Lisa M. Fine
For an entire generation of historians dedicated to telling the story of one of the most numerically important occupations for women of the twentieth century, Margery Davies’s Woman’s Place Is at the Typewriter is a foundational monograph. Not only was Davies among the first to describe the situation of women in office work during the formative turn-of-the-century period, but her chronology, topics, sources, methodology, research questions, and findings provided an agenda for many scholars, including this one. Her oft-quoted final sentence, “The nineteenth-century clerk had not turned into a proletarian; he had merely turned into a woman,” (p. 175) alerted many historians to what seems obvious today—that the history of female office workers is a part of both labor and women’s history.
When Davies started her research, historians interested in women’s labor would have noted two startling facts. First, although women’s general labor-force participation slowly increased between 1870 and 1930, women dramatically dominated the growing field of office work. And second, virtually no scholarly literature existed on this type of work or the workers who did it.
Davies was inspired by the formative work of Michael Reich, Richard C. Edwards and David M. Gordon on the existence and consequences of labor market segmentation on the working class.1 Before this, scholars embarking on an analysis presenting office workers as a part of labor history could turn to C. Wright Mills’s White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951), in which he asserted that, “(i)n the case of the white-collar man, the alienation of the wage-worker from the products of his work is carried one step nearer to its Kafka-like completion.”2 Mills focused on “man,” with only six pages devoted to “the White-Collar Girl.”3 Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (1974) added an important analysis of the ways in which office and clerical work had changed as a result of the transformation in capitalism and the organization of work since the start of the twentieth century. Women and gender were not central to this analysis; rather, that women worked at these jobs was presented as a consequence of economic developments.4
Davies’s work was the first to truly understand the history of female office workers as a part of women’s labor history.5 Diverging from existing scholarship that represented the participation of female office workers as an incidental feature, Davies transformed the field by placing women at the center of the story. She states this clearly right at the beginning: “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 contemporary office workers is rooted in changes in the organization of clerical work that began at the end of the nineteenth century” (p. 6). That women occupied a particular place in this emerging, growing, and diverse field of office work was a consequence of the interaction between capitalism and patriarchy. Her insights were as fresh at the time she wrote as they are accepted as orthodoxy in the field today. Office work, she reported, was originally a man’s job. Between 1870 and 1930, however, the nature of the job was transformed as a result of urbanization, changes in capitalism and management, and by technological change, specifically the invention and widespread use of the typewriter.
Davies’ treatment of female office workers provided the foundation for a great deal of subsequent scholarly work. She identified multi-level economic and technological forces that prompted the entrance of women into office work. The very women most qualified to take advantage of these jobs because of their class and educational background found themselves released from household labor because of technological changes in the family, the city, and the farm. Office work paid better, was cleaner and safer than other jobs available to women, and was seen as a route to upward mobility.
Davies’s assertions about the role played by the adoption of the typewriter were particularly insightful. She stated that, “rather than causing change, the typewriter followed in the wake of basic alterations of capitalism,” (p. 38) disentangling the gender association between women and the typewriter. In fact, the typewriter 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” (p. 55). As the office labor force grew it became increasingly dominated by women workers. Davies identified the various features of the jobs and the differential entrance of women, labeling this uneven transformation of the clerical labor force as “feminization.” By the end of the period under consideration, this transformation had occurred at all levels of the occupation, from the highly regimented worker in a large firm to the private secretary, often known as the “office wife.”
In my first published work as a historian, a review of this book for the Wisconsin Magazine of History, I described its many innovative strengths and finished by stating that the book provided an agenda for future historical work on office workers and women workers in general.6 All scholars who study women and office work engage with the issues raised in Davies’s book—how do we understand the class position of female office workers, the concurrent processes of proletarianization and feminization, and the effects of the changing nature of corporate capitalism and bureaucracy on office work? What were the effects of the Taylorization of office work, and its emphasis on maximizing efficiency, on the female labor force and women themselves? Subsequent scholars, including this one, have expanded on Davies’s arguments, tackling issues related to gender identity and office work, the importance of educational opportunities, and the role of female agency in the process of feminization.7 Thanks to Margery Davies we all know that the phrase “a woman’s place is at the typewriter” is an artifact of women’s and labor history.
LISA M. FINE is Professor of History at Michigan State University.
1. See “Preface” from her book, p. ix. This resulted in the influential book, David M. Gordon, Richard Edwards, and Michael Reich, Segmented Work, Divided Workers: The Historical Transformation of Labor in the United States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982).
2. C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York: Oxford Press, 1951, 1967 reprint), p. xvi.
3. Mills, 198-204. He also devoted 6 pages to “The Salesgirls,” 172-178.
4. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1974), p. 353. “The growing participation of women in employment has thus far been facilitated by the stronger demand for clerical employees and the relatively stagnating demand for operatives.”
5. It’s important to mention that there were also contemporaneous works in this field. See Elyces Rotella, From Home to Office: U.S. Woman at Work, 1870-1930 (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1981), (a revision of the author’s 1977 thesis), and Anita Rapone, “Clerical Labor Force Formation: The Office Woman in Albany, 1870-1930,” (PhD diss., New York University, 1981).
6. Lisa Fine, review of A Woman’s Place Is at the Typewriter, by Margery Davies. Wisconsin Magazine of History 68, Autumn 1984, p. 63.
7. These are just a few of the titles that followed starting with mine: Lisa M. Fine, The Souls of the Skyscraper: Female Clerical Workers in Chicago, 1870-1930 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); Carole Srole, Transcribing Class and Gender: Masculinity and Femininity in Nineteenth Century Courts and Offices (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010); and Srole’s dissertation “‘A position that God has not particularly assigned to men,’: the feminization of clerical work, Boston 1860-1915,” (PhD diss., UCLA, 1984); Sharon Hartman Strom, Beyond the Typewriter: Gender, Class, and the Origins of Modern American Office Work, 1900-1930 (Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992); Cindy Sondik Aron, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Civil Service: Middle-class Workers in Victorian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Ileen DeVault, Sons and Daughters of Labor: Class and Clerical Work in Turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990); Angel Kwolek-Folland, Engendering Business: Men and Women in the Corporate Office, 1870-1930 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994); Margaret Hedstrom, “Automating the Office: Technology and Skill in Women’s Clerical Work, 1940-1970,” (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1988).