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Lynn Peril


Secretary: The Rise And Fall Of The Office Wife (PHOTOS)

Posted: 06/05/11 09:54 AM ET

For over a century now, secretarial work has been extolled as a wonderful career opportunity for women--and excoriated as dead-end busy work. Both characterizations are true. Office work has supported or supplemented my writing career for almost 20 years, but I still have a hard time not adding the words--aloud or mentally--"just a" or "only a" in front of the word "secretary" when people ask me what I do. I doubt I'm the only one. I mean, can you blame us? Today's secretary is responsible for a greater array of complex tasks than her predecessors ever were, but the word itself is considered so demeaning that most offices shelved it long ago in favor of "administrative assistant." Indeed, "diminished image" and low pay were given as two reasons for a secretarial shortage that began in the late 1970s. Anyone who hasn't resided under a rock for the past century is well aware of that image--the husband-hunting, pencil-pushing, coffee-getting, dumb-bunny, sex-bomb secretary depicted in advertising, novels, movies, television shows, comic books and just about every other form of pop culture for a lot longer than you probably realize. Consider the history of that most pernicious of secretarial stereotypes: the office wife.

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Women first entered the office as Treasury Department clerks thanks to a manpower shortage caused by the Civil War. Almost immediately, the thought of men and women working side by side, unchaperoned, caused tongues to wag. So much so that by 1894, the author of a guide to the sights of New York City did his best to defend typewriters' reputations (the word then referred to both the machine and its operator): "On few subjects have more jokes been made, and ill-natured slurs cast, than on the 'pretty typewriter.' It is doubtless true that some unprincipled adventuresses, and some weak and silly girls, have entered this occupation. But the overwhelming majority of the women who operate typewriting machines are modest, industrious, and worthy of all encouragement," he concluded.
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