who is her social mate cannot afford to marry her.”22
In 1909 a “successful business woman” wrote a cautionary piece, “Why I Will Not Let My Daughter Go Into Business.” The author had been married to a man incapable of sustained, diligent work who moved from job to job, always dissatisfied with something or other about his position. Finally, fed up with what she regarded as her husband’s shiftlessness, she took on the work that he had just quit and made a success of it. Meanwhile he stayed home and took care of the house and children. One summer night, when her husband and children were away on a vacation that she could not afford the time to take, the “successful business woman”
suddenly realized that John was not working at all, or at least just at intervals, earning enough so that he did not ask me to give him carfare or spending money. . . . Lying in the dark that night there came to me the sickening truth; I was supporting a man—a healthy, able-bodied, clear-brained man. . . .
In the gray light of dawn I sent a telegram to my father. He came and said it was quite true. The world agreed with him and with me that I was doing my sons, my fine, straight-limbed lads, a grievous wrong in showing them the example of a father who “lives off” his wife’s—a woman’s—earnings. How did I expect to make men of them with such a man sitting at the head of the table?
And again I chose the easier way. I secured a divorce!23
But she now had to work hard to regain her children’s affection, lost through the years of neglect. In the denouement, she learns that her husband had not only remarried, but had at last become a “successful man.”
Some said that the shock of divorce and separation fom his children had steadied him. Others said he had married money and had taken a fresh start. But I knew. He had married a woman who had done that in which I had failed—made a man of him. . . .
If I had grappled with my husband’s weakness as I had with the problem of self-support!
It is too easy today for the woman to get into business. It is too easy, I say, for the family life, the domestic purity, the moral standard of our nation.24
The message was obvious: for reasons of family stability and emotional health, rather than finance, women should not displace men if they had any choice in the matter. The “successful business woman” directed her advice explicitly at the “woman who does not have to become a wage-earner”25 and had only pity for those women forced to work for financial reasons.
George Gissing’s The Odd Women contained the most direct response to the complaint that women were displacing men in office work. Male clerks, Mary Barfoot stated, “doubtless had a grievance. But, in the miserable disorder of our social state, one grievance had to be weighed against another, and . . . there was much more to be urged on behalf of women who invaded what had been exclusively the men’s sphere, than on behalf of the men who began to complain of this invasion.”26
Harriet Brunkhurst, who was a staunch defender of women office workers, also countered the male-displacement argument. In most cases, she pointed out, the woman’s wage was very badly needed. Drawing upon the case of a girl named Cecil, she noted that the mothers of working daughters who expected them to share fully in the housework had failed to recognize changes in their daughters’ status.
That their support is absolutely dependent upon Cecil’s remaining “fit” the mother knows; but that recreation is necessary to maintain the condition she cannot grasp. Consequently, when Cecil takes Sunday morning for the little fussy tasks about her wardrobe the mother sees only sheer perversity, to say nothing of incipient depravity, about it. And there is the incontrovertible fact that Cecil “has all her evenings free.” Moreover the mother wails: “She never has time to do anything for me!” It does not occur to her that she is asking of Cecil, whose strength already is fully taxed, more than she would ask from a man. She is the type of woman who would say of her husband: “John is so tired when he returns from work!” That Cecil may be tired she never considers.27
In 1917 Brunkhurst advised working women to forego domestic tasks lest they become overworked and nervous. Implicit in this advice was the assumption that women working in offices did so out of necessity, and that for them to try to fulfill the function of housewife as well was foolhardy. That they displaced men in offices may have been true, but financial need, not choice (as the “successful business woman” had argued), drove them. Instead of looking on them with pity, as that successful woman had done, Brunkhurst was more interested in lessening their burdens.
The Function of the Ideological Debate
Though many clerical jobs had been feminized by 1930, discord over the change continued. As noted earlier, it was only part of a larger and long-enduring debate on the whole subject of whether women should work outside the home at all. This partially explains why critics were still bothering to attack or justify women working in offices long after their employment was well established. The debate had another function, one that its participants were at best only dimly aware of: many of the assertions and conclusions of both sides served as ideological confirmation for the sexual stratification of the office labor force and for the concentration of women in lower-level work.
With the exception of Gissing’s heroines and of Harriet Brunkhurst, participants in the debate assumed that woman’s ultimate goal was to become a wife and mother.28 Supporters and opponents of female office workers differed only on whether office work assisted or damaged women in their preparations for matrimony and maternity. The conviction that woman’s place was in the home served to justify her restriction to lower-level clerical work. If women eventually were going to stop working to marry and have children, what was the point of promoting them to managerial or even higher-level clerical positions? To do so would be a waste of resources and training. Furthermore, women whose hearts were set on future family life probably did not care that much about their work in the office. Or so the argument went, and thus did it legitimate their segregation in the lower-paid, lower-status jobs.29
The manual-dexterity argument was used repeatedly as evidence that women made better typists than men. Since they did, small wonder that such a high percentage of typists were women. The concentration of women in typing jobs was thereby neatly justified.
A comparison of management policies concerning messenger boys and girls provides an interesting example of the way in which the ideological assumptions about men and women buttressed their respective positions and futures in the office. Although their policies were formally stated at about the same time, these companies seem to have been at different stages in the development of a highly stratified office workforce with rigid promotional channels. In 1923 one group of companies still regarded the position of messenger as an excellent springboard to managerial positions, but clearly the reference was to messenger boys only: “The Scott Company reports in one of its bulletins the results of a survey made in three nationally known companies of the messenger-boy situation. ‘Messenger and office boys are of particular interest because they are so definitely a source of supply for future executive material. Messenger work offers a splendid chance to learn in an intimate way the methods and policies of a company. This is an educational opportunity that should be made available only to those who are capable of taking advantage of it.’”30 The policy of the Hupp Motor Company, stated two years later by its office manager, was altogether different: “The first radical change [in the messenger department] was the substitution of girls for boys. . . . It was immediately found that girls were more amenable to discipline. . . . A few months serve to tell whether a girl has special adaptability for any line of higher work we have to offer. Some are given the opportunity to practice typewriting during the noon hour. These girls usually take courses in typing at night school. Others seem better fitted for clerical work. Promotions to minor positions in other departments are made in accordance with the capacity of the particular girl.”31 No more talk of “future executive material.” A messenger girl at the Hupp Motor Company could hope to aspire only to a “minor position,” and she was more likely to end up behind a typewriter.
The point here is that different assumptions were made about sex-linked characteristics. When the position of messenger was a training ground for executive positions, boys were characterized as “a natural and logical source of supply for higher positions.” But when promotion led at most to a “minor position,” boys were said to have a “natural tendency to boyishness and play” and to be less “amenable to discipline” than were girls. Thus the ideological assumptions about the natural characteristics of males and females were made to mesh very neatly with the way in which clerical work was organized. Assumptions about women helped to justify not only a situation in which women were clustered in the lower levels of a work organization, but also the very fact that such positions, devoid of much chance of substantial promotion, existed at all.