Women Enter the Office
During the Civil War the U.S. Treasurer General, Francis Elias Spinner, confronted a severe labor shortage caused by the large numbers of men in Union uniforms.1 He decided over considerable opposition to hire some female clerks, who worked at relatively mechanical tasks such as sorting and packaging bonds and currency.2 This “experiment” was continued after the war and in 1869 Spinner declared “‘upon his word’ that it had been a complete success: ‘Some of the females doing more and better work for $900 per annum than many male clerks who were paid double that amount.”’3 Such wage figures indicate one of the reasons Spinner thought so highly of his experiment: female labor was cheaper than male. A contemporary claimed that most of these early female clerks got their positions through political patronage, with the result that some of them were not well trained for their jobs and had to take writing lessons after they were employed.4 But a study of federal government clerks from 1862 to 1890 has found that, by and large, the women did have sufficient education for clerical work, most of them having remained in school at least until the age of sixteen. They came overwhelmingly from white, native-born, middle-class families and were the daughters of men with jobs that ranged from clerks to judges; almost none of them were the daughters of craftsmen, much less unskilled laborers. Whether they were single, widowed, or, less frequently, married, these women sought clerical jobs out of economic necessity. Many needed the income to help support their families or pay off large debts. Others worked to maintain their families’ middle-class standard of living—one widow, for example, needed the money to buy Latin and Greek books so that her son could prepare for Princeton.5
Although these government employees are often regarded as the first female clerks, women also found employment in other urban offices. In Washington some copied speeches and other documents for members of Congress, and in other cities they worked for lawyers. A book called How Women Can Make Money by Virginia Penny advised women to group together to rent an office in the business section of a city from which they could hire out their copying services for three to four cents for every hundred words. Women also worked as stenographers, although a New York court stenographer in 1869 claimed that, even though there were openings for women in stenography, “phonographic reporting [was work] in which the pay is remunerative, but into which [women] do not seem inclined to enter.” By the 1860s there were also female bookkeepers and accountants. An article in the suffrage newspaper the Revolution claimed that a merchant in New York had replaced his $1,800 a year male bookkeeper with a woman earning $500 a year.6
Feminization proceeded at different rates in different job categories. It proceeded briskly among stenographers and typists: by 1880 women already made up 40 percent of the group; by 1900 they accounted for over three-fourths; and in 1930 they completely dominated the field—over 95 percent. The case was different for bookkeepers, cashiers and accountants. Women made up less than 6 percent of this group in 1880. That figure had only increased to 29 percent by 1900, and by 1930, was still only slightly more than half. Among messenger, errand, and office boys and girls, females never outnumbered males. The number of women employed in this category lagged far behind the other groups, and after 1920 the entire category declined, probably as a result of the growing use of the telephone. The largest group of clerical workers, clerks, was still more male than female in 1930, when the percentage of women stood at 35 percent. There were almost as many female clerks as there were female stenographers and typists in 1930, but because the category “stenographers and typists” contained less than half as many people, women were much more dominant in it.
The process of feminization that shows up in these aggregate statistics for the United States is also reflected in the employment history of a single firm. During the first five years of the Ayer advertising agency, no women were employed. In 1874 a woman was hired for a few months, and in 1876 the first two permanent female employees started work. Female employment at Ayer’s then grew quite rapidly, for by 1890, 36.7 percent of the 109 employees were women. For the next forty years the percentage of women at Ayer’s hovered around 40 percent, reaching 46 percent in 1932. The jobs these women did were “almost exclusively clerical or stenographic.”7
The feminization of clerical work did not happen overnight. The demand for clerical workers in the United States in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries was so great that both men and women poured into clerical posts. But the trend was for women to take over an increasing percentage of clerical jobs. The feminization of stenographers and typists was markedly more rapid than that of other categories. This may have been because such jobs seemed new and different from those that had existed in the pre–Civil War office. They had never been defined as “men’s work” and women thus entered them with relative ease.
The Role of the Typewriter
One of the ways women entered clerical work was by mastering the typewriter and then finding a job as a typist.8 When Mark Twain bought his first typewriter in early 1875, the salesman had a “type girl” on hand to demonstrate the machine to prospective customers.9 And in late 1875 this ad for the Remington typewriter appeared in the Nation:
for a boy or girl
And the benevolent can, by the gift of a “Type-Writer” to a poor, deserving young woman, put her at once in the way of earning a good living as a copyist or corresponding clerk.
No invention has opened for women so broad and easy an avenue to profitable and suitable employment as the “Type-Writer,” and it merits the careful consideration of all thoughtful and charitable persons interested in the subject of work for woman.
Mere girls are now earning from $10 to $20 per week with the “Type-Writer,” and we can at once secure good situations for one hundred expert writers on it in court-rooms in this city.
The public is cordially invited to call and inspect the working of the machine, and obtain all information at our showrooms.10
But in 1875 and for a few years thereafter, the typewriter was still thought of as a frill by most businessmen. It was not until the 1880s that typewriters were manufactured and sold in large numbers.
In the 1880s, also, the employment of women in offices began to climb sharply (see Appendix, Table 1.). This coincidence has led some analysts to conclude that the invention of the typewriter was basically responsible for the employment of women in offices in the United States. For example, a pamphlet put out by the Women’s Bureau of the United States Department of Labor asserts that “not only . . . has the typewriter revolutionized modern business methods but it has created an occupation calling for more women than have been employed as a result of any other invention.”11 Bruce Bliven, the author of a history of the typewriter, recounts the story of how the New York YWCA started training young women typists in 1881. Far from succumbing to mental and physical breakdowns under the strain of their new occupation, as some observers had warned, these women quickly found jobs. The YWCA was soon deluged with many more requests for typists than it could fill. Bliven concludes that “the revolution came rather quietly, on high-buttoned shoes, accompanied not by gunfire or bombs bursting in air, but by a considerable amount of rather obnoxious snickering.”12
Just as it would be a mistake to say that the typewriter was responsible for the growth of offices after the Civil War, so would it be erroneous to credit it with the employment of women in those offices. The figures in Table 1 (see Appendix) show that female employment was increasing rapidly throughout the clerical occupations, and not just among stenographers and typists.
Although the typewriter was not responsible for the employment of women as clerical workers, its existence probably facilitated or eased the entrance of women into offices. It was such a new machine that it had not been “sex-typed” as masculine. Thus women who worked as typists did not face the argument that a typewriter was a machine fit only for men. In fact, it was not too long afterwards that women were claimed to be more manually dexterous and tolerant of routine than men and therefore more suited, by virtue of their very natures, to operate typewriters.
Causes of Feminization
Changes in the structure of capitalism in the United States brought women into offices. The expansion and consolidation of capitalist firms after the Civil War caused a rapid increase in the amount of correspondence and record keeping required by those firms. This in turn resulted in the growth of offices and an immediate increase in the need for clerical workers. That, in short, explains the demand. Where was the supply to come from?
The basic skill required of clerical workers was literacy. The supply therefore had to come from those segments of the population that had some education, and at this time women, as well as men, had advanced schooling. In fact, as Table 2 shows (see Appendix), the number of women high school graduates exceeded that of men during the last decades of the nineteenth century.
And women’s labor was cheaper than men’s. Patriarchal social relations devalued the labor of women compared to that of men from similar backgrounds. The reasons for this are legion. First of all, there was the widespread belief that women were simply, and by the very nature of things, inferior to men. In addition, women were often thought to be working for “pin money” with which to make frivolous purchases. Since they were not thought to be supporting themselves or their families, there was nothing the matter with paying them low wages. Then there was the argument that women were not serious members of the labor force: they would be returning to an exclusively domestic life either as soon as they married or, at the very latest, as soon as they bore children. Such transient workers did not deserve the higher wage with which an employer might try to attract and keep a more steadfast male worker. Finally, women’s depressed wages did drive them back into the home, where they again became available to fill a subordinate position within the domestic division of labor. Whether or not this worked to the ultimate benefit of men, it certainly provided them with short-term benefits.13
On the face of it, the cheapness of labor ought to explain why employers preferred women over men. But women’s labor in the United States has always come cheaper than men’s, so that it is not immediately obvious why employers did not always show preference for females. There must be a further reason why employers started to favor women for certain clerical positions.
The supply of literate male labor was simply not large enough to fill the great demand for office workers. The expansion of capitalist firms created not only a much larger need for clerical workers, but also an increased demand for managerial personnel. As is clear from the discussion of the proliferation of hierarchical structures within late nineteenth-century firms, the managerial corps necessitated by this new system of finely delegated authority expanded mightily. An educated man, faced with the choice among positions within the office hierarchy, was unlikely to choose to be a typist instead of a manager, who was higher-paid and invested with a fair degree of authority and power. The expansion of capitalist firms, coupled with the growth of cities at the end of the nineteenth century, also led to a rise in the number of jobs ancillary to business operations. Lawyers are an excellent example: in 1870 there were 40,736 lawyers in the United States, all but five of whom were men. By 1900 there were almost three times as many lawyers, 114,640, over 99 percent of whom were men. There had been one lawyer for every 307 people employed in all occupations in the United States in 1870; by 1900 there was one lawyer for every 254 such persons.14 Thus a man who had enough education and literacy skills (the ability to spell reasonably well, to write a legible hand, to do basic arithmetic accurately) to obtain a job as a clerical worker was also probably educated enough to at least aspire to, and in many cases to attain, a managerial or professional position. As a consequence, the supply of men available for clerical work was considerably diminished.
Furthermore, fewer boys than girls were graduating from high school in the United States (see Appendix, Table 2). If high school and college graduations are considered together, more men than women were receiving secondary school diplomas or better during the years 1870 and 1880. But in 1890 and 1900, the number of women receiving high school diplomas or better had outstripped the number of men. Despite the fact that consistently far more men than women graduated from college, the number of women finishing high school grew to so outweigh the number of men that the surplus of male over female college graduates was cancelled out. In addition, the men who were reaching those high educational levels were likely to be supplying the demand for managers and professionals. Thus the demand for managers and professionals and the fact that more women than men were reaching relatively high levels of formal education combine to explain why it was that the ever-increasing demand for clerical workers was met by women.
Other factors, though secondary, also influenced feminization. First of all, the employment of women as clerks in the United States Treasury Department during the Civil War established a precedent that may have eased the entrance of women into offices ten and fifteen years later. The employment of female clerks in the Treasury Department showed that it was possible for women to work in offices. Women had gotten a toe in the office door. As a result, when structural changes in capitalism produced a dramatic rise in the demand for clerical workers, it was slightly easier for women to push the door wide open.
A second factor that facilitated—as opposed to caused—the employment of women was the invention and production of the typewriter. Women were employed in increasing numbers throughout the entire gamut of clerical occupations, and not just as typists. The process that underlay the employment of women in offices was similar to that which underlay the successful manufacture of a typewriter in the first place—the expansion and consolidation of capitalist firms. But the fact that the typewriter was sex-neutral, without historical ties to workers of either sex, meant that female typists did not have to meet the argument that they were operating a man’s machine.
Finally, the reorganization of the division of labor within the office may have abetted its feminization. It is possible that if offices had simply expanded without being reorganized, women would have had a more difficult time entering clerical work. The reorganization of many offices often resulted in a redivision of clerical labor and in the creation of new jobs, from stenographers and typists to file clerks, billing clerks, and the like. Since many of these jobs, or at least their labels, had not existed before the growth of the office, they were not defined as men’s jobs. Women who took such positions did not face the argument that they were taking over men’s work.
Nonetheless, the roots of the feminization of clerical work lay in political-economic conditions that were independent of the job itself. Changes in the structure of capitalism caused a rapid increase in the demand for clerical workers, a demand that was met in part by an available supply of literate women. Furthermore, it seems that many employers were only too glad to employ female labor in place of more costly male labor. The feminization of clerical work was not intrinsic to the job itself, despite ideological justifications that arose after the fact. By its very nature, clerical work was neither men’s work nor women’s work.
Clerical jobs were available to women, but, for feminization to occur, women had to be available to take the jobs. A variety of factors produced a supply of women to fill the demand. The economic decline of small, family-owned farms and businesses frequently forced daughters into the labor force. Clerical work was generally seen as more desirable than industrial work, and this spurred women of working-class origins to seek clerical jobs. Productive work in the home was on the decline, making the labor of both working-class and non-working-class women available for jobs outside the domestic sphere. And clerical work was one of the few options for literate women seeking jobs that required literate workers.
Ever since 1820, the proportion of the United States labor force made up of farmers had been declining. In 1820 farmers constituted fully three-quarters of the nation’s labor force. By 1880 that proportion had already been reduced to one-half, and by 1949 it was down to one-eighth.15 If farm laborers are excluded from the calculations, the proportion of the gainfully employed population on small farms shrinks even more. Between 1870 and 1890 that proportion hovered around 24 percent but then fell steadily and by 1930 amounted to only 12 percent. (See Appendix, Table 3.) The death blow to the small, independent farmer as a significant member of and influence on the class structure of the United States was dealt in the 1920s and 1930s by a prolonged fall in farm prices. Since then, farming in the United States has been dominated by large capitalists. The proportion of farm owners shrank, many farmers being forced to mortgage their property or, worse yet, to default on their mortgages and lose their land altogether.
Some farm families were literally driven off the land, leaving behind their heavily mortgaged farms to be sold by the banks to large capitalist farmers and companies. In less desperate families, the departure from the land would often take place from one generation to the next. Sons and daughters who were loath to commit themselves to lives of hard physical toil for diminishing rewards would choose to move to a city, where they became part of the urban labor force.
Although the decline of the small, independent farmer as a class had hardly begun in earnest, by the end of the nineteenth century the large cities of the East were already beginning to feel the effects. The new homesteads of the West absorbed only some of the eastern farmers forced off their land. Others who found they could no longer make ends meet were already moving into the cities in the waning years of the nineteenth century, although it was not until the twentieth that displaced small farmers really began to swell the urban labor force. The ranks of clerical workers included people of small-farm origins from the outset.
The situation of small-business proprietors differed significantly from that of farmers. From 1870 to 1930 they not only held their own numerically and as a proportion of the labor force but, in fact, grew.16 Although the class as a whole maintained itself through the years, however, individual members of the classic petite bourgeoisie did not always manage to make ends meet, much less prosper. Thousands of fledgling businesses were started by hopeful entrepreneurs; almost as many failed.17
These small entrepreneurs lived in constant dread of failure and imposed long hours on themselves and their families in order to fend off financial disaster. “But the average life of these old middle-class, especially urban, units in the twentieth century is short; the coincidence of family unit and work-situation among the old middle class is a pre-industrial fact. So even as the centralization of property contracts their ‘independence,’ it liberates the children of the old middle class’s smaller entrepreneurs.”18
Some of those children were “liberated” to become clerical workers. The endemic financial insecurity of many small businessmen often meant not only that their children were reluctant to follow them in an unstable occupation, but also, in many cases, that the children were forced to support themselves. Thus the classic petite bourgeoisie contributed to the pool of people available for work in offices.
Booth Tarkington’s novel Alice Adams, published in 1921, portrays a woman pushed into the clerical labor force by her family’s financial plight. Alice Adams is a young woman in a mid-western city from a minor manager’s family who would like nothing better than to be included in the social life of the city’s bourgeoisie. For a time some of the upper-class girls are rather friendly to Alice and invite her to dinner parties and dances. After a while, however, they begin to snub her and finally dismiss her from their lives for being too “pushy.” Alice’s father had started out as a clerk for J. A. Lamb, one of the city’s leading businessmen, and gradually worked himself up to the position of manager of the sundries department. There he works for many a faithful year until a stroke forces him into a long convalescence. While he is recuperating, his wife urges him to leave his job and set up a business of his own, so that they can make enough money to buy his daughter the “nice things”—more clothes, a better house in a better neighborhood—that Alice’s mother thinks she should be enjoying. Virgil Adams would be quite happy to return to his position at Lamb’s and feels that he was both a valued member of the staff and financially secure. But his wife employs a constant barrage of emotional blackmail until he gives in, raises some capital by mortgaging his house, and opens a glue factory.
The story of how Virgil Adams learned the formula for this wonderful glue bears on the outcome of the drama. When Adams was a young clerk working at Lamb’s, J. A. Lamb set him and another clerk to inventing a glue that would really stick. But by the time they had succeeded, Lamb had lost interest in branching into glue manufacture. The other clerk died, leaving Virgil with the formula for the glue, which he kept in his head. From time to time he would try to reinterest Lamb in investing in a glue factory, but never with any success. When his wife finally persuades him to go on his own, Adams balks because he feels that the formula belongs to J. A. Lamb at least as much as to him. But in the end he swallows his scruples, quits his position at Lamb’s, and starts to make glue. Lamb retaliates by starting his own glue factory, which, given the much greater amount of capital available to him, is bound to drive Adams out of business. Recognizing his inevitable defeat, Adams rages at Lamb, suffers another stroke, and becomes so ill that his doctor advises him never to work again. The Adams family is now left in such financial straits that Mrs. Adams has to take in boarders. For her part, Alice faces her true economic position squarely and sets out to become a working woman:
She passed the tobacconist’s, and before her was that dark entrance to the wooden stairway leading up to Frincke’s Business College—the very doorway she had always looked upon as the end of youth and the end of hope.
How often she had gone by there, hating the dreary obscurity of that stairway; how often she had thought of this obscurity as something lying in wait to obliterate the footsteps of any girl who should ascend into the smoky darkness above! Never had she passed without those ominous imaginings of hers: pretty girls turning into old maids “taking dictation”—old maids of a dozen different types, yet all looking a little like herself.
Well, she was here at last! She looked up and down the street quickly, and then, with a little heave of the shoulders, she went bravely in, under the sign, and began to climb the wooden steps. Half-way up the shadows were heaviest, but after that the place began to seem brighter. There was an open window overhead somewhere, she found, and the steps at the top were gay with sunshine.19
This is a rather saccharine ending to a novel that is otherwise a fairly relentless picture of the dynamics of the class structure in an early twentieth-century city. Alice Adams’s story graphically illustrates the political-economic situation of her times: Virgil Adams, starting out as a clerk, worked his way up to a lower-level management position, and then lost all his financial security when he tried to enter the ranks of independent businessmen. The desperate financial plight of her family obliged the daughter to relinquish her fantasies of joining the bourgeoisie and to become a clerical worker. Alice Adams is a clear case of the process by which the instability of small-business families contributed to the pool of potential clerical workers. A study of Washington government clerks has found that many middle-class women sought clerical jobs when their families fell on financial hard times. A woman in 1881 explained that she was applying for a job because “a few years ago I enjoyed all the luxuries of an elegant home, but commercial disaster, which as you know has ruined so many men, compels me now to seek assistance from strangers.”20
For an Alice Adams, working for wages was a new experience. For many daughters of working-class families, however, membership in the labor force was nothing new. The vast majority of working-class families were unable to afford the luxury of keeping out of the labor force an unmarried daughter whose labor was not essential to the maintenance of the home. Single working-class women were expected to enter the labor force as a matter of course. In fact, a writer in 1929 considered it a sign of the improved condition of the working class that its children were staying in school longer and longer, rather than entering the labor force out of economic necessity:
The rising standard of living of manual workers has made it possible for more of them to provide their children with the high-school education necessary to clerical positions, and the popular belief in education as the open sesame to opportunity has been an incentive to increased high school attendance. This increase in the high school population—the rate of which, within the last thirty years, has been about twenty times the rate of the increase in the population—has thrown upon the vocational market thousands of girls with a high school education, a large proportion of whom aspire to clerical positons.21
The main reason working-class girls “aspired” to clerical work was that it paid better than most jobs open to women. In 1883, at the very beginning of the influx of large numbers of women into clerical work, female office workers in Boston were relatively well off compared to women in other working-class occupations. Copyists in personal service earned an average weekly wage of $6.78, bookkeepers earned $6.55, cashiers earned $7.43, and clerks (it is not clear from the available information whether “clerks” refers to clerks in offices or stores, or both) earned $5.28. Although a highly skilled craft-worker in manufacturing, such as a button-hole-maker for men’s shirts, could earn as much as $10.00, most women working in manufacturing did not make over $5.00, and some made considerably less.22 These wages do not take into account the shorter hours women in offices enjoyed, a factor that would make their average hourly wage even better when compared to that of other working-class women. In 1910 a study of the incomes and expenditures of 450 Boston working women found that clerical work was second only to professional occupations in annual net income.23
In addition to better wages, clerical work brought higher status than many other “female” occupations, such as factory work, domestic service, and clerking in stores. The argument has been made that this higher status was a result of a cleaner work environment, shorter hours, such benefits as vacation and sick leave, and the notion that clerical work could lead to promotions of some importance in the business world.24 Whether or not such analyses are correct, the fact that clerical work enjoyed higher status does not seem to be in question. The following case histories show that at least some working-class women saw clerical work not only as more prestigious, but even as a means of rising out of the working class itself.
Maimie Pomerantz Jacobs worked at various periods as a prostitute in Philadelphia. Through a social welfare agency she was put in touch with a wealthy Boston matron, Fanny Quincy Howe, who befriended her as a kind of good-works project. Their friendship was carried on mainly by mail and a voluminous correspondence was built over the years.25 From May 1912 to 1914, Maimie worked as a secretary, but left in disgust because of the constant surveillance of her superiors. While training for the position, however, she had been very hopeful about the changes it would bring, or at least wanted to give Mrs. Howe an optimistic impression. Maimie wrote the following letter to Mrs. Howe while she was enrolled in a business school:
December 13, 1911
My Dear Friend,
I must tell you first how happy I am. I want to write you about something else and then tell you about the school but I am so enthusiastic, that I will tell you first about the school. Since I realized what I missed by not having any childhood and necessarily no education, I have wished it possible for me to take up something, in fact most anything but now I feel this is the beginning of a new era for I am not only being educated in a sense (for we take English here and now I will know about moods and tenses etc.) but it will be the means of my being above living questionably or accepting favors. When I walk around town now I am a different person—for my future looms up large. It is a question with me why I did not do this long ago, for certainly at various times I have had large sums of money that would have amply paid for the lessons but my life being such an irregular one, my desires were not the same as now. I had ambitious thoughts but they would come and go—for I had no one to help me. I did not have anyone that cared whether I earned my living one way or the other and I lacked sufficient back bone to want to do things just for myself. It’s all different now though and I no more think of doing wrong than you.26
A short story, “Sarah and Mr. Salamovitch,” published in 1907, provides another illustration of the hopes that were pinned on clerical work. Sarah was the daughter of a Jewish immigrant family who came to the United States from Russia when she was ten. Her parents had worked hard, her mother making beadwork at home, so that she could afford to graduate from high school. When Sarah graduated, her hopes for the future were high: “She saw herself a student in Normal College, saw herself years later graduating, saw herself a teacher. Then she would be in another world, toward which she yearned vaguely but powerfully, and as naturally as a flower toward light—the world where one had comfort and could grow. And into this world she would take her parents, who all their lives had known only hard work and sorrow.”27 But her hopes were dashed when her father was demoted from regular wages to piecework, and she had to work fulltime. Gone were her plans to attend Normal School in the fall. She found a job working for Max Salamovitch, an immigrant who had saved enough money to quit someone else’s tailoring sweatshop and set up one of his own. It was doing a healthy business, yet he still pinched every possible penny; working twelve hours a day, Sarah earned only three dollars a week. She did not give up her hopes of going to Normal College, and in the evenings tried to keep up her studies with borrowed textbooks. But after a grinding workday she was often too tired to study, and usually fell asleep over her books.
When Salamovitch discovered that Sarah could read and write English, he had her serve as his translator and secretary, “and soon she was keeping Mr. Salamovitch’s accounts and making out his bills. Mr. Salamovitch had said in guarded phrases that he would let her do this ‘easy writin’ work’ that was ‘jus’ like play’ during ‘regeler bizniss,’ but in practice it developed that business hours were too crowded, and so he had her stay an hour after the girls.”28
The final episode in Sarah’s story came in the aftermath of an accident in the shop. Because Salamovitch delayed turning on the gas lighting until the last moment, a worker named Jenny impaled her finger on a sewing-machine needle in the late-afternoon dusk. Jenny continued going to work, but the swollen finger slowed her down and Salamovitch fired her. Outraged, Sarah quit in solidarity and found work addressing envelopes at three dollars a week and doing beadwork in the evenings. Four days later Sarah received a visit from Salamovitch, who came to offer her her job back. Despite his flattery and entreaties, she refused to go back to the sweatshop. He made one last attempt:
“Sarah, you come by me to-morrow. I gif you a fine raise, you see.” He watched her closely. “I’ll let you do only de writin’ in my bizniss.”
“That’s all I do where I work now.”
“But I gif you more money. Four dollars a veek!”
Again the impossible thought returned to her, and with such swiftness that she sat dazed by it. She stared into the tailor’s round, bearded face, and her eyes grew brighter and brighter.
Mr. Salamovitch spoke again. “Vell, Sarah?”
The great desire to seize this impossible chance that might be possible steadied her. She had a momentary vision of herself mounting the college steps.
Her steady gaze, the finality of her voice, took Mr. Salamovitch aback. She was no longer the “leetle girl.” He gazed at her with awe, then he thought a moment.
“Vell,” he drawled, as he stood up, “so vy not? But, Sarah”—he smiled ingratiatingly—“you von’t say not’in’ about dis to de odder girls?”29
End of story. Sarah’s new hours and her raise in pay would now allow her to go to Normal College during the day. In essence, she had become Salamovitch’s secretary, and from that position she would presumably go on to become a teacher. In this story, clerical work is clearly seen as a stepping stone for a working-class woman to move up in the class structure, into “the world where one had comfort and could grow.”
In The Long Day: The Story of a New York Working Girl, Dorothy Richardson also saw clerical work as a means of escaping the drudgery of working-class jobs. Her heroine started out in jobs that were typical of most turn-of-the-century working women: making artificial flowers or paper boxes and working first as a sales clerk and then as a demonstrator of a new brand of tea or coffee in a department store. Determined to better her position, she took a night-school course in stenography and studied English grammar and composition on her own. After having attained a typing speed of one hundred words a minute, she sought her first clerical job. It “paid me only six dollars a week, but it was an excellent training-school, and in it I learned self confidence, perfect accuracy, and rapidity. Although this position paid me two dollars less than what I had been earning brewing tea and coffee and handing it over the counter, and notwithstanding the fact that I knew of places where I could go and earn ten dollars a week, I chose to remain where I was.”30 Armed with clerical experience, she then moved on to a fifteen-dollar-a-week stenographic position at a publishing house. It was at this point in her life that Richardson’s heroine started writing and selling articles. Richardson’s account shows not only that she considered clerical work to be a cut above other kinds of working-class jobs, but also that she believed that one could use office work as a means of moving from a purely working-class job to a higher position with some autonomy.
The number of women available to work in offices was also augmented by the decline of productive work in the home. For farm families, there was ample work both in the field and in the home to keep the various family members busy. In addition to all of the chores that accompanied farming itself, there was a lot of work that served to keep the family self-sufficient and relatively independent of the market. Even after rural Americans no longer performed such tasks as weaving cloth or making candles, which had been part of the normal household’s work in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much still remained. Vegetables and fruits were preserved, butter and cheese were made, some furniture was constructed from scratch, and almost everyone’s clothes were handmade. In addition, the absence of running water, central heating, and electricity meant that water had to be carried from a well or pump, wood chopped to supply cooking and heating needs, and kerosene lamps filled and kept in good running order. There was plenty of work to keep parents and children occupied most of the time.31
But with the move from country to city that was well under way by the end of the nineteenth century, productive work done in the home began to decrease. The same growth of industrialism that drew a labor force to the cities resulted in the mass production of consumer goods. Items that had been produced in the home were now available in stores. Canned goods, bakery bread, and readymade clothing gained gradual acceptance in more and more urban homes, despite the fact that a kitchen garden plot was a common feature of many urban dwellings into the twentieth century. Even more important changes perhaps, were running water and indoor plumbing, central heating, and electrical wiring, all of which became standard features of more and more urban homes, beginning with those of the well-to-do.
The decrease of productive work in the home had its most dramatic effect on women. “Woman’s place is in the home” made economic sense when there was plenty of work to be done. But as domestic work diminished, women who remained there began to lose their productive function in society. In fact, as Gerda Lerner has pointed out, one of the long term developments of the nineteenth century was the elevation of this nonproductive function of women to a symbol of high status and wealth. The “lady” was living testament to her husband’s or father’s ability to earn money and to a relatively high place in the class structure.32
A woman’s ability to enjoy nonproductive leisure was determined, of course, by her family’s economic position. Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams and her parents were anxious that she should enjoy just as much leisure and luxury as the town’s bourgeois daughters. A good example of the way Alice liked to spend her time is this account of her activities on the morning of a high-class dance given by one of the girls in town.
“Where are you going?” [asked her mother].
“Oh, I’ve got lots to do. I thought I’d run out to Mildred’s to see what she’s going to wear tonight, and then I want to go down and buy a yard of chiffon and some narrow ribbon to make new bows for my slippers—you’ll have to give me some money.”33
Alice would have preferred to spend her time on such frivolous errands, but her family’s financial straits sent her into the labor market, her hopes of rising into the bourgeoisie dashed. The relatively small amount of productive work done in the Adams home permitted the grown daughter to spend most of her time in leisure activities, at least for a while. And when Alice entered the labor force, she was able to do so because her labor was not needed in the home.
During the period from 1870 to 1930, the number of occupations open to women was relatively limited. In general, women found employment in factory work of various kinds, in the smaller manufacturing concerns that employed sweated labor, behind the counter in retail stores, in domestic service, in nursing, in clerical work, in teaching, and to a very small degree in some of the higher-level professions. Manufacturing and other factory work, as well as domestic service, did not require literacy. And in positions where neither bills nor orders were written out, neither did retail selling. A literate woman who used her education in her work was restricted to a narrow range of occupational choices. Among these options, the better-paid were clerical work, teaching, and the various professions.34
The teaching and professional positions that were open to women absorbed a small proportion of the female labor force. (See Appendix, Table 4.) In fact, teaching was the only occupation requiring literacy that in any way rivaled clerical work as an employer of women after the Civil War. As the data in table 4 illustrate, teaching employed more women than did the clerical occupations until 1900, after which the number of female clerical workers rose so dramatically that teaching fell far behind. Elizabeth Baker argues that women may have preferred clerical work to teaching because of the severe restrictions placed on the personal and social life of teachers. Women teachers were not allowed to smoke, to drink, or, in some instances, to “keep company” with men. Those who married were often asked to leave their jobs. And sometimes “the new view of science and religion which they were bringing to the classroom from their college and university experience was opposed. Conditions such as these prompted many young girls to take up stenography instead of teaching when they graduated from high school; and it is not surprising that more than 100,000—a sixth of the teachers—were reported to have left the profession every year.”35
There is also some evidence that teachers were paid less than clerical workers. In 1912 the superintendent of schools in Council Bluffs, Iowa, argued that the student who completed the high school’s business course was in a better economic position than the one who chose the classical course: “If a graduate of the classical course in the . . . high school had decided to teach in the public schools of the same city, under the most favorable circumstances possible she could not have commenced teaching until one year after graduation. Her salary for the third year after graduation could not have been more than fifty dollars per month for nine months, or $450 per year. The average pupil (female) who graduated from the business department of the high school would have received for the same year an annual salary of slightly over $660. A male graduate of the same year would have received an annual salary of slightly over $840. You may judge for yourself of the economic efficiency from the standpoint of salary.”36
That women’s low level of employment in the professions was due in part to outright discrimination is made clear by a study of women in government service published in 1920. It indicates that the federal government primarily hired women as clerical workers and goes on to demonstrate that the civil service examinations themselves (a prerequisite to government employment) discriminated against women and shunted them into clerical positions. (See Appendix, Table 5.)
Some of the very institutions where literacy skills were taught and polished led directly to clerical work. Both private commercial schools and the commercial track of public high schools trained girls and young women for clerical work. Commercial schools, where skills such as arithmetic, penmanship, and bookkeeping were taught, had been established in the United States by the 1840s and 1850s. Their doors were open to both men and women. Men were urged to obtain an education that would give them a solid start in their climb to success in the business world. Women were encouraged to apply their brains to pursuits other than gracing the domestic circle, or, in the case of working-class women, to aspire to jobs that would liberate them from the drudgery of the factory or sweatshop. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, such institutions were very successful. By 1890 there were over 80,000 students enrolled in commercial schools (by comparison enrollment in grades nine to twelve of public and private high schools totaled 298,000). Women made up only 4 percent of the 6,460 students enrolled in commercial schools in 1871, but they accounted for 32 percent of the 96,135 enrolled in 1894–95.37
By the twentieth century, private business schools were being supplanted by other institutions. University business schools were offering training to aspiring capitalists and managers, while public high schools were initiating commercial education departments to teach clerical skills. By 1915 enrollment in the commercial courses of public high schools outstripped that in private commercial schools.38 In these high school courses girls predominated. In 1902–3 they already made up 54 percent of the total; in 1930 this had increased to 67 percent.39 It has been argued that public commercial education furthered the feminization of clerical work. Not only did the commercial courses provide clerical training for girls, but school guidance materials often funneled girls into commercial courses and advised them to plan for clerical jobs.40
Several factors, then, conspired to push literate women into clerical work. First, only a few of the occupations where women found employment in significant numbers actually required literacy. While a literate woman would not necessarily seek to put her educational achievements to use in her job, the fact that jobs that demanded literacy were generally better paid would induce her to do so. Second, among the occupations where literacy was needed, only teaching even came close to clerical work in affording employment opportunities to women. This was particularly true after 1900. Third, the lack of job opportunities in the professions was due in part to outright discrimination against women. Finally, some of the literacy training available to girls directed them straight into clerical work.
The demographic characteristics of women clerical workers differed significantly from those of women workers in general. They tended to live at home more, as opposed to living in boarding or with their employer. Those who lived at home were less likely than other working women to be the sole breadwinner in their household. And women clerical workers were more apt to be single than were women workers as a whole. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the overwhelming majority of female clerical workers were white and born in the United States. For example, in Boston in 1883, 93.6 percent of all female clerical workers were born in the United States.41 By contrast, only 54.7 percent of Boston women in all occupations were native-born. By 1883 the major immigrant group in Boston was Irish, and Irish women made up 26.8 percent of all Boston working women. Among female clerical workers, however, only 1.4 percent were Irish-born. The situation had not changed significantly by 1900.42 At that time, 53.1 percent of all female breadwinners in Boston were white and had been born in the United States; 43.6 percent were white foreign-born; and 3.3 percent were black. Among clerical workers, the distribution was considerably different: 85.8 percent were native-born whites, only 13.9 percent were foreign-born whites, and there were literally no black women counted as clerical workers.
Boston was no anomaly. The figures for the United States as a whole show that an unusually large percentage of female clerical workers were native-born.43 In 1890, 90.8 percent of all clerical workers had been born in the United States, while only 8.8 percent had been born abroad, and a mere 0.4 percent were nonwhite. In 1900 the distribution remained virtually unchanged: 91.3 percent of all female clerical workers were native-born whites, 8.3 percent were foreign-born whites, and still only 0.4 percent were nonwhite. The distribution for women in all occupations, however, is markedly different. Only 56.2 percent of United States working women in 1890 were native-born whites, while 20.3 percent were foreign-born whites, and 23.5 percent were nonwhite. The mix had shifted very slightly by 1900, when native-born whites increased to 59.2 percent, and foreign-born whites decreased to 17.2 percent. The proportion of nonwhite women workers remained basically the same at 23.6 percent.
Women clerical workers were more likely to live at home than were women workers in general. In 1900, 75.8 percent of all female clerical workers in Boston lived at home, while 24.2 percent were “living with employer or boarding.” Among female breadwinners in all occupations, however, the split was more even: only 55.8 percent of them lived at home, while 44.2 percent lived with an employer or boarded. These clerical workers were much less likely to be the heads of families than were other Boston working women. Only 3.2 percent of them were heads of families, while over three times as many, 10.6 percent, of all female breadwinners in Boston were.44
Again, Boston did not differ much from the nation as a whole. Data from the twenty-seven United States cities studied in the 1900 census show that 81.7 percent of all female clerical workers lived at home, and only 18.3 percent were “living with employer or boarding.” But of female wage earners as a whole, only 64.8 percent lived at home. Female clerical workers in the twenty-seven cities were also less likely than female breadwinners in all occupations to be the heads of their families: only 3.3 percent of the clerical workers headed families, in contrast to 11.9 percent of all working women.45
Female clerical workers who lived at home were less likely to be the only breadwinner in the family than were working women in general who lived at home. In Boston, only 9.1 percent of female clerical workers were the sole breadwinners in their family units in 1900, as compared to 16.4 percent of women working in all occupations.46 Overall, in the twenty-seven cities only 8.0 percent of female clerical workers living at home were the sole wage earner, while 13.9 percent of all working women living at home were.47
Finally, female clerical workers tended more often to be single than did working women. In 1900, 92.8 percent of Boston’s female clerical workers were single, compared to only 79.8 percent of Boston working women on the whole. According to the 1900 census, 92.7 percent of all female clerical workers were single, compared to only 76.3 percent of all female breadwinners.48
The aggregate data provide the rough outlines of the position of female clerical workers in relation to working women in general in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is fair to say that clerical workers were somewhat better off than other working women. During this era, massive waves of immigration were flooding the United States with vast numbers of foreign-born workers. Many of these could obtain only poorly paid, low-status jobs, and were as mired in the lower strata of the working class as were black women, most of whom ended up as domestic servants. Given this context, it makes sense to assume that any occupational group made up chiefly of native-born whites was in a favorable position.
Other aspects of the demographic profile of female clerical workers support this conclusion. The fact that clerical workers tended to live at home more than other working women does not in itself mean that they were better off. But when this is coupled with the fact that clerical workers who lived at home were less likely to be the only breadwinner than were other working women living at home, it seems clear that clerical workers were somewhat better off economically than the average working woman. Furthermore, the sketchy wage data available show them to have been relatively well paid during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so that their own contribution to a family unit’s income was likely to be quite substantial.
Women clerical workers, whether they came from working-class, small-farm, or small-business families, worked because they had to, and not simply to amuse themselves or to earn a little extra spending money. As Elizabeth Sears, who worked in an office, pointed out in 1917, “what reasonable person will believe that a girl will crowd to work every morning, rain or shine, because she wants extra pin-money that she has no time to spend?”49 Earlier, she had stated quite matter-of-factly that women worked for economic reasons:
It would never have struck me to apologize for the fact that I worked for my living. All the girls in my town expected to earn their own living. Most of us went to work as soon as we were graduated from college or high school, or from the condensed form of instruction known as the business college. In that Middle West town no girl dreamed of remaining at home as a burden to the family to support. Sometimes strict necessity urged us forth suddenly from homes that had been a shelter and an inspiration, and sometimes we were only too glad to leave those homes and earn comforts elsewhere. When we met a new girl, we did not ask, “Who is she?” We inquired, “What does she do?”50
Sears by no means viewed the need to work as a calamity. She argued instead that economic independence was a definite benefit, and illustrated her point with the tale of a woman who was financially controlled by her father:
Not long ago a woman was telling me most pathetically that she had been forced to give up her club work. She was a victim of the old regime when every man was the overlord of his own household. She was thirty years old and unmarried, and she said her father had refused to pay her club dues any longer because the members had invited Emma Goldman, in a fit of broad-minded liberality, to speak before the club on an extremely innocent and unexciting subject. She regarded me rather dubiously when I told her I thought it served her right for expecting her father, at her age, to pay her club dues. She still feels that she did right in attending the lecture, for she says it broadened her mind considerably to think that the club had advanced to the point where they would admit Emma Goldman, even though it was mainly out of curiosity. But she acquiesces meekly in the refusal of her father to continue to pay her club dues. You see, she is a slave to her job of being a daughter and a parasite upon her father’s bounty.51
For wome women, participation in the labor force afforded psychological benefits such as increased independence and self-reliance. This, however, should not distract attention from the central fact of working-class life: most women worked because they had to.