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A Woman's Place is at the Typewriter

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Margery W. DaviesEdit

Margery Davies is currently the Director of Diversity Education and Development at Tufts University. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Brandeis University.nhghnghn

Woman's Place is at the Typewriter: Office Work and Office Workers 1870-1930Edit

In this text, Davies writes an intensive history of clerical labor. For Davies, this period contains the most striking changes in clerical labor—it spans the shift from primarily male to primarily female labor. The clerical work environment that existed by 1930 is still, more or less, the organizational system that exists today. The major shift was in class and gender. Prior to the civil war, clerical work was a male dominated field in which males worked closely with their superiors and were often apprenticed to them; their superiors success was their success, and they could look forward to a position of management and business ownership in their later years. By 1930, however, clerical workers were a secretarial proletariat—subordinate to her superiors, with no opportunity for advancement.

Clerical Work Prior to the Civil WarEdit

Clerical work in this period was largely done by banks, lawyers offices and businesses. They handwrote [as copyists or scriveners] documents in multiple, to be dispensed to the appropriate parties. Their primary skill was penmanship, as was copyediting. However, few places employed dedicated copyists (lawyers or large merchants). Usually not enough paperwork existed to solely occupy a copyist. Instead, there were clerks, whose work included composition, book-keeping, debt collecting, copying etc. There did not exist standards in copy work or book keeping. Beneath them was the errand boy who kept house and gathered supplies, etc., and he would one day be a clerk. Chains of command were straightfoward, and there was a high degree of internal trust based on the personal nature of apprenticeship. Upward mobility was likely, and for those who would not rise to ownership, they were valued and trusted office managers. The clerk class was more akin to management than what it would become after the Civil War.

Clerical Work after the Civil WarEdit

The shape and scale of business drastically change in the closing decades of the 19th century. Smaller, competitive firms became swallowed up by vertically and horizontally integrated corporations, and trusts helped facilitate this movement. The volume of business increased, requiring more dedicated attention to book and record keeping—memory no longer sufficed. Records were also employed to prevent fraud. As work expanded, the simple jobs of clerk, book-keeper, copyist and errand boy exploded into different types of semi-skilled clerks—shipping clerks, billing clerks, file clerks, etc. Tasks became more specialized and certain roles only performed that role. In general, middle management arose as firms became too large to be personally managed by the owners. Lower-end workers no longer had direct access to viewing the function of a business, to “learning the business on the job”. This also generates the tension between owners and employees concerning labor hours and work week, until they are eventually shortened in the 1930s to 5 days a week and something close to an 8 hour work day.

The TypewriterEdit

With the typewriter, positions for stenographers and typists emerged. A stenographer might take dictation and transcribe a letter, and then pass it to a gang of typists for bulk reproduction.

Typewriters were slow to catch on. In 1874, James Densmore went to great lengths to promote the design of Christopher Sholes. After producing a batch a no profit, he got Remington (the gun maker) to produce 1000 of them, and then tried to sell them in Manhattan from $125 each. Only 400 sold. In the 1870s, typewriters were still full of kinks and typing was considered poor etiquette. By the 1880s, however, demand soared, with multiple companies producing 15000 a year. In this sense, the typewriter “followed in the wake of basic alterations in capitalism” (38). Faster than handwriting, it allowed for duplication and processing at higher speed. While it did facilitate the entrance of women in the workplace, capitalism was moreso responsible for this. Typewriters did facilitate more rigorous hierarchies at work and diminished upward mobility; it required the labor of a skilled typist, and typists were only trained to type, so they lacked options for higher levels of employment.

Female Clerical WorkersEdit

By most accounts, female clerical workers were white native women, in better employment situations than their industrial-laboring counterparts (see Wage-Earning Women). While their wages were not high, they're working conditions were at least favorable. However, Davies does argue that female clerical workers worked because they had to, not to garner “pin money” (77). A girl was expected to contribute to her own support (presumably while living at home during the years between school and marriage).

Female entrance into the workforce began during the Civil War, when soldiering caused a labor shortage. Women were hired as government clerks, and kept after the war—it was reported they did more and better work than men for half the price. The overall feminization of the workforce proceeded briskly from the 1870s onward. In 1880 women were 40% of typists and stenographers, and 95% by 1930 (not true in all cases—lesser stats in bookkeeping and accountancy, and almost nothing as messengers). Work as a typist or stenographer had never been understood as “men's work” and thus there were few barriers for entrance. However, Davies insists the typewriter was not responsible for women entering the workplace any more than it was responsible for the expansion of the office. Rather, firms expanded and consolidated after the Civil War, requiring higher quantities of correspondence. It was the expansion of the office that called for high volumes of semi-skilled, inexpensive laborers with little ambition for upward mobility—jobs most easily filled by native, literate white women. Men took the positions of managerial importance that were created by this boom—which is exactly why they didn't look for work as typists: “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” (57). Women were graduating from high school in higher numbers than men, while men graduated college in higher numbers than women. Thus, men with literacy skills typically pursued college and entered managerial positions, while women with basic literacy skills and diplomas were ready for clerical work. Additionally, the re-organization of labor facilitated female entrance, dispelling taboos around women and offering new titles unattached to gender roles.

Women were available for these jobs for a variety of reasons. The decline of small family farms, industrial work was onerous and humiliating, small family business was unstable, the home was no longer a site of goods production (which for Davies means more opportunities outside the home, but Cowan comes to a different conclusion in More Work for Mother), and clerical work was one of the only sites available to literate women.

Scientific ManagementEdit

Scientific management pursued transforming the office (much like the assembly line) into a place of efficiency. Mundane tasks were distributed to the least paid, so that more specialized labor could be gleened from a semi-skilled employee. Hand movements were managed, as well as desk arrangements to diminish distraction.

The Private SecretaryEdit

Davies ends with a chapter on the private secretary—the perfect dead-end job for a woman working only out of economic necessity. Scientific management controlled little of her routine. The private secretary was almost predominantly female by the 1930s, and maintained a personal (but no longer upwardly mobile) relationship with her superior. In essence, the private secretary and her manager shared one job—she only took care of the menial tasks. Because they were isolated from other office workers, they did not identify with their labor position. However, feminization of this position reinforced its subordinate position, and she should not resent the power and control of the male (whereas a male secretary might), as they would never aspire to a higher position.

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