from Womankind (1971) The life of a secretary as told from the point of view of a CWLU member. from Womankind (1972)
(Editors Note: Before the women's liberation movement, a clerical job was one of the few types of work open to women. A CWLU member who worked as a secretary gives us an inside view of the "pink collar ghetto".)
Three months ago I got a job as a secretary. The contrast between having a job and being a secretary is pretty stark. (In my old --job I was pretty much my own boss. The man I was responsible to exercised some high level decision making authority, but I handled all the every day work.) In secretarial work, nothing you do is your own work. Nothing, literally, has your name on it. And, by extension, you yourself are not supposed to have any identity apart from the identity which the other persons--your bosses--have in their work. What’s theirs is yours, and you are they. The secretary is totally alienated from her labor. Her objective conditions of labor erase her existence as an ego. The transfer of the secretary’s loyalty to her boss which union organizers and women’s liberationists have noticed is a function of this alienation.
A woman co-worker introduced me to the files: His #1, seven or eight tall cabinets, half of which contained a library of scholarly articles; His #2, a similar amount of drawer space; His #3 (actually a Hers), four cabinets; and mine, one small drawer. For every dozen or so letter copies and memoranda I get to put away for the gentlemen there is one scrap that goes into “my” files.
The monthly budget statement is “my file” and I do a few cursory balancing operations on it each month. In the old job I managed and balanced 150 accounts which represented the people and reports I dealt with as my own, real job. I hated those accounts (I hate number work). Over here, I look forward to that monthly expenditure statement. It’s the only thing that’s mine.
Day after day, the secretary types letters to sign with her boss’s name and send off. Even the most insignificant trivia: “Thank you for sending me blurf,” “Please send me a reprint of your gezap analysis,” “So nice to see you in Afghanistan, please tell me when you’re next coming to Chicago”.. .even these “nothing” letters are composed and presented to her to be typed up. Spiffy. What a groove, to let your professional colleague in outer Mongolia know how much you enjoyed his chopped liver--with your secretary’s discreet lc initials after yours at the bottom of your letter headed formal professional stationery.
After a while the secretary may ask if she can’t possibly relieve a little of the burdens weighing down her boss, whose time is valuable, with the eager service of composing as well as typing and signing his nothing letters for him. There are (so far observed) two possible reactions to this blushing request. (1) “Gee, do you think you could? My old secretary couldn’t handle that.” (2) “I think I’d rather not. There are always things I’d like to say that you wouldn't know and don't need to know to do your job.":
#1 translation: dumb broad
#2 translation:you’re threatening my masculinity.
To do what job? The basic contradiction, once we get past the sledge hammer variety of chauvinism which assumes the dame can’t invent a coherent sentence, is the contradiction between the secretary’s having no independent job identity and the boss’s refusing to give up any more of his work identity to her, lie has to remain superordinate to her. In words of one syllable, your sole job is to do things for him, but he won’t let you do more for him than he feels you “should.”
The universe of things the hireling should do for the man varies from boss to boss. Each secretary must find the bounds of this universe by trial and error. She knows she has found the bounds when she gets the bad vibes in response to her request to do more for him.
After one or two scenes where the had vibes have come down fairly strong, the secretary begins to get the message; she does as she is told. No more, no less. Her behavior pattern changes. She stops looking for more things to do, more information to understand the boss’s specialty. She stops asking questions. She assumes that when she is told to do something, the boss is pressing the remote control garage door open button; all she has to do is open the door. Here again, conflicts emerge. The boss is not always programming her with all the essential information needed to open the door. He withholds data, assuming the secretary will petition him for advice at every stop of even a routine procedure.
Sometime last month, one of my bosses told me to get So-and-so long distance. I dial. I get So-and-So’s office. My counterpart, So—and—so’s secretary, says So—and—so is not in. I say, okay, goodbye. I go into boss’s room and announce that So—and—so has left, so sorry. Boss wrinkles eyebrows in characteristic gesture somewhere between anguish and anger: “Well, I wanted to know if there was going to be a meeting tonight. Now we’ll have to call them back."
Translation: You dodo, you should have asked. I react silently: I should have asked — whom, what question, and at what point during the exchange? You didn’t say you wanted information, you said you wanted So—and—so. I am supposed to read your mind? Why am I getting the dodo vibes?
Other secretaries understand this episode, the boss’s behavior, attitudes, and my frustration. But they are puzzled. All one has to do is hold the call and intercom the boss asking what do we do now. That’s what they do. I react again, verbally: “What horse manure! How needlessly complicated; what a waste of time and call money!’ Setting aside the fundamental absurdity of placing the call for the boss, I try to enlist them to my point, that the boss ought to say what he wants in the first place. They smile, they no longer experience the keen feeling of humiliation which the act of going back and forth between the call and the boss would evoke in me. Humiliation. That’s really what it’s all about for the non-person, the secretary. Every day in tiny tiny pieces, a word, a gesture, an incident. One of my bosses tears out of his room each time he has something he wants of me and he starts talking at me from a dozen feet away. While I am in the middle of typing, in the middle of taking a phone message, in the middle of a conversation with another of my superiors or one of their students. In the middle —on the simplest level, this behavior is discourteous. There is a deeper message being put over, also. The secretary has no time or task that cannot be violated. She is there to jump for the boss, whatever and whenever he wants. Nothing she is doing is anywhere near equal importance to what he wishes to ask of her at that very instant. She has no rights.
The Third boss, a woman, displays none of these attitudes. Although she has said nothing to indicate she may hold any explicitly liberationist analysis, it is as if she perceived the drains on the psyche created by the others.
Three days ago when I woke up I could not keep my balance. I wasn’t exactly dizzy, but each movement made me feel like I would fall. The condition persists. The doctor has put me on Phenobarbital. When I walk it feels as if my head does not move quite the same distance as my body: either it moves further or it moves less far. My body is telling me that the contradiction between this job and my self is total. Where I stand in relation to the bosses is not real; the real me cannot stand there but must be suppressed into the not—me, the them—arm, the them-voice, the them—work. My body has gone schizo in advance of my mind.
There are three choices. Quit. Talk back to them. Go mad.