Andrew James John Mackenzie
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Office Romances; Gender and the Role of the Secretary

      John Rosenberger, "Hide From Love!"Secret Hearts #139 (October 1969)

In today’s society, gender inequality is still an ever present source of contention and has yet to be remedied fully and utterly. With the advent of the ‘New Woman’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the role of women in society has always been a particular point of fascination, for both contemporaries and historians alike. The image of the doting and flirtatious secretary can be seen, therefore, as emblematic of the working woman for more than a century. Her sexualised role in the male dominated office setting left her vulnerable in her place of work to perverted scrutiny, abject ridicule and physical harassment.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, in a time of protracted war and sexual liberation, there were more opportunities for women wishing to embrace the working profession. For the majority of women in the middle class, there were a number of office positions to fulfil. Certainly, this was also a time of embittered resentment and genuine curiosity amongst existing office workers, many of whom had been used to working in male centric environments. Sexual tension was an unfortunate consequence of female professionalism. Initially, there were calls to segregate the women, in 1915 one advocate even proposed the idea of installing wire cages for typing pools operated by female stenographers. Despite the reticence and inappropriateness of certain male office workers, however, it was generally seen to be the women at fault, invading the sanctity of the professional sphere with their overtly feminine, even sexual, presences. It was expected, therefore, that women newly arrived in these offices be understanding of the men’s untenable and often intolerable advances. Julie Berebitsky writes in her book entitled, Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire, that, according to one stenographer in 1915, it was the women who needed to show more self-awareness and consideration:


“There is more noise than anything else to a lot of this kind of talk…To my mind, it is an individual problem and one that could be helped by no uplift movement. The girl usually is to blame. Let her work out her own problem” (Berebitsky, p. 57).

Moreover, a fellow stenographer remarked:


“[If wives gave] their husbands a little more affection no wire cages would be needed” (Ibid., p. 58).

This mentality would manifest itself into the actual publication of numerous guidebooks, designed to help women thwart male predations. The rationale being that “if a woman could not personally handle a man’s ‘strictly dishonourable’ intentions, she would have to quit” (Ibid., p. 103). In one guidebook, the emphasis was put upon women to do the impossible and spur men’s advances. It was essential, therefore, that when rebottling male pursuits, the lady must always be conscientious of the male ego and temper his disappointment. As mentioned in Harper’s Magazine, she could not simply brush him away, “the male of the species does not relish being made ridiculous” (Anon., p. 116). All she had to do was “manage” a man’s attempts:


“She must learn not to see that his glance is too fervid, not to feel that hand that rests on hers or the arm that slips around the back of the chair…[this action must be accomplished, however, with tact and politeness, for it is not the rebuff that counts so much as the way in which it is done” (Ibid.).

Advice was also given to paranoia stricken wives at home. Rather than dwell upon the “sleek, wily, manicured creatures” of the typing pool, an office worker’s wife must be sure to “pretty herself up, love her man devotedly, and believe in him” (Berebitsky, p. 133). Conversely, men were of no concern, they were liberated by their sex, free to pursue and satisfy their urges. Films of the early twentieth century purported to show the traditional domains of men, governed by their desires and the promiscuity of their subordinate female staff. In the film, Wife vs. Secretary, a story of extramarital affairs is played. One telling scene, in which the wife confronts her mother-in-law, reveals the attitude of the time, that men cannot be helped when in the close proximity of working women day to day: It’s horrible but you mustn’t be too hard on him. … You wouldn’t blame a little boy for stealing a piece of candy if left in a room with a whole boxful.”

Sexualised and harassed, women had the unfortunate, additional disadvantage of being continually subservient to their male colleagues, even in their professional circumstances. Following the relative boom of the early twentieth century, the untimely effects wrought after the outbreak of war and economic depression brought about certain prejudices and attitudes towards female employment. Considering the unemployment rate and the uncertainty of employment, competition with women was not particularly viable. It was expected, therefore, that women were present in the office for both their sexual glorification and workplace inferiority. Indeed an article in Fortune found that women in the office, with “their conscious or subconscious intention some day to marry, and their conscious or subconscious willing ness to be directed by men” allowed for their becoming “amenable and obedient” little workers under the stewardship and perversion of male managers. Moreover, in order to thwart women and their approaching competitive nature, Philip Wylie wrote Generation of Vipers, warning men of the “sirens” who “must compete with and, if necessary, cripple manhood and masculinity on earth.” Sexual harassment trials have often been met with arguments concerning women’s credibility and their motives. Defendants often tried to discredit their female accusers by insinuating that they were liars, termed “nuts and sluts” and “troubled women.” All of them attempting to invalidate male virility and the traditional spheres of influence in the workplace.

Since the rise of the ‘New Woman’, female employment has always been subject to male preconceptions of gendered roles and social standing. Over-sexed and underrated, female office workers have had to endure and respond to male conceived notions of inferiority. Although this is contested by many and is still an ever present concern, today’s generation of working women have the certain advantage of legal proceedings, workplace and employment equality and better access to social authority. Thankfully it seems, in the majority, the idea of a doting and flirtatious female secretary is long past.
John Rosenberger, "Hide From Love!" Secret Hearts #139 (October 1969). Copyright © 1969 DC Comics.
Julie Berebitsky, Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). Copyright © 2012 Julie Berebitsky / Yale University Press. All rights reserved.
Anon., “From Her that Hath,” Harper’s Magazine (June 1926), pp. 110-118 Copyright © 1926-2012 The Harper’s Magazine Foundation. All rights reserved.
Clarence Brown (dir.), Wife vs. Secretary (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1936). Copyright © 1936 Clarence Brown / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. All rights reserved.
All copyrighted material used in this article or cited by this website is the property of their respective owners and in no way accepts any responsibility for an infringement on one of the above.
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