Several years ago a friend of mine, who was teaching at a university wealthy enough to provide its professors with private secretaries, hired a man as his secretary. Although it would be going too far to say that this created a sensation, the situation helped expose the popular assumption that secretaries were women. Often someone would come into the office and ask Jim if he or she could speak to the secretary. “I am the secretary,” Jim was forced to reply. After a while he got fed up with this and started responding with “I can help you. What can I do for you?” This at times resulted in the visitor’s insisting on talking to the secretary, and Jim’s insisting that he could help. My friend found himself more uncomfortable asking Jim to do things than he had been with the previous secretary, who was a woman. For his part, Jim did not regard his office job as his main occupation; his greater interest was acting in amateur theater. It would be safe to say that everyone, Jim included, thought his job a little odd for a man. This is quite a testimony to the strength of popular beliefs about men’s and women’s work, particularly since little over a century ago, all office workers were men.
In most societies people assume that women and men have proper places. This sexual division of labor is usually seen as natural. Thus in the United States today it seems proper that woman’s place is at the stove, or with the children, or in the elementary school classroom, or at the typewriter. Moreover, it seems natural not only that such chores are gender-specific today, but also that they were always so.
These beliefs ought to be scrutinized most carefully. Sexual stereotyping, after all, plays a substantial role in limiting any female or male to those activities deemed appropriate to her or his sex. Thus, when an occupation has shifted from one sex to another, it merits attention, since the shift stands as concrete illustration that the sexual division of labor is neither universal nor unchanging. I hope that this book proves useful to the clerical worker who asks why the office hierarchy has women at the bottom and men at the top. If her employer’s answer is that “woman’s place is at the typewriter” and that it has always been that way, at the very least she will know that that is not true, whether or not she can get her boss to believe it.
Occupational sex segregation is often accompanied by sex discrimination. Women and men are not separate but equal in the labor force. Women’s work tends to be lower paid and less prestigious than men’s. The history and dynamics of discrimination must be probed: understanding the obstacles is an essential first step in bringing about change.
Woman’s place at the typewriter must be explored within a dual structure that takes into account patriarchal social relations and such political-economic forces as the expansion of capitalist firms and the increased demand for clerical labor. Patriarchy and political economy may be separated for analytic purposes, but this does not mean that they operate independently. On the contrary, the particular forms that patriarchy has taken in the United States have been influenced by the stages of capitalist development, just as American capitalism partly owes its particular form to patriarchal relations. Nevertheless, the distinction is useful in explaining certain developments. The issue is not whether any given phenomenon can be completely attributed either to patriarchy or to political-economic forces. The issue rather is how “woman’s place” is determined by the interaction between them.
In discussing the feminization of clerical workers and changes in the organization of clerical work, this book spans the late nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth. During this period, the class position of office workers changed perceptibly. The typical clerk in the early nineteenth-century office was an aspiring businessman, apprenticed to the petite bourgeoisie or the capitalist class. By 1930 office workers were no longer apprentice capitalists. Some might be promoted to lower-level managerial positions such as supervisor of a typing pool or head of the bookkeeping department; most, however, were likely to remain clerical workers all of their working lives. The enormous expansion of clerical jobs that started in the late nineteenth century, the changing composition of the labor force, and the proletarianization of clerical employees transformed autonomous male clerks into female office operatives and members of the working class. While this shift has only recently been acknowledged and the membership of clerical workers in the working class become less a matter of dispute, the change had basically taken place by 1930.
This shift in class position, it goes without saying, is inextricably bound up with changes in the organization of clerical work. Prior to the late nineteenth century, clerical workers performed a wide variety of tasks. They were often jacks-of-all-trades in offices that were quite small by twentieth-century standards, and thus they “learned the business.” By 1930, however, clerical workers could be divided into two basic groups: lower-level employees who executed a small number of routine tasks in a manner that was increasingly controlled and prescribed by employers; and those on a higher level, best typified by private secretaries, who were responsible for a wide variety of tasks. This latter group was encouraged to exercise considerable initiative and enjoyed some independence in their work. But despite their greater knowledge, independence, and control, private secretaries remained unambiguously subordinate to their employers. By 1930, then, there was indeed a secretarial proletariat.
These, in sum, are the major themes of this book. Woman’s place at the typewriter is historically specific rather than ordained by nature; the feminization of clerical work reflects the interaction between patriarchal social relations and political-economic forces; and the working-class status of contemporay office workers is rooted in changes in the organization of clerical work that began at the end of the nineteenth century.
The historical evidence is somewhat piecemeal because the changes in clerical work often were subtle and slow enough to go more or less unnoticed. Furthermore, clerical workers up to 1930 were relatively quiescent. Business histories and internal corporation records, where one would expect to find abundant information about changes in the nature of clerical work, tend to concentrate on such matters as techniques of capital accumulation, the personal struggles and weaknesses of individual managers, and technological developments. Those business histories that do contain information about clerical workers are a good source, since they describe situations in actual firms. The authors, however, are almost always court biographers, whose allegiance to the firm biases their stories, and this must be taken into account. Furthermore, the history of one firm is not necessarily typical of all firms. With these caveats in mind, it is possible to use business histories to great advantage.
There do not exist for office workers the newspaper accounts of strikes, union records, or governmental investigations that have been the source of much material about industrial workers, since before 1930, clerical workers rarely joined unions, much less went on strike. Still, there are many sources that shed light on clerical work and workers. These fall into two categories: descriptions of an office or a typical work day; and advice to clerical workers about how to do their jobs well, the treatment they can expect, or how to get promoted. Although these articles provide only sporadic evidence at best, and must be read as one writer’s view of a situation rather than as reflections of general opinion, they provide many useful insights.
Commentary that derives from the campaign to apply principles of scientific management to the office is the one truly coherent body of literature about clerical work and workers. Such writings are found in a few books and in Industrial Management and System (later to become Business Week), two magazines interested in promoting scientific office management. They contain a wealth of information, especially in comparison to the scantiness of other sources.
Novels and short stories describing clerical workers and office work are also useful. Evidence from such sources must be used carefully, being the product of the writer’s imagination and possibly designed to serve artistic ends rather than to depict real life accurately. Nevertheless, no writer is totally divorced from his or her social context, and fictional accounts of offices and clerical workers do reflect actual experiences to some extent. Although it would be a mistake to allow the burden of proof to rest on these stories, they are social artifacts and can be used to fill in the picture.
One may wonder whether the analysis of clerical work and workers found in this book has contemporary relevance, for there are indications that fundamental changes are at present occurring in the organization of office work. The introduction of the computer and automation into the offices of the 1950s and 1960s did not, at first, produce significant changes. These technological advances were, however, the prelude to changes that are likely to result in some basic restructuring of the workplace. Witness, for instance, the storage of information on computer disks and tapes, the retrieval of that information in purely electronic form, and the consequent elimination of paper as a medium for storing information. A significant reduction in the amount of paper used by an office could well mean severe cutbacks in the numbers of file clerks and typists employed. Then, too, there is the effort to reduce the number of private secretaries and typists through the introduction of word-processing centers. Fundamental and far-reaching though such changes may be with respect to the organization of clerical work, however, they are still only at an early stage. It is safe to say that the basic outlines of the organization of office work that were visible in 1930 still hold today.