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Being a Secretary

One of the subjects I’m interested in is the history of women office workers, and how it came about that women to this day dominate secretarial and clerical jobs. Many of the suffrage campaigners I have researched were office workers, and many women gained experience of administrative work in suffrage and other political or charitable activities. Lately I’ve been doing some work on Esther Knowles and Gladys Groom, who were secretaries to Frederick and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. I’ve written about Esther Knowles (see link below). I’ve also researched and talked about the life of Olive Beamish, a former suffragette who went on to found her own typewriting bureau.


Working in the WSPU offices

One of the things that intrigues me about the history is how much of it chimes with my own experience over a hundred years later. In 1971, Spare Rib was advising women: don’t cook, don’t type. The reason was that it was seen as a feminine skill, that is a skill that would lead only to low-paid, dead end work. And if you could type, it was best to keep quiet about it.

Well, I wasn’t listening to Spare Rib in the 1970s. I trained as a secretary and did secretarial and admin work for many years, first in London and then in Bristol. In London particularly I worked as a temp, because I liked the variety and also the sense of not being sucked into some corporate entity. I had no illusions about secretarial work as a stepping stone to something better, though some of the women (yes, all women) on my course did. For example, they planned to get jobs in the BBC and work their way up from there. Women were often told that starting as a secretary and “working their way up” was a good option for a range of industries. Mostly it wasn’t, and nor was it a route that men were advised to take.

Women first started to enter the secretarial profession from the 1880s. Before that offices were staffed almost exclusively by men. Correspondence and copies were done by hand, and clerical apprenticeships for men were regarded as a stepping stone to progressing up the organisational ladder or even setting up in business for yourself.

That all began to change as offices became larger, creating a demand for more workers; and mechanised, with the invention of typewriters and other machines. Men began to steer clear of typing as they did not want their roles to degenerate into mere letter copiers. Who was to step in and fill the gap? Women of course. They were the next best thing to free: they were cheap because employers could pay them lower wages than male clerks. They did not expect promotion, which is just as well as they weren’t offered it. They were only working until they got married which, as everyone knew, was their primary role in life – and in case they missed the point, many employers required them to leave when they took a husband.

In my time they didn’t dismiss women for getting married. They were saved the trouble because many women acted out the expectation for them. And why shouldn’t they? Their jobs weren’t exactly fulfilling and weren’t going anywhere. Nowadays women aren’t dismissed from work when they marry but they may well find themselves forced out when they are pregnant. The 2018 Fawcett Society Sex Discrimination Law Review found that 54,000 pregnant women and working mothers are made redundant or pressured to leave work each year.

By the 1970s, 99% of typists, shorthand writers and secretaries were women. Now many executives type their own letters and memos, recorders or voice recognition software have done away with the need for shorthand, and the rise of the virtual secretary means many no longer work in an office environment. Even so, clerks and secretaries still have a place in the British office. In 2003 administrative and secretarial work was still the biggest area of employment for women, and still dominated by women. And it’s still mostly under paid, under valued and leads nowhere. 

Just like playing the piano...

From the early days, women’s aptitude for the work was linked to domestic and feminine pursuits. As the typewriter took over the office, employers decided women would make good typists because they played the piano at home. Other domestic skills were seen as useful in the office. Many employers expected secretaries to do the dusting, and in some cases even to clean the office. I have worked in offices where secretaries were expected to take the tea towels home to wash, and it was they who shopped for supplies – tea, coffee, biscuits and so on. Making coffee and washing up, or loading the dishwasher if the kitchen was equipped with one, were also part of a secretary’s job.

Nowadays, though, women aren’t segregated from the men as they were when they first entered the office workforce. This was largely to reassure their families that there would be no untoward goings-on as women emerged from the protection of their homes (if indeed their home was protective). Terms like sexual harassment weren’t in currency at the time, but it was clear where the danger lay. At the same time, the office girl was often linked in popular culture with the “New Woman” who typed, cycled, and (racily) didn’t wear stays. With these sorts of assumptions swilling around, younger women especially were seen as being available for their male bosses’ sexual gratification.

Toujours la même in my experience, and there were plenty of reminders in case women should forget it. I have worked in offices festooned with pornographic calendars. Emails containing sexual jokes and images were sent to “all” without a qualm. One I remember in particular: a picture of the ideal secretary which was gradually divested of her clothes to show her at her most ideal. I was the humourless one who complained and insisted on being taken off the circulation list.

In one office where I was temping, men at desks a few feet away from me used pornography as screen savers. I got so fed up of being expected to sit in full view of a slide show of demeaning images of women I got up and shut one of the computers down while its user was out. My bad behaviour caused a bit of a stir.

In 2018 – the Fawcett Society again – the TUC and Everyday Sexism Project found 52% of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and 80% did not report it to their employer.

Comments on your personal appearance were, of course, all in a day’s work. I suppose you could avoid it by wearing no makeup, ugly spectacles, frumpy skirts, and flat shoes. Only if you did that you wouldn’t get a job because you wouldn’t be considered “well-groomed”. On my secretarial course we had a lecture about nail varnish.

Ah, those bad old days. It’s all so different now. Isn’t it?


Find out more:-

Read A long and loving association and friendship: Esther Knowles and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence on this blog

The Fawcett SexDiscrimination Law Review, 2018 


Picture Credits:-

WSPU General Office - Women's Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions

Remington Typewriter - Unsplash, free download



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