In the 1970s and 1980s young scholars influenced by the New Left, the Women’s Liberation Movement, and innovations in the field of social history reformulated labor studies in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. One of the most critical shifts in this perspective was an intense focus on women’s employment in clerical work and other seemingly designated female occupations. Traditional labor historians had largely ignored them, focusing on male factory workers and elite artisans instead.
C. Wright Mills, an iconoclastic sociologist, had tackled the difficult job of describing a hierarchy of corporate owners, professionals, managers, and clerks in his highly influential 1951 White Collar. Mills, as had most on the left in the 1930s and 1940s, perceived workers in this hierarchy to be inherently conservative, not in control of the means of production, and unlikely to engage in workplace militancy. Whatever the brilliance of his description of how paperwork and its producers were transforming the American economy, Mills also assumed that women’s roles in the office would remain frozen in place; his accounts of women clerks were largely drawn from novels and short stories, a patriarchal order seemingly so natural that it needed no explanation. In his analysis of mechanization in the “new office,” he did predict that linking gender and office machinery would be a wave of the future and further consign women to “light manufacturing” in the assembly lines of office production.1
Historians Elyce Rotella and Margery Davies brought new attention to the material and social reality of women in office work that both affirmed and questioned Mills’s analysis. Rotella’s statistical analysis showed how women’s growing presence in the modern office was linked to a shortage of young male clerks and the explosive use of business machines. Women made better employees than men because they were more likely to attend some years of high school, had fewer alternative modes of employment, and were viewed as temporary workers not acceptable for promotion to higher duties. She used “human-capital” theory to explain employers’ hiring practices, but in the process made their assignment of women to clerical jobs appear to be entirely rational, a mere matter of labor marketing. She ignored the agency of women, some of whom were acquiring college educations and had higher ambitions but were still assigned to menial positions.2 Davies found a wealth of anecdotal evidence in advertisements and popular print culture that portrayed women as the inevitable underclass of the office, defined in sexualized stereotypes. Women clerks were supposed to be young and pretty, put to work at typewriters, and destined for marriage and motherhood after a short tenure in the workforce—too flighty and unreliable to be considered for other office positions.3
Three other works that appeared in the mid 1980s questioned what seemed to be inevitable links between feminization, mechanization, and deskilling in office work. Cindy Aron’s 1987 book, based on a 1981 article, showed that women recruited during the labor shortages of the Civil War for the U.S. Civil Service, long before the appearance of business machines, were not necessarily assigned to unskilled jobs, but that their placement in workplaces alongside men required some adjustments by managers to accommodate “ladies”.4 Graham S. Lowe’s comprehensive study, also published in 1987, looked at women in office work in Canada and found an uneven application of mechanization and sex segregation, with managers playing a critical role in organizing the particulars of office tasks and their gendered identities.5
In his 1985 book, The Process of Occupational Sex-Typing: The Feminization of Clerical Labor in Great Britain, Samuel Cohn agreed with this view. But his main goal was an ambitious attempt to explain “why women are concentrated in low-status jobs in the first place. . . . by explicitly examining the process by which men and women get sorted into particular jobs” (p. 90). He did not dismiss the cultural and ideological notions that had gone into this sorting; rather, he wanted to explore the intersections of capitalism and patriarchy, intersections that he thought might vary over time and among firms. He argued passionately for a statistical and micro-level approach rather than a macro-level strategy. Attention to the particular might show how gendered assumptions were not frozen in time and were therefore subject to the economic forces of the labor market. Drawing on data from two large British firms, the Great Western Railway (GWR) and the General Post Office (BPO), Cohn, as Cindy Aron said in a review of the book, sought not to show how women were inevitable cheap workers in the office, but to determine “what forces could induce an employer not to hire women, since women’s low pay would seem to make them more attractive than their male counterparts.”6 In Cohn’s words, “demand-side determinants of female employment” must be considered (p. 13).
Cohn began by unwinding long-standing arguments that cultural and economic historians had used to explain the feminization of certain occupations, such as the similarity of women’s domestic tasks in the home to those they held in the workforce, like sewing and nursing. But these factors had been applied so unevenly in occupations they could not be a real explanation: “It is hard to see how the traditional division of labor in the home would lead women in the labor force to can salmon but not to make butter or freeze TV dinners” (p. 14). Most importantly, Cohn debunked the shibboleth of “human-capital theory.” Once given the opportunity to pursue education in artisanal and clerical trades and the professions, women have proven eager to do so, and if anything, they were overqualified for the positions to which they were assigned. Nor was women’s office work unskilled. Using a typewriter or a comptometer requiring training and competence, not just nimble fingers. Proponents of women typewriters, as Davies had shown, often compared sewing to typewriting, although what one had to do with the other remained a mystery.
Cohn agreed with Lowe that given the hold of patriarchal notions in managerial and manual labor circles, employers preferred to hire men and to discriminate against women. The key difference between the GWR and the BPO is that the GWR was capital intensive and the BPO was labor intensive. The BPO, in order to save costs, had to find a secondary labor force that could be paid less than traditional male clerks (who expected promotions and pay raises), while the GWR, although increasing the numbers of female clerical workers somewhat, could continue to avoid the wholesale feminization of clerical tasks. In Cohn’s words, “managerial sexism,” if the GWR could be used as a model, “remained the most potent barrier to clerical feminization” (p. 224).
In order to maintain the advantages of low-cost gender assignments in a labor-intensive environment, firms employed several strategies. Although women clerical workers sometimes said they were willing to organize into unions or to go on strike, they had no control, unlike professionals or manual labor unions, over entry into their occupation. Discrimination in most other fields helped to guarantee low wages for women clerks. But the main tactic employed by corporate management to undermine collective identity and action was “synthetic labor turnover.” By firing most women after roughly six to ten years of employment (usually coinciding with marriage and or motherhood), and refusing to promote women to higher positions and increase salaries, employers could employ skilled clerical workers temporarily and replace them with a fresh batch of cheap workers starting at the lowest wages. These tenure rules or “marriage bars” cut off opportunities of advancement for older women, who were viewed as antiquated oddities, and thus “gave (young) women a near monopoly on clerical positions,” (p. 225) a fact that enforced the cultural notion that women were destined to be clerks, stenographers, and accounting machine operators.
Cohn found that male-controlled labor unions, except for “a small elite of workers in . . . traditional crafts” such as printing and construction, had relatively little impact on whether women were hired (p. 138). But he also suggested that the growing presence of professional occupations in offices would increase these workers’ attempts to set up educational and licensing gateways that excluded others and to use their clout to agitate for higher salaries and all (white) male workplaces. Indeed, Cohn argues, “sexism survives because it serves a latent economic function for this class of individuals” (p. 235). Rosabeth Ross Kantor argued this same point in her 1977 Men and Women of the Corporation.7
I had been researching and writing a lengthy study of office work in the United States when Samuel Cohn’s book was published in 1985, and I eagerly consumed its pages. I was looking at large bodies of statistical, archival, and anecdotal evidence from government agencies, banks, and financial firms to document the cost efficiency of hiring young women clerical workers, their link to office machinery, and the all-important use of the marriage bar to control the labor market. In chapters devoted to the histories of education and professionalization in engineering, personnel management, and accounting, I documented the strategies and smokescreens men with privilege used to bar women and reproduce themselves, finding Cohn’s predictions about professionals to be prescient.
But I also found there were significant numbers of older women in the office by the 1920s, some with managerial positions or working in personnel management, and that the ideas about the suitability of married women in the office was already changing.8 Women’s ambition, their devotion to doing good work, and their unhappiness with inequality emerged in oral histories and anecdotal evidence. A flurry of corroborating research on gendered work in the office emerged between 1985 and 1990, much of it indebted to the pioneering thinking of Samuel Cohn.9
Cohn’s original strategy—to find the intersections between capitalism and patriarchy—resulted in a nuanced balance between the economic advantage of hiring the cheapest workers and the ways in which certain kinds of privileged men—managers, elite skilled workers, and professionals—could intervene to maintain male privilege. But he may have underestimated the power of patriarchal values to override rational modes of capitalism. Despite all the gains twentieth-century women made in the professions through their own ambition, the help of affirmative action, and a second wave of feminism in the 1970s, there is little evidence to suggest that assumptions of male privilege have changed much over time. In both engineering and computer science, for instance, male professionals have tightened their control over their fields in education and the workplace. A Bureau of Labor Statistics and other early twenty-first-century studies show that women were initially excited about computer science and entered the field in large numbers but found that, like the typewriter girls of the 1920s, they were stereotyped as card punchers and data entry clerks even as they were earning Ph.D.s in mathematics and the sciences. MIT graduate student Ellen Spertus found that the problem for women in computing was not so much outright discrimination, “but rather gender biases encoded in professional culture.”10 Women in business, politics, in the office, and on the factory floor have continued to encounter the glass ceiling, widespread sexual harassment and assault, and rampant “mansplaining” that discourages them from speaking, from deciding, from managing, and from penetrating male circles of control, whether they are in Silicon Valley, automobile factories, or corporate headquarters.11 Women are still doing most lower-level office jobs, something that has not changed significantly since 1900.12
1. C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 206.
2. Elyce J. Rotella, From Home to Office: U.S. Women at Work, 1870–1930 (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981), 166–7,
3. Margery Davies, Women’s Place is at the Typewriter (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982), 79–96.
4. Cindy Sondik Aron, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Civil Service: Middle-Class Workers in Victorian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
5. Graham S. Lowe, Women in the Administrative Revolution: The Feminization of Clerical Work (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987).
6. Cindy Aron, review of Cohn, The Process of Occupational Sex-Typing, Business History Review, 61 (Autumn 1987), 518. Also see the review of Carol A. Heimer, American Journal of Sociology, 92 (November, 1986), 763-6, which concluded that Cohn was “brilliant at finding the right comparisons to test a lot of hypotheses in a single study.”
7. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Men and Women of the Corporation (New York: Basic Books, 1977).
8. Sharon Hartman Strom, Beyond the Typewriter: Gender, Class, and the Origins of Modern American Office Work, 1900–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).
9. See, for example, Lisa Fine, The Souls of the Skyscraper: Female Clerical Workers in Chicago, 1870–1930 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), Ileen A. Devault, Sons and Daughters of Labor (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), and Clark Davis, Company Men: White-Collar Life and Corporate Cultures in Los Angeles, 1892–1941 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).
10. Thomas J. Misa, Gender Codes: Why Women are Leaving Computing (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2010), 7–9.
11. To “mansplain” is to explain something to a woman in a condescending and even inaccurate manner, with the effect, sometimes unintentional, of shutting down women’s input and speech. It was first described by Rebecca Solnit in a 2008 essay and reprinted in her Men Explain Things to Me (Chicago: Haymaker Press, 2014). In several recent episodes of the TV series Madam Secretary, a fictional woman Secretary of State of the United States uses the term after being lectured to by powerful male counterparts. The word was included in the online Oxford Dictionaries in 2014.
12. Kim England and Kate Boyer, “Women’s Work: The Feminization and Shifting Meanings of Clerical Work,” Journal of Social History 43 (Winter, 2009), 307-40.