“On Display Eight Hours a Day”: Gendering and Racializing Clerical Work During the Early Cold War
Author(s): Jennifer Keohane
Jennifer Keohane is assistant professor in the Klein Family School of Communications Design at The University of Baltimore. She holds a PhD in rhetoric, politics, and culture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work has appeared in Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Women’s Studies in Communication, and Rhetoric Review.
Abstract: Just Between Office Girls, a bi-monthly pamphlet for the clerical worker, offered advice for women laboring in offices in the early Cold War. Clerical work, as one of the most gender-segregated industries, is an important site to investigate how work is gendered, racialized, compensated, and valued. This essay explores the disciplining of female clerical workers in these pamphlets between the mid-1950s and early 1970s. I identify constitutive rhetoric, a care work frame, and embodiment as rhetorical processes that gendered clerical work in this historical moment. These rhetorics supported the gendered and racialized geopolitics of the Cold War. Through messaging that feminized clerical work, the pamphlets constituted a white, relatively passive labor force disinclined to protest and primed to consume. Such messages served U.S. political interests during the Cold War. I offer this analysis to explore how rhetoric positions labor within social value structures.Tags: clerical work, gender, labor, work rhetorics
Just Between Office Girls (JBOG), a chatty bi-monthly pamphlet for the clerical worker, promised loads of advice for women laboring in offices in the 1950s and 1960s. It warned young workers of the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy. It offered meal planning and finance tips for the figure conscious worker on a budget. There were also exercise moves, oodles of fashion advice, and the ever-present warning not to be “that girl” who gossiped or showed up late and hungover. These short, cartoon-illustrated pamphlets were certainly not the first professional advice manuals for women. Yet, they circulated during a remarkable reshaping of the American labor force and economy. While dominant narratives insist that in the wake of World War II, the return of GIs pushed women out of factory jobs, the reality was far more complex. In fact, many women stayed employed due to both economic necessity and choice (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 286-7). Yet, scholars have tended to focus on women war workers in our narrative of women’s employment in the mid-twentieth century. Moreover, the focus on large labor unions, in part because they left historic records, has also skewed the sample of workers under historians’ purview (see, e.g. Cobble, Dishing; Flexner; Foner; Gabin; Kessler-Harris).
Clerical work is one of the most gender-segregated industries of all and has been an archetypal female job for almost a century (England and Boyer 307). Discourses surrounding clerical work have sedimented over the course of the twentieth century and circulate archetypes of “office wives” or “sexy secretaries.” To that end, clerical work provides an often-overlooked arena for exploring the rhetorical lives of women workers in the United States during the early Cold War. As the U.S. reverted to a peacetime economy and women negotiated increasing pressure to return home to mother, I ask, in line with Sarah Hallenbeck and Michelle Smith, how was women’s relationship to work framed?
To answer that question, this essay explores the rhetorical processes that gender and racialize work. I analyze “work-related rhetorics” of socialization in the form of training manuals, which introduce workers to effective ways of doing their jobs and navigating their workplaces. Socialization discourses shape workers’ attitudes and perceptions of how to operate in organizational cultures (van Maanen and Schein 2). As Hallenbeck and Smith note, work training is an important element in women’s rhetorical lives (206). They urge rhetoricians to move beyond looking at how women develop agency in the workplace to identify themes in how gender and work are continually co-constructed (202). Building on their insights, then, I do not assume that clerical work is “women’s work,” but instead that it, like all work, is “historically situated, rhetorically constructed, [and] materially contingent” (Hallenbeck and Smith 201; see also Gold and Enoch). Scholars have identified several topoi that serve as rhetorical mechanisms for gendering work. As Jessica Enoch notes, constructions of place can accomplish this. The public, she explains, often genders professions by bringing them closer or farther away from the space of the home and from specific types of domestic work (184; see also Jack 286). In addition, time is a rhetorical practice that genders work, stipulating when and for how long tasks can be performed (Jack 286-288). Hallenbeck and Smith identify duty, education, and technology as recurring threads in the gendering of work (203). Yet, these topoi do not adequately explain clerical work during the Cold War.
In this essay, I explore the disciplining of female clerical workers in Just Between Office Girls between the mid-1950s and early 1970s. I identify constitutive rhetoric, a care work frame, and embodiment as rhetorical processes that constructed clerical work in this historical moment. All three of these rhetorics were filtered through the gendered and racialized geopolitics of the Cold War and the civil rights movement. Through consistent messaging that feminized clerical work, the pamphlets constituted a relatively passive labor force of white women disinclined to organize or protest and primed to consume. These messages served U.S. political interests during the Cold War by figuring white women as agents of racial capitalism. I offer this analysis with the goal of moving beyond understanding how labor organizers use rhetoric to reshape working conditions to exploring how rhetoric positions labor itself within hierarchies of social value.
This case also identifies the performance of work and its rhetorical representation as a geopolitical struggle over citizenship, consumption, gender, and labor organizing during the Cold War. Just Between Office Girls branded clerical work as a safe, middle-class option for young, white women seeking income for consumption while waiting to marry. As they became interpellated into racial capitalism, white women were simultaneously subjugated according to gender and agents of white supremacy. By accepting their dictated role as white female consumer/workers, they may have perpetuated the exclusion of women of color from the workplace. Framing clerical work as safe and middle-class allowed writers to trumpet the progress of (white) women, encourage them to pursue appropriate feminine interests (fashion and beauty) while protecting the office as a sphere for masculine risk and innovation, key Cold War battles. Paradoxically, then, the pamphlets served to make women at home in the office.
Just Between Office Girls represents one of a number of bi-monthly publications that circulated to offices across the country. Published by the Bureau of Business Practice, a renaming of the National Foreman’s Institute, this publishing company produced training manuals for industrial supervision before expanding its offerings to clerical work (“Finding Aid”). Throughout its long history, the Bureau of Business Practice’s clerical publications included the Better Secretaries series and Just Between Office Girls. The publication archive, held at the University of Maryland’s Special Collections, does not include circulation or print-run data. Nonetheless, the collection’s holdings illustrate the shifting nature of clerical work. For instance, Just Between Office Girls, which ended its print run in 1973, became the Office Guide for Working Women, a similar pamphlet, published from 1973 through 1976. The Office Guide for Working Women morphed into the Office Guide in 1976 and was published until around 1994. The Creative Secretary’s Letter began publication in 1992 and lasted at least until 1999. The names of these guides provide one clue as to the changing nature and perceptions of the clerical workforce, but also identify an industry-leader in clerical publications and a meaningful source for rhetorical analysis. As the pamphlets have not been digitized, I spent six days in special collections sifting through print copies. I comprehensively looked through each file in the Bureau of Business Practice archive containing clerical work pamphlets from 1958 to 1999, assuming that examining the whole run would better allow me to see patterns and changes over time in structure, tone, and general rhetorical strategies. As I skimmed, I took notes and photographs of articles that particularly described the duties of clerical work and outlined discipline for failing to perform them effectively. I then combed over my photographs and identified themes in how the pamphlets portrayed workers’ lifestyles, their work, and the office itself. I eventually consolidated my themes into the three primary strategies laid out here.
From here, I next explore the changing landscape of work during the early Cold War and its attendant geopolitical pressures. I then analyze the publications. I identify three themes that I take in turn: constituting a collective identity, framing work as care, and embodying femininity. The conclusion explores the implications for discourses of work and labor organizing.
Working Women and Washing Machines
Dominant cultural discourses socialize workers alongside training manuals. And these discourses have long associated clerical work with women. Even though what “women’s work” means has changed throughout history, that clerical work is women’s work was a stable and enduring idea throughout the twentieth century (England and Boyer 307). As organizations grew more complex after the Civil War, the need for clerical workers exploded (England and Boyer 311). Being able to pay women workers less was a bonus. The opening of educational opportunities to women ensured that the feminization of this work was largely completed by 1930 (Davies 5, 51). Compared to other women joining the waged labor force at the turn of the twentieth century, clerical workers were more likely to be white and native-born (England and Boyer 312; Davies 74), a demographic reality that fed the perception of clerical work as a suitable occupation before marriage. In fact, many argued that clerical work was effective training for a woman’s duties as a wife and mother (Davies 81; England and Boyer 313). As a result, clerical work’s link to respectable femininity solidified. Of course, the respectability of this labor also racialized it as white.
While Rosie the Riveter emerged as the archetype of women at work during World War II, clerical work could also be a patriotic calling. Public service posters encouraged women to be stenographers and file clerks in supporting the war effort (England and Boyer 318). Women workers were nothing new, and in fact 75 percent of women workers had labored for wages before the war began (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 276). WWII merely continued the trajectory of women entering the workforce. Of course, as women flooded into factories and offices, their acceptance as war workers depended upon the absence of men. Wartime did not undermine the idea of separate spheres for women’s and men’s work. Instead, men’s work and women’s traits momentarily aligned. Donning their overalls and tying up their hair in scarves, women poured into factories, being told that if they could bake cakes, they could load shells into bombers. By revaluing the alleged delicacy of the female body, wartime industry put their nimble fingers to work (Jack 290-1). Wartime propaganda almost exclusively targeted white women. When Black women were encouraged to serve the war effort, it was in laundry, cafeterias, and as domestic workers. Even during the war, then, Black women “were supposed to form a behind-the-scenes cadre of support workers for gainfully employed white wives” (Jones 237). This rhetorical maneuvering on the part of wartime employers, however, combined with the lack of attention to women’s issues on the part of newly powerful labor unions, allowed notions of the female worker/citizen to be easily eclipsed after the war.
The idea that women willingly left wartime positions to return home is an oversimplification of a variety of historical forces, including union opposition to female work along with compelling economic need to stay in the workforce. The number of American women in the paid labor force did drop by about 2 million from 1944 to 1946, but it never again sank to prewar levels (Foner 395). While some women voluntarily left wartime positions, quit rates were highest in the lowest-paid jobs. Women were more frequently laid off or forced out of jobs where they had made the biggest gains—heavy industry (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 286-7). The war did not change the traditional division of labor by race, and tactics used to force white women out of the workforce were levied even harder against Black women (Jones 253-6). Moreover, public sentiment did not support women staying in the workplace, and less than one-third of women interviewed thought their sex should be treated equally with men when applying for jobs (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 298-9).
Despite this, the 1950s saw more women entering the workforce and more of them opting to work full time. This was in part due to the changing social landscape. Americans married younger, stayed together longer, and had more children than their European counterparts (May 3). As new, white families flooded into the suburbs, consumer aspirations climbed in the form of appliances, cars, and even saving for children’s college. Keeping up with the Joneses required many women to work, and women were almost thirty percent of the labor force in 1950 and 35 percent of it by 1965 (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 301). Paradoxically, in this landscape, employment for married women was discouraged, but female consumption was hailed. As a result, as historian Elaine Tyler May writes, “It was unfortunate if a wife had to hold a job, on the other hand, it was considered far worse if the family was unable to purchase what were believed to be necessities for the home” (159). Women, then, went to work so that they could fulfill their role as consumers. The incessant promotion of capitalism undergirded what historian Lizabeth Cohen calls a “consumers’ republic,” “an economy, culture, and politics built around the promises of mass consumption” (7). Thus, if women had to work, clerical work was attractive as an accepted female role despite far lower salaries than in wartime heavy industry (England and Boyer 322). By 1960s, one-third of all wage-earning women worked in the clerical field (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 303). Race imbricated gender in work opportunity, of course. Black women had always been seen as working bodies, so there was no ambivalence greeting their workforce participation. If white women moved into clerical fields, in the 1950s and 1960s, Black women worked in institutional or household service. In fact, by 1950, sixty percent of Black working women were in service roles such as cleaning (Jones 234-5). It would take the slow implementation and enforcement of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for Black women to start moving into clerical fields (Jones 301-2).
Despite the move into what could be considered more socially sanctioned roles, backlash accompanied white women into the office. Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia F. Farnham published Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, in response to their concerns about the postwar labor market and shifting gender norms. Working outside of the home, they insisted, was a call from “masculine strivings” (235). Indeed, “the more importance outside work assumes, the more are the masculine components of women’s nature enhanced and encouraged” (235). Framing femininity as a moral and familial obligation, Lundberg and Farnham’s arguments, while not universally supported, circulated broadly through the public sphere, earning refutation in Betty Friedan’s 1963 Feminine Mystique.
Anxieties about women at work were significant not only to trade unions and lonely husbands, though. Gender was a weapon in the Cold War, and by the early 1950s, the United States had slipped seamlessly into battle with the Soviet Union. Propaganda extolled the American housewife in opposition to the Soviet working woman. Capitalism was all the more desirable because it gave white women time and commodities to pursue fulfillment as mothers and wives. Communism allegedly erased femininity, enslaving men and women equally to the Soviet state. Foreign correspondents proposed answers to the question “Why Russian Women Work like Men,” and described Russian women as “stolid” and “dowdy,” laboring as engineers, construction workers, and bus drivers because there were not enough Russian men to fill these jobs (Samuels 22).
The Cold War struggle over the role of women even reached the highest levels. When then-vice president Richard Nixon traveled to Moscow in 1959 to visit the American National Exhibition, he touted not American technologies of war, but American technologies of domesticity. In “the Kitchen Debate,” Nixon emphasized how capitalism enabled the United States to ease American housewives’ burdens. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev snapped in reply, “We do not have the capitalist attitude toward women” (qtd. in May 21). Consumer choices, most often exercised by white women keeping house, became proxy for political freedoms championed by the American government. Without access to the booming suburbs and new shopping centers, however, Black Americans’ consumer choices were severely curtailed (Cohen 406-8).
The Cold War had a mixed impact on Black women. Anti-communism decimated the most progressive labor unions, including ones that had the best records on gender and racial equality (Jones 264). At the same time, racial prejudice and segregation in the Jim Crow South was a weak point in U.S. Cold War posturing, given that the Soviet Union was seen as a place of racial equality. As historian Mary Dudziak shows, the need to appear to be making progress on civil rights opened limited avenues for Black integration in the United States. Transnationally, the United States expanded its military presence across Asia in the name of promoting democracy and preventing communism’s spread. As Denise Cruz, Grace M. Cho, and Lisa Yoneyama explain, these imperialist projects had direct impacts on women of color across the globe. Thus, the centering of white femininity in Just Between Office Girls supported U.S. aims for global security and racial capitalism. While JBOG primarily centered the U.S.-Soviet conflict and a binary view of race, these ideas had broad, transnational resonance.
In sum, then, the combination of exhortations to consume coexisted with praise for traditional gender roles. Economic pressure, however, sent women to work or provided strong incentive for them to remain in the workforce after the war. Thus, deep, gendered ambivalence greeted white women workers in the 1940s and 1950s alongside racialized discrimination that left Black women with scant employment opportunities. How did these gendered and racialized pressures frame the discussion of work itself? The next section begins an analysis of the Bureau of Business Practice pamphlets.
Office Girls Unite: Constituting Collective Identities
Who was the “office girl”? Just Between Office Girls constituted her as young, white, unmarried, and defined in relation to the men around her. The pamphlets, then, used constitutive rhetoric to co-construct gender, race, and work. In Maurice Charland’s original iteration of the theory, constitutive rhetoric is the tool by which audiences come into being. Constitutive rhetoric paradoxically creates an audience and endows it with certain characteristics while simultaneously assuming such an audience already exists to be addressed (Charland 137). JBOG drew working women into this collectivity by homogenizing their identities while at the same time offering them entry to the Cold War consumers’ republic.
Primarily, the pamphlets address working women as “girls,” as emphasized in the series title. Moreover, the address “office girls” identifies the audience with their work. It literally places them in their workplace. This address suffuses the pamphlets. Rarely are workers referred to as “women” or even “young women.” This rhetorical choice built the pamphlets’ overall chatty tone. More importantly, though, it sidestepped the controversial question surrounding whether married women should work. In referring to the audience as “girls,” the implication was that clerical workers were young women working until marriage compelled them to stop. As we have seen, society sanctioned unmarried women workers far more than married women or mothers in the workforce, especially in the 1950s. The term also had racial implications, emphasizing the whiteness of the intended audience. While white women may have seen the address as an attempt to build a casual community of young workers, for Black women, the term may have echoed language from the centuries of chattel slavery which indicated that Black women did not deserve being called “miss” and were too servile to be adult (Green).
The pamphlets also created this young audience of pre-marriage women and thus, acceptable workers, by crafting a chatty tone. The title constitutes the authors as members of the workers’ peer group, but perhaps with more experience. “Just between office girls” implied co-workers swapping tips among themselves. Moreover, most articles were written informally in the second person, addressed to “you.” “In a quandary about your fall and winter wardrobe?” asked a 1958 article. “Are you wondering whether you can buy anything without having it go out of style ten minutes after you walk out of the store? We don’t blame you” (“Let Sanity Follow Sack”). Such a tone built familiarity and good will between the reader and writer and presented the tips as an older sister looking out for her younger sister’s well-being. Likewise, advice about on time arrivals and general respect for others indicated that the writers believed that most of the women in their audience were beginning their first office jobs. A reliance on anecdotes, most obviously made up, also supported the chatty tone, as did the perpetuation of archetypes as discipline to office etiquette. Issues from the 1950s, for instance, included boxes entitled “I’m the gal” and then provided some “what not to dos.” “I’m the gal who really gets around,” proclaimed one example. “My phone rings all day long, and everyone in the office knows they’re calls for dates…And every morning I let ‘em all know what a big time I had the night before.” Not only did this perpetuate middle-class standards of sexual propriety; it also created a separate work sphere to which women had to be socialized to not let their personal lives interfere.
Other cues in the stories supported the idea that this group of women was composed of pre-marriage workers. One article entitled “Memo: from the Boss” explicitly described Anne, who was leaving her job to be married. In the short story, her boss gave her a memo thanking her for her hard work and diligence throughout the years. “It was, she tells us, the best farewell present he could have given her.” Sanctioning the behavior of leaving work to be married, the story also undermined Anne’s identity as a professional by suggesting that appreciation was effective compensation for years of hard work.
Another characteristic of the working girl, as per JBOG, was her role as a consumer. Again, because she was largely figured as young and unmarried, she was presumed to have at least modest income to spend. “We’re being wooed!” declared the August 10, 1959, issue. “Downtown stores no longer assume that women customers are necessarily full-time housekeepers. They know that many of them toil in nearby offices and factories, accounting for a great deal of shopping during lunch hours and after work. Accordingly, competition for the Office Girl dollar is brisk!” (“We’re Being Wooed”). JBOG was one avenue for women to learn about places to spend or invest their hard-earned dollars. Articles highlighted beauty and diet trends, recommended books on self-improvement, and provided decorating tips. While JBOG did not feature conventional advertisements, pamphlets did occasionally highlight new products. “If your [legs] are in need of a shape-up, here’s a new fun way to exercise them. Wear Scholl Exercise Sandals. All you have to do is start walking. They do all the work,” a 1969 article explained. It then detailed how these new sandals worked the legs and could be personalized (“A Sandal that Works While you Play”). JBOG assumed working women were naturally interested in fashion and beauty products. The admonishments to consume beauty products sometimes explicitly appeared amidst Cold War geopolitics. A 1960 article entitled “What, no Borsch Bath?” extolled “Thank heavens for the corner drugstore! Without it, we might have to fall back on the beauty treatments suggested by a commentator on a Moscow home hour radio broadcast. He advised listeners to banish dry hair by dousing it with sour milk, to banish greasy skin by slapping on a mixture of grated cucumber and vodka.” Articles like this subtly nudged single women to consume not just as part of their office duties, but also their duties as American citizens. The “corner drugstore” was a celebration of the choice of consumer products available to women in the capitalist United States. But this identity as consumer also racialized the office girl as white by assuming access to a bevy of products and childlessness as she consumed to fulfill her own desires.
It was not until the mid 1960s that married women appeared as office girls. A March 15, 1965, article entitled “Memo from a Working Wife,” started the shift to seeing “married working girls” as a staple of offices. In fact, as the article pointed out, over half of the female labor force was married. The article provided advice for balancing the responsibilities of housekeeping, childcare, and waged labor. Expecting male resistance was one of the article’s points. “Men in general still feel woman’s place is in the home. We’ve got to accept this, and not be angered by their frequent failure to take our ‘careers’ seriously. Be glad they let us work.” Articles like this naturalized male resistance and trivialized women’s career aspirations with quotation marks. As the 1960s progressed, more articles appeared with tips about balancing child (and husband) care with a full-time job, but they were relatively rare, indicating a continued constitution of clerical workers as young and unmarried, an image that stabilized feminine identity while celebrating consumerism.
JBOG also assumed that its audience was white, an assumption largely borne out by demographic data. Because clerical workers were often the faces of organizations, deep-seated racism prevented women of color from being hired until after the Civil Rights Act, and they did not approach parity with white women in offices until the 1970s (England and Boyer 326; Jones 302). Race or diversity are not mentioned until 1970, when an article entitled “Foot-in-Mouth Disease” appeared with the goal of helping working women be more tactful when “communicating with Negroes.” Diversity took backseat to efficiency and pleasantness when training office workers. Only when being able to communicate across diversity became an important office skill did it warrant inclusion. Of course, assuming office workers would need training in communicating this way also shores up the idea that these women were imagined white. Constituting a white audience allowed JBOG to bypass uncomfortable issues of workplace discrimination while using labor as an avenue for consumerism. Houses in the suburbs and consumption of goods were largely not open to Black Americans, and in the early 1950s, far more Black women were working as domestic servants than in offices. Comfortable, consuming, and glamorous women were far more effective in fighting the Cold War than meaningful conversations about race relations (see Dudziak).
All in all, JBOG encouraged women to be proud of their collective identity as clerical workers and as women. Pamphlets frequently celebrated women’s accomplishments and encouraged working women to be proud of the general progress that their sex had made, admonishments that would have been far more credible for a white audience. The December 10, 1958, issue crowed, “How times have changed! Forty years ago, American women were not allowed to vote…If you don’t think women have come a long way, just take a look at a few facts for 1958. Women now have the say-so in spending 80% of all the family income. They are the beneficiaries of 80% of all trust funds. They own 70% of all the voting stock in corporations” (“It’s a Woman’s World”). While this focus on the economic reinforced women’s roles as consumers, the tone made clear that a generic sense of progress was worthy of collective celebration. The communal celebration would have been far more compelling to white women than to Black women, as many Black women could not say in 1958 that they could easily cast ballots.
Taken together, the construction of the working woman in these pamphlets was overwhelmingly white, single, young, and inexperienced. As Michelle Smith notes, work-related rhetoric often seeks continuity—to make work not contradict femininity or marriage (187). So, too, did JBOG stabilize a female identity that made work continuous with feminine consumption patterns and with the general narrative of white, female domesticity that the United States used as a weapon in the Cold War. These workers were laboring until marriage and taking pleasure in the consumer goods U.S. capitalism made available to them.
“The Care and Feeding of Bosses”: Performing Clerical Duties
So, what was a working woman to do? Being an effective secretary entailed building a host of skills. JBOG framed many of these as care work and emotional labor—the kinds of work that women were assumed to want to do naturally. Much as educational leaders regendered nineteenth-century schools into places for female teachers to nurture students instead of for male disciplinarians to mete out punishment (Enoch 52), so too did JBOG domesticate the work clerical workers did. Yet, pamphlets encouraged clerical workers to do invisible and uncompensated labor and did not recommend that they seek appropriate payment for it.
JBOG shared tips for typing, filing, writing business correspondence, and phone etiquette. Each issue had grammar challenges and vocabulary building quizzes to sharpen these skills. Yet, far more column ink was dedicated to interpersonal issues in the office. Indeed, dealing with the boss was one area where clerical workers needed to marshal their caring energies. In encouraging office workers to approach the boss with a gentle hand, they actively curried favor toward him (and it was always a him). Articles asked office workers to recognize that “You two have so much in common, you and the old so-and-so.” This 1958 cover article told a story of a secretary getting scolded for misspelling a word and feeling “hurt, anger, and self-pity” while the boss retreated to his office feeling badly for speaking so harshly (“You and the Old So-and-So”). Bosses appeared as sensitive and needing care from clerical workers. One short 1959 article entitled “Care and Feeding of Bosses Department,” provided tips that included not bringing up problems at the very beginning or end of the workday and attempting to solve problems before taking them to the boss. Thus, even in their most creative and valuable roles, clerical workers, as per this framing, performed care work. Women catered to the needs of male authority figures.
Yet, this care work was professionalized in an extreme fashion. No office worker could ever perfect her role because the job entailed giving one’s all and going above and beyond. Part of this gendered advice included trying to anticipate the boss’s every need. The way JBOG talked about this element of clerical work sounded like housework. “Do some little extra jobs, and you’ll be extra valuable,” a March 15, 1964, article advised. It recommended airing out the boss’s office, dusting, straightening his desk, sharpening his pencils, and checking to see if his plants needed watering. “To do all this, you should beat your boss to work—which he’ll also appreciate” (“An Extra Touch”). Once again, appreciation was the compensation for extra labor, undoubtedly not spelled out in any official job description. JBOG assumed that working women would naturally find joy in doing this care work and see the boss’s appreciation as compensation enough.
Caring could be taken too far if it slipped into flirting. As one reader wrote to the “What Would You Do?” column answering a letter about attracting “office wolves,” “From the cradle, the female is taught how to attract the male. In the office, this urge must be formed into a congenial and helpful attitude of service.” The reader then went on to encourage the advice seeker to make sure clothes were “well fitting but not too tight or short” and to avoid “‘flirty’ eyes or ‘suggestive’ inflections in voice.” Here, then, allegedly natural feminine tendencies toward flirting were channeled into gendered care work in the office and strictly disciplined before they became sexual. Fulfilling the office wife stereotype required creating an atmosphere of support and help. Thus, femininity had to be tamed to effectively dwell in the office. While sexual harassment of clerical workers was a significant problem and one that prompted some of the earliest organization attempts (Segrave), Black and white women would have experienced the disciplining of their sexuality in very different ways given the hypersexualization of Black women (Collins).
The duties of a clerical worker also required emotional labor that was deeply gendered. For instance, JBOG identified them as responsible for the overall emotional tone of the office. In the June 10, 1959, issue, readers met Sally who often felt like “an unappreciated slave.” Yet, the article admonished that “She isn’t aware of what her buoyant ‘good morning’ does to others, and how her warm smile gives a lift to even the biggest sourpuss.” “She’s Controller of the Office Atmosphere,” the article concluded, in capital letters. Another article, “The Great Stone Face,” admonished women to smile. “Too bad she doesn’t realize what a smile could mean to those around her…and to her own well-being. There’s nothing that takes so little effort, and pays off so well.” Thus, working women needed to perform gendered care work to lift the spirits of the office, regardless of their internal feelings.
Emotional labor also became an area for discipline. When women acted too much like the boss, they undermined the emotional tone the office needed. While stories often extolled women’s value to their bosses and to the office, they were also continually reminded that they were not the boss and that their power was limited. Pamphlets emphasized that humility and feminine sweetness were office girls’ most valuable skills. One story, in the August 10, 1958, issue told the story of Gwen, who worked for Mr. Howard. When a print job came back messy Mr. Howard told her to handle it. After storming over to the print office and demanding a re-do, Gwen got her comeuppance. “Listen, kid,” the printer said, “even if I had goofed completely—that’s no way to tell me. You may work for Howard, but you’re not Howard. So don’t go around giving orders like a big shot. You’ll just make people mad, and what’s the point when you can get things done faster by being your own sweet self?” he asked. Gwen smiled through her tears and admitted that the printer was right. The story was aptly named “Embarrassment: It’s the price we pay for some lessons.”
Another facet of emotional labor that the working woman was to master was charm and sophistication. She was, as JBOG made clear, expected to be charming and sophisticated, but not too sophisticated, which might threaten the men. The general charm of the office girl required knowledge of current events. A December 15, 1963, article entitled “Are you a Sophisticate?” recommended reading a good newspaper regularly, reading a weekly news magazine, reading at minimum two books a month, looking at the world around one, and listening sharply for new ideas. “You’ll become a person others want to know better,” it emphasized. Working women were also expected to be “in the know” about the companies for which they worked, including what product or service was their biggest seller and the names of top officers. Thus, effectively performing charm and sophistication required resource expenditure to subscribe to newspapers and magazines and time outside of work to read them. Intangible and ephemeral factors like charm, however, could also provide an excuse for racial discrimination (Jones 304).
The emotional labor of office work did not just involve caring for men and doing continual domestic work. It also required controlling one’s attitude toward the job, which could be monotonous. In a 1961 front-page article, JBOG introduced Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the husband-and-wife theater team. When asked “if they didn’t get bored during their long-run plays,” they instead said that they were never quite satisfied and continually tried to improve. “Monotony, then, has no place in their scheme of things. They say the same lines, move about the stage pretty much as they did the night before. But they don’t see a dreary sameness to their job” (“Another Day”). The implication was clear: working women were to see their jobs as opportunities for perfection. The analogical reasoning—comparing clerical work to acting—emphasized that performance was a duty. Many other articles admonished women not to be in too much of a rush to advance their careers. “Prove that you can do your present job as well as it can possibly be done, blindfolded and with one hand tied behind you. With efficiency, energy, and a pleasant attitude,” advised one article (“Good Luck–It’s a Giant Step”). Thus, rather than encourage capable women to push their boundaries, JBOG counseled patience, complacency, and a positive attitude.
The power of a positive attitude was a common theme, encouraging women to wholeheartedly throw themselves into their work. “The Five O’clock Girls” were a foil for discipline and emphasized the importance of going above and beyond. “They’re the girls who leave at the stroke of five—and until then stay busy looking for an excuse not to work” (“The “Five O’clock Girls”). “So many girls try to do the minimum amount of work necessary to keep a job. They seem to set a goal that says ‘This is the amount of work I’m doing for the amount of money I’m getting paid.’ And they don’t do an iota more. In fact, sometimes it seems they spend more time and energy planning how to get out of work…than would have been necessary to have actually done the job,” bemoaned a January 1968 issue (“‘Don’t Work Too Hard…’”). A 1968 column advised women to look for the possibilities in their current job. “You probably don’t hate your job, but you may have lost interest. If this is your problem, why not do something about it?” It then advised perfecting the tasks, diving into the affairs of the firm, and even being nicer to co-workers so more stimulating interactions would occur at the office (“Bored?”). Thus, JBOG made clear that being a clerical worker required initiative and hard work. It required a drive to perfect small tasks without seeing them as monotonous. But such articles also fed the idea that work was for women without kids and family obligations because they should be staying late and coming in early. Indeed, the chatty tone hid the fact this advice asked women to do extra work for which they were likely not compensated.
There was a fine line between taking initiative and aggression, as a November 1970 issue noted. Comparing clerical work to being pushy at a dance, the article concluded, “Guess which girl is going to get ahead faster. The girl who knows the difference between being enterprising and being aggressive, naturally” (“Initiative vs. Aggression”). Once again using argument by analogy, JBOG situated the duties of office work well within a feminine realm of experience. Thus, as always, feminine traits were to be on display in the office. Anticipating the needs of the boss and going above and beyond one’s stated job duties still required a light, feminine touch.
In sum, then, the duties of the clerical worker were clearly spelled out in JBOG. She was to master filing, typing, have a pleasant phone voice, and generally perform care work in the office. One of her main duties was exhausting emotional labor: she was to keep the office mood upbeat and overcome her own boredom. The office guides also emphasized the need to take initiative, anticipate needs, and always perfect one’s work. This counsel disciplined clerical workers to accept their roles without pushing for raises and promotions and to know their place as valuable, but circumscribed, employees. In its description of the duties, JBOG gendered clerical work as deeply feminine, often through analogical reasoning. It assumed that care and domestic work would be naturally appealing to women who would do it with a sense of pride instead of a desire for compensation. The next section considers embodiment in clerical work.
What Not to Wear to Work: Femininity and Fashion
The office pamphlets were unequivocal on the role of fashion in the office. Utilizing what Risa Applegarth calls “embodied epideictic,” the manuals codified the labor of femininity as another uncompensated component of clerical work. Embodied epideictic refers to “textual depictions of embodied behavior that invite or articulate an attitude of praise or blame” (Applegarth 130). So often did JBOG provide diet advice, fashion tips, and beauty tutorials that these became parts of the job. It is also clear that JBOG operated from a racialized standard of beauty, prizing thinness, modest yet fashionable dress, and “natural” makeup.
JBOG framed a neat and pleasant office wardrobe as both an obligation and a transaction. It was something the office girl owed to her boss. “Your boss supplies you with a typewriter, files, and office machines. But there’s one important piece of office equipment he expects you to supply in return—an efficient, well-balanced office wardrobe,” noted one 1964 column, framing the wardrobe as an exchange between the boss and clerical worker (“It’s Your Money: Dress for the Job”). Clothes were equipment for doing the job effectively—as important as typewriters, this analogy averred. Indeed, JBOG often relied on comparisons to make feminine habits seem like common-sense parts of the job.
Despite the fact that wardrobing was an essential facet of the job, JBOG emphasized that an office wardrobe need not be expensive. As a result, JBOG accepted the low pay of clerical work and instead of encouraging women to ask for raises, it taught them to economize and bargain hunt. Even stories that emphasized the significance of fashion and being well dressed took pains to note that fashion sense was more a matter of taste than money. “Far more credit is due the woman who, with a limited clothes allowance, always creates the impression that she is well-dressed. Her appearance speaks for her own good taste, her own knowledge of value, and her own sense of what to wear and when to wear it,” proclaimed a cover article on the October 10, 1958, issue (“On Being Well-Dressed”). This reminded women that being well-dressed was a duty, insinuated taste to be an innate feminine characteristic, and prevented women from complaining that their meager salaries inhibited their ability to be fashionable. A 1960 article featuring Sally, “the perfect office girl,” described her as someone who “doesn’t spend much on clothes, but she’s always neat and dresses in good taste. The gentleness and kindness that shine from her eyes give her a beauty that’s rare these days” (“The Perfect Office Girl”). Other articles advised women to buy a few expensive basics and then provided details on what could be picked up at “bargain basements” without looking too cheap (“It’s Your Money: Dress for the Job”). Fashion sense even became proxy for striving and effectiveness. One 1960 article advised “the girls who wear mid or high heels are usually the ones who want to improve and do a little better job each day. The girls who wear flats are usually the ones who don’t care—about their job or their appearance” (“Get off the Ground”). The epideictic messages were clear—neat, fashionable women deserved praise.
JBOG also served up fashionable blame. It was rife with stories of working women who had been fired for appearing sloppy at work. One article from 1960 told of a worker who was a whiz at filing and efficient at work but was soon let go by her firm. The boss explained, “when she came for her interview, she was wearing a simple office dress. That was the first and last time I saw her look like a lady. From her first day on the job to the day I fired her, she wore sloppy sweaters and skirts and loafers, or shirts and skirts—not always clean—and a couple of times she came in wearing socks.” This boss noted that the secretaries in his office were “on display for clients and other visitors” (“Hired…and fired”). Articles like these echoed the idea that there was something ephemeral about a perfect clerical worker, and if sloppy dress could get one dismissed from a job, a snappy wardrobe became a duty like filing and typing. In fact, in this case, it was more important than being good at clerical tasks. The wardrobe also had to be appropriately feminine because, as the boss in this story emphasized, he needed the working woman to “look like a lady.” Thus, appropriately embodied clerical work behaviors were innately feminine.
Illustrations in JBOG supported these themes. The “I’m the gal…” boxes from the 1950s included images of women putting on makeup at their desk or appearing sloppy, with socks falling down their legs or wrinkled skirts. While most articles did not include pictures, each pamphlet had at least one cartoon. When shown in their daily duties in these cartoons, secretaries wore blouses, knee-length pencil skirts, and heels. They always had white skin and fashionable, bobbed or curled hair. When cartoons poked fun at secretaries and presented them as clearly unqualified, dress often paralleled cartoon text. Unqualified secretaries showed up in cartoons at personnel desks in low-cut dresses and flashy jackets, as in an October 30, 1962, issue.
Alongside the idea that taste was an innate feminine trait came hints that pursuing appropriate office fashion and femininity was, in fact, work. It required self-reflection and analysis. For instance, one article advised women to “Be yourself. But don’t be ridiculous.” Not being ridiculous, it seems, required that office women “analyze your own face and body type. Then look the new styles over and choose those that do the most for you.” “You’re not Jackie Kennedy [or] Liz Taylor,” this 1963 article admonished (“Two’s a Crowd”). The office guides emphasized that being a good secretary was not just about innate beauty “No woman is looking as well as she could unless she’s well groomed,” an article called “Are you Making the Most of What You’ve Got?” explained. One 1966 article entitled “Plain Jane—or Lazy Jane,” noted that “We owe it to ourselves and to those around us to develop whatever attributes we have, and to make the most of them.” In short, consciously or not, the office guides encouraged women to do uncompensated labor in striving to be on trend with fashion and beauty but still office appropriate. And in hinting that these behaviors were labor, JBOG made them an area for discipline and possible dismissal.
JBOG also took an epideictic approach to specific trends. The popularity of miniskirts in the 1960s prompted many columns warning women away from the style and urging them to select more timeless fashions instead (“Short Skirts Present Tall Problems”). A 1966 issue even told of working women in New York City who refused to sit down on the subway because their skirts were so short, they invited unwanted leers (“Skirting the Issue”). The pantsuit appeared in 1964, wherein it was roundly dismissed as “belong[ing] in the country—miles away from an office” (“Paris in the Office”). By 1970, many personnel directors had given their clerical workers permission to wear them as long as they took the same care they did with dresses (“The Midi”). “Before you decide the pantsuit is for you take a good look in a full-length mirror. Be sure you have the shape to wear pants to the office,” recommended another article (“More on Pantsuits”). Thus, as trends evolved, the message of JBOG stayed the same: the working woman must assess her strengths and select a feminine outfit that accentuated them appropriately. She must always embody tasteful femininity.
As a side effect of the focus on femininity, JBOG naturalized difference between men and women. Articles continually reminded women that they were not men and suffered from many weaknesses. The January 10, 1960, issue told women that they were absent from work twice as often as men. After listing the various causes, the article then detailed how to beat the most common culprits. Feminine gossiping was often cause for discipline as a number of articles reminded women to use caution when disclosing information. A 1962 article entitled “What Men Expect,” noted that “women, more than men, permit clashing temperaments and personalities to create unpleasant situations completely out of proportion to reality; situations which demand solutions from some poor, bedeviled male boss. Women also have an ugly habit of worming confidences out of one another and then spreading malicious gossip.” The January 25, 1960, issue, for instance, noted “The wise girl keeps her mouth shut about other people’s business” (“What Not to Say”). The implication was that women always loved to talk and gossip. Thus, along with requiring embodied femininity through fashion and grooming, JBOG emphasized differences between men and women, which reified the idea that clerical work must be done by women.
In sum, effective office work required a performance of embodied femininity through fashion and beauty habits that were deeply racialized. The implications were severe. Women were expected to spend resources and time performing this work outside of normal compensation structures. And for Black women, already earning the lowest wages, the work would have been both more extensive and more expensive as they fashioned their bodies to meet white, middle-class standards. Something else lurked in this embodied rhetoric, though. As historian Kathleen Barry shows in her study of flight attendants, throughout much of the twentieth-century, flight attendants were expected to perform a sexual availability based in glamour. Yet, in performing these duties in a seemingly natural fashion, women effectively undermined their claims to be actual workers with the right to organize for higher wages and better working conditions (121). In doing their jobs, they were performing gender, not labor. So, too, with clerical workers as the role was naturalized as female. The concluding section identifies other implications for this work-related rhetoric.
The Cold War Comes Home: Conclusions
This essay has examined socialization discourses geared toward clerical workers in the United States from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. The pamphlets analyzed here sidestepped controversy over working women by hailing a primarily unmarried, white, and always female work force. They also framed clerical work as a work of care, catering to mercurial and sensitive bosses and made performing racialized femininity a key component of the job as they extolled uncompensated labor in the form of wardrobing and beauty rituals. In sum, this essay pushes past rhetoric’s traditional focus on the rhetoric of labor organizing to explore how labor itself gets gendered.
Accordingly, this essay identifies the significance of how the public talks about labor to understanding how work is valued and compensated. Historically, work deemed to be “women’s work” has been degraded and underpaid (Cohen and Huffman 443). And, without a doubt, JBOG constituted clerical work as (white) women’s work and made gendered traits and behaviors endemic to effectively doing the job. Moreover, the pamphlets defined beauty routines and fashion consumption as obligations for clerical workers. Ambiguous, gender-based work is often not seen as work at all and never compensated (Wichroski 34). In casting a certain charm and look as part of the job, the pamphlets also provided cover for discrimination as largely white personnel managers sought people who met their standards of appropriate attractiveness, disadvantaging qualified Black women seeking to move into clerical work from service fields (Jones 305). Only the 1964 Civil Rights Act would begin to change this. In short, JBOG obfuscated what actually counted as work and made clear that doing uncompensated labor was required. Doing so protected visions of clerical work as a white, middle-class occupation and perhaps made women unlikely to see themselves as workers with a potential buy-in for labor organizing.
Likewise, though they encouraged bargain hunting, these pamphlets made clear that consumption was a part of the job as well. As a result, women’s identities as consumers seemed to overshadow their identities as workers even as they further racialized the job as white. Such a way of framing clerical work corresponded with Cold War discursive needs to praise female consumption and downplay work. As a result, here work and gender intertwined in the context of geopolitical struggle. Encouraging women to follow the dictates of the pamphlets not only served bosses seeking cheap productivity but also a government waging a propaganda war with the Soviet Union, where women worked in factories and at stereotypically male jobs given the lack of Russian men available to do these jobs.
JBOG served capitalist aims on another level, too. Despite the fact that the pamphlets cultivated a chatty relationship between the authors and readers, JBOG did little to build relationships among clerical workers themselves. While it counseled mutual respect, warned about gossip, and encouraged clerical workers to welcome newcomers, it never provided collective solutions to office problems. Instead, individual striving, prepared and careful conversations with the boss, and going above and beyond were the keys to success. In its individualism, it rhetorically confirmed the arguments of major unions that women were uninterested in and too hard to organize (Feldberg 151). Of course, low pay and the fact that many were in the workforce temporarily did make women hard to unionize. Moreover, clerical workers were geographically separated in different offices, an extra challenge, especially as the need for large typing and filing pools waned (Feldberg 158; Ladd-Taylor 467). Large unions like the AFL-CIO did not bang down doors to organize clerical workers and often demurred when women asked them to send in organizers. This was partially because men benefited from gendered divisions of labor as jobs coded masculine garnered higher wages and more respect (Cobble, “A Spontaneous” 39; Kessler-Harris, “Where Are” 97). Rhetorically, then, JBOG encouraged women to find power in femininity and patience, not in sisterhood or organization. Moreover, in making white women agents of racial capitalism, JBOG also perpetuated the exclusion of women of color from the office.
Despite these messages, in the mid- to late 1970s, groups seeking unionization of clerical workers sprang up to resist. These women were motivated to increase their wages, but also to demand respect for their profession and to change some of the most outmoded gendered elements (Cobble, “A Spontaneous” 31; Foner 480; Windham 154). They also sought more specific job descriptions to professionalize the work. By the 1980s, groups like 9to5 transformed notions of what bosses could fairly ask clerical workers to do. Clerical work groups in the 1980s could not solve all problems and the gains were mostly won by private, corporate secretaries and not the lower-paid women in typing pools, who were far more likely to be women of color (Cobble, “A Spontaneous” 32). As the 1980s ended, about sixteen percent of clerical workers were unionized, comparable to the U.S. population as a whole, although the overall decline of unionization in the private sector that began in the 1950s continued (Cobble, “A Spontaneous” 33). In line with the professionalization of the field, JBOG softened its gendered language, becoming Office Guide for Working Women in 1973 and just Office Guide by 1976. Yet, even the Office Guide assumed clerical work was a feminine endeavor as the beauty, exercise, and fashion tips remained. The Guide continued to preach moderation, dismissing “militant feminism” in the office as a “big problem” in 1975 (“What Would You Do?”) Yet, it did continue to adapt, shifting away from beauty tips by the 1980s and even recognizing in 1984 that most clerical workers bristled at being called “girl” (“‘My Girl’ Won’t Do”).
As Kyla Schuller explains, rhetorics such as the ones in JBOG continue a long trajectory of seeing femininity as tied to whiteness, rhetoric that justified abusing the labor of women of color (qtd. in Arjini). Of course, the weaponizing of white femininity is not confined to history as can be seen in the wake of protests to support Black lives. On a material level, while some laws now exist to protect equal access to work, women of color are still clustered in the lowest paying jobs in the U.S. workforce. Data unequivocally shows women of color continue to be paid less than white women and white men (Gould, Schieder, and Geier). Clerical work represents just one scene where the rhetorical entwining of femininity and whiteness has lasting consequences.
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