MPB is proud to be the world's most popular men's sewing blog!



Mar 16, 2011

Whither the Secretary?


Friends, is anybody a secretary anymore?

In these days of internet, iPhones, Blackberries, etc., is there really any need for somebody to answer phones, take a letter, or make photocopies?

I don't know anybody who works as a secretary today, and the people I know who work in Corporate America tell me they're even firing the front office receptionists.  If your job description includes making coffee and taking dictation, good luck!

It seems the secretary has been relegated to the "naughty" Halloween costume aisle, alongside the "naughty" nurse and French maid.  Camp.

Like the American male, union, blue collar worker, the "girl secretary" was more than just an employee -- she was part of Twentieth-Century American culture.  She embodied one of the primary paths to women's economic and social emancipation.

There were secretary magazines, secretary dresses, secretary fiction, and of course, secretary movies!





Ginger Rogers won an Academy Award in 1940 for her portrayal of secretary Kitty Foyle in a moving morality tale about the temptations to which working women were vulnerable.  (BTW, he won't leave his wife -- ever.)


Joan Crawford played an ambitious secretary in Grand Hotel, one of her most famous roles, repeated by Lana Turner in Week-end at the Waldorf.


Remember Edie Adams as Fred MacMurray's world-weary secretary in The Apartment?  Marvelous and heart-breaking!  (And he still won't leave his wife.)


The stereotype of secretary as temptress and potential home-wrecker was everywhere in vintage Hollywood movies and TV.  How many movies and sitcom episodes revolved around the husband hires beautiful new secretary and wife pitches a fit story?  Too many to count!

The no-nonsense, smarter-than-the-boss secretary was another beloved icon -- Eve Arden made an entire career out of playing these types of women.


On TV there was Ann Sothern...


...and Doris Day -- who in movies played career women with big jobs (remember Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back?), but on the small screen took a demotion.


And of course, Mary Tyler Moore.  Mary eventually rose through the ranks to become Executive Producer, but she still had to make the coffee.


Secretary styles influenced women's wear for decades -- shirtwaists and modest frocks meant for the working woman.  Many were actually called secretary dresses on the pattern.


Ambitious secretaries might read Today's Secretary magazine, where she could learn important tips for improving her skills, pleasing her boss, and looking her prettiest.


She'd see ads like these.  Was she using the latest office equipment?


Today there's tremendous nostalgia for secretary style and there are actually entire sewing blogs dedicated to cultivating the vintage secretary look!  There's much less nostalgia for the job itself however.


In closing friends, were you or someone you love ever a secretary?  (I was, in the Eighties, for the president of a university press.)

How do you feel about secretaries -- was the job a convenient way to keep women with professional aspirations in their place, or was it a true pathway for women into the professional world?  (Or both?)

Who are your favorite secretaries from movies and TV?  Were you ever influenced by them, either in your style or your professional ambitions?

I want to hear from you -- but don't forget to take lunch, hon!

56 comments:

  1. I wasn't a secretary, I was an administrative assistant (last 2 words in italics). And no, it wasn't a pathway to professionalism, it was permanent typecasting.

    ReplyDelete
  2. We are out here. We aren't called secretaries. We are referred to as administrative assistants or such. I am the front office administrator. I have no illusions that I'm not a secretary

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think the role of a secretary varies vastly depending on the type of company you work in, in smaller companies they seem to be much more valued for their ability to have anything thrown at them at any time and deal with it.

    In larger companies (I work for Colliers real estate in the UK - not as a secretary thoguh) they see to be treated as subordinates only there to do whatever the boss wants doing, as if they are intellectually incapable of anything else...

    As for fashion, Joans character in Mad Men was summed up perfectly in one episode where the guys state all women want to be either a Jackie Kennedy or a Marilyn Monroe:

    "Well , Marilyn's really a Joan, not the other way around"

    ReplyDelete
  4. As an attorney, I have always had a secretary, though the PC job title is administrative assistant. I don't think there was anything derogatory about the original term, but what do I know.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I get called a "secretary" all the time. I don't mind being called a secretary, it makes what I do sound somewhat glamorous, more so than "front desk clerk at a mechanics shop" :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. My favourite secretary is Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Steven Shainberg's Secretary http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0274812/ - I never worked as one, but I love the fashions and appreciate the work ethics that often went hand-in-hand with that role.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Yes, I'm a legal secretary. Have worked as a legal assistant, which is more like a paralegal plus secretary.

    ReplyDelete
  8. My mother in law has been a secretary since she gave birth to my husband, and she still is one. She works at a law firm. When I used to work at law firms (once as "Front Desk Personal" for a firm that split, then later, the Office Manager from that firm called me and invited me to work in the accounting department of the new firm she was working at, so I guess it was a stepping stone) they called the women/men (there was like 1 guy) secretaries, all the lawyers referred to them as secretaries. I'm sure their official job title was different. But they were always referred to as secretaries, either because they were old school, or because they weren't beating around the bush.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Don't forget Jane Hathaway from the Beverly Hillbillies! She was the epitome of efficiency and professionalism.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Our institutional euphemism is "office specialist".

    I temped as a secretary at an accounting firm, a computer education sire, and a hospital a little over a decade ago.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I work in an insurance office and have no delusions, no matter what my business card says, that I am a secretary. I make the coffee, take out the trash, vacuum floor, make copies, type letters, fix the computers, sell policies, service policies, take payments, answer the phone, and the list could go on all day. Being a secretary is really more a "Girl Friday" job than ever before. If it needs doing I get it done.

    Lana
    hillraised.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  12. My father owned an insurance agency and had a secretary. Her name was Mrs. Shepard and she was kind of like a part of the family. Not that she ever came to functions of ours or anything, but at the dinner table each night it was Mrs. Shepard this, Mrs. Shepard that.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I also forgot Janet Leigh in "Psycho" -- we all know what happened to HER!

    ReplyDelete
  14. I'm a secretary, as well. I do, indeed, make coffee, take dictation, and even pick up dry cleaning.

    I abhor the title "administrative assistant." It's just some PC title designed to make women feel better about themselves. It's silly. I'm a secretary, I'm good at what I do, and I see no shame in the title.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Our (very large) company still has executive assistants for the upper management. But it's usually one woman working for 2 or 3 execs. She's really more of a gatekeeper/scheduler than a typist/phone answerer. It's always struck me as a tough job - the EA needs to keep everyone organized, and they need to make sure that if something is truly urgent it gets to the right person at the right time. And of course, everyone thinks that their issue is the moast urgent in the whole company...

    ReplyDelete
  16. Della Street for Perry Mason too :)

    ReplyDelete
  17. My aunt graduated from the University of Chicago in the 1920's. After graduation, her job choices were teaching or becoming a secretary. She tried teaching, disliked it, and spent the rest of her life until retirement as a secretary, ending as secretary to the president of a large corporation. She was a brilliant woman and I'm sure was far more capable than any of her bosses.
    Those were indeed the bad old days.

    Lana from Illinois

    ReplyDelete
  18. Well, the male dream of a secretary must have been MM in Monkey business or am I wrong?

    And I used to work as a secretary/assistant/office manager for quite some time - bringing the coffee was voluntary to keep my boss in a better ;-) And my job was appreciated as - despite all the electronic gadgets - a lot of male and female bosses have difficulties getting everything done without help. You do not want to talk to everybody who calls. You do not want to order paper and pens. You do not want to keep track of everybody who applies for a job. There is in fact a lot you don't or can't do. That's where the secretary comes in ...

    ReplyDelete
  19. You did not mention my personal favorite secretary movie, Nine to Five.

    When I worked in finance, everyone was terrified of the secretaries. They could make your life hell like no one else. Something about having a lot of power and not making much money...

    ReplyDelete
  20. My mother made a good living as a legal secretary. She had not worked for 18 years but needed to after my parents divorced. The loss of secretarial jobs is another example of the loss of living wage jobs for those without a college degree. I work in healthcare and often the "unit secretary" is the first job cut in hospitals. Nurses then have to spend time away from patient care. My company laid off the person who dictated all my health evaluation reports. Apparently they would rather pay me a much higher rate to type for 30 minutes than what I could dictate in ten. I say: Bring back secretaries!!!

    ReplyDelete
  21. @ couturearts: My boss said the best advice his mother ever gave him was to be nice to janitors and secretaries. She said they hold the keys, literally and figuratively, to everything you want.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Well, you know the word "secretary" originates from "secret" -- that is, someone one entrusts with confidential information. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

    secretary
    late 14c., "person entrusted with secrets," from M.L. secretarius "clerk, notary, confidential officer, confidant," from L. secretum "a secret" (see secret). Meaning "person who keeps records, write letters, etc.," originally for a king, first recorded c.1400. As title of ministers presiding over executive departments of state, it is from 1590s. The word also is used in both French and English to mean "a private desk," sometimes in French form secretaire (1818).

    My mother, who was born in 1922, was a secretary on and off for many years. She was good at it, but I wouldn't say she embraced the role. It was just a job to her. My sisters and I (ages 50 and up) all did stints as secretaries at various times but went on to higher level jobs. I personally have never worn anything like those little dresses for work. One of the chief benefits of all of the jobs I've had is that I haven't had to wear pantyhose or heels.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I am a secretary and I too hate the term administrative assistant. Doesn't change the job I do or who I am. Although, just to be silly, I sometimes call myself an Administratrix. As long a there are absent minded professors and harried executives, there will be secretaries.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I am a secretary, even though they call us Administrative Assistants. I enjoy the work, and have no ambition to have more responsibility and more headaches. I keep track of (computer) files, collect and collate reports, and keep my bosses' calendars. No cute dresses though, and I was upset when the canceled casual Friday (jeans!).

    ReplyDelete
  25. I too am a secretary; I sort of fell into it when I was trying to become a Great Opera Star -- and when that idea became less attractive, I already had a resume so secretary I remained. I worked in law for over twenty years and now work for a health system affiliated with a large midwestern university. My title is actually 'Administrative Assistant Senior' but Secretary is the real gig. I don't mind it a bit; I'm responsible for making sure everything and everybody is where it/they need to be, I'm good at it and feel duly appreciated.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Secretarial work paid a lot of bills for me and my family. AFter I left graduate school just shy of an M.A. in history, there weren't a lot of options (1973). I worked hard to learn to be a good secretary; worked in banks, law firms, for a couple nonprofits and architects. It always astounded me to meet people who thought it was an easy job to do and should be handed out to unskilled people who couldn't be polite on the phone, type, or write. It also taught me that ignorant people can be casual about manners, and get much worse service. I was glad to work hard for people who appreciated my effort and skill, and glad to leave the job and have less dealing with the rude types who think a college degree gives them the right to be awful people. I'm a better person for it and did enjoy dressing up, especially as a legal secretary--tho the fun wears a little thin as one ages. Now I teach college students and appreciate the staff who help me get my job done better.

    ReplyDelete
  27. It's unfortunate that people in positions such as administrative assistant and secretary, etc. are still considered to be less valued than other people within the company. I've seen more than one situation in which the front desk receptionist/secretary/admin asst. have been able to make or break the entire work flow and overall atmosphere in the office/company. Unfortunately, most people view that position as nothing more than entry level monkey work, but the truth is that the right person can keep things organized and running smoothly. I look at that person more as a pilot- they are guiding the company through turbulence and clear skies with the same level of professionalism and level-headedness no matter what. It's always a more difficult job than people give credit for, and so they are often extremely under-appreciated. Unlike a pilot, who is often revered for his/her work, the admin asst. is often overlooked. I've never been one myself, but as I said before, I've seen how crucial a good one is.

    Stepping off my soap box now... lol

    Anyway, I'm a huge fan of the fashions- especially the vintage ones. Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  28. Yes, Peter, I was a secretary. I studied in a secretarial program at a technical college. After I got married, I worked for 5 years across the GW brige in NJ for the president of a small manufacturing/import firm.

    He was a demanding and temperamental boss who treated me like I had no brain of my own. I made his coffee (I don't even like coffee... I hope his was awful). But it paid better than what I'd expected to earn and it helped me support my hubby while he finished college.

    We moved away after hubby graduated. I received a phone call about a year later that my old boss had died of a heart attack. I learned that since I'd been gone he'd "gone through" about six different secretaries. Guess sometimes you don't miss what you have until it's gone.

    Now I'm a NYS CPA, retired (and still married to the same man after nearly 40 years). It was a foot in the door, but not a job I'd like to do forever. But I have tremendous respect for the women (and men) who do the job under a variety of titles today.

    ReplyDelete
  29. I was a secretary in the early '80s. It was a job I truly loved and a great foot-in-the-door at the time. Check any legal office and you'll find that secretaries are still alive and well.

    ReplyDelete
  30. The job of secretary was originally considered to be a male position. New technologies in the field (like typewriters) were viewed as unisex and helped to make it socially acceptable for women work as secretaries. Women grabbed the chance to get some cushy, better paying jobs! They quickly hit a glass ceiling, of course, but early on it was a true opportunity.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Speaking as a lawyer, I'd be totally and completely lost without my legal secretary. She's probably the most important member of my team, since she's involved in every aspect of what we do. I make it a point to take her to lunch every month or every other month just to check in and make sure everything is going okay.

    My assistant is my go-to person on getting anything done within the firm. Externally facing, she's much easier to get in touch with than I am at any given time, so if I have a deal or a controversy that is going strong, I will give my clients her direct dial information. She always knows how to track me down. She reviews everything we send out to make sure that it's consistent, and she does a great job handling file administration and scheduling.

    One of the things that really impressed me about my current firm when I was interviewing was that most of the administrative staff (secretaries, records team, accounting team) have been here for a long time (20+ years in some cases). They have a high degree of professionalism and really take pride in what they do. "stuff" always rolls downhill too, so if it were a toxic environment they'd be most likely to pick up and leave.

    I've worked in environments where the secretaries/administrative assistants were resentful and/or incompetent. It is impossible to provide effective client service in that environment because you have high dollar per hour people doing things that need to be done but are not value added to a client (so you can't bill it out).

    I completely agree with the comment about being nice to janitors and secretaries -- they're ultimately important members of your team and really should be treated more respectfully than sometimes happens.

    okay.. I'll get off my soapbox and let someone else have a chance...

    ReplyDelete
  32. "Admin Assistant"? How about "amanuensis"? We have a ton of secretaries/admins where I work and they are absolutely invaluable. They do A LOT and most of their bosses couldn't live without them.

    ReplyDelete
  33. I worked as an Executive Assistant before. This position required a 4 year degree. It was more of an "office manager" as well. I feel that I ran things and just had my boss sign off on decisions I made! LOL

    ReplyDelete
  34. You're missing Barbara Stanwyck from Baby Face that starts off as a Secretary and sleeps her way to the top. Mind you her goal was to be a mistress, but a goal none the less.

    My mother was a secretary at West Point in the 70s. She lasted a long time, surprisingly so since she told me how strict it was. The margins of paperwork would get measured and if it was an fraction of an inch off she would have to retype it all over again. Gosh, I love the computer age.

    ReplyDelete
  35. I might be the oldest secretary in captivity!

    I am a secretary/bookkeeper/office manager/receptionist and have been for 24 years. I'm 58.

    I really don't care for the titles used now to describe secretarial work, just seems so pretentious, as if being referred to as a "secretary" is not prestigious enough. Being called a secretary is fine with me.
    However, occasionally one of the vendors we do business with will refer to his secretary as "my girl" and that makes my head damn ear explode.
    Mermie

    ReplyDelete
  36. I was a secretary in the 70s. Had to quit in order to transition into a better job, those were totally dead-end. And that was in the better days, post-feminism, where coffee was rare.. My mother was a secretary in the 40s and 50s, and that was a lot less fun.
    As to secretaries being home wreckers, that's a convenient fiction for the boys. The experience of the women I saw around me were largely being very vulnerable to the crassest forms of sexual harrassment. It was practically invented for us, women who totally depended on their job for a living. May they all roast in voice-mail hell..

    ReplyDelete
  37. If you want even more of a specific blast from the past, in my old job (as a receptionist/office assistant) my formal job title was "stenographer". (I did not, for the record, ever take notes in or out of shorthand). I was called a "steno", as in "get the steno to type it up for us." ...This was in 2005.

    ReplyDelete
  38. If the secretary positions are drying up, I think they are being replaced by customer service jobs. And the tasks can be the same, depending on the particular job...you're just being a secretary to all the clients instead of a handful of people (or one person). From my experience there are tons of young women(and men) who are out there in customer service jobs, being crappily paid.

    ReplyDelete
  39. I will echo the comments of those who say be nice to the secretaries and janitors. As a teacher, I know those are the people who really get things done in the day to day function of the school.

    Peter, did you forget about the classic movie "Nine to Five" where Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton lived out every abused underlings fantasy about their boss. That's still one of my favorites.

    ReplyDelete
  40. Guys, of course through the course of my day I thought of a zillion secretary movies -- though I'll admit 9 to 5 was not one of them. Oh well.

    Thanks for all the great comments. Obviously it's premature to write an epitaph for the secretary!

    ReplyDelete
  41. administrative assistant, secretary, office manager .. its all the same. It crazy at my company They require a Masters from a top school to be the admin for an office or executive. the sad thing is the degree brings in people who have ego problems and quit within a year. the few legacy admins with good backgrounds and less education are the backbone of the company. now if they would notice that and hire skilled candidates vs academic snobbery

    ReplyDelete
  42. I was a secretary for an architect, in my first proper job after leaving school. My boss's worst trait (after making me lie to his wife about where he was at any given time - for no good reason that I could see: he wasn't doing anything interesting) was his constant (weekly) habit of buying expensive homewares and then making me take them back to the store for a refund. So annoying!

    I love Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary, and of course the lovely Christina Hendricks.

    ReplyDelete
  43. I worked as a secretary for an Interior Design Department for the Building Management Authority. They were responsible for designing the interior decor of government buildings, libraries, schools, etc.

    My boss would often break down and cry because of the fabrics that were ordered. He would go into a tirade about the drab colors and unimaginative designs that he refused to work with. I would type out all the reports listing the paint colors, upholstery fabrics to be used, furniture, drapes etc.

    Once he gave me an envelope with a gold button, and sent me into town to find an exact match.

    He also thought he was an adonis. He was Greek, and everyone swooned over him. I had to make his coffee, not wear perfume because it clashed with his cologne, he hated any flowery smells.

    Nobody liked him, and he was also deceitful with regards to cheating. I didn't stay there very long.
    Everyone else was lovely.

    ReplyDelete
  44. I was an Executive Assistant for 15 years, and always enjoyed my job while I was working for what I call The Old White Hairs. I always felt appreciated by the men I supported and I always felt respected. It wasn't until I worked for a female executive that I hated my job. Now that I no longer work in that industry, I know that I will never go back - even though the money was really good, I had a nice stable weekday schedule - great vacation, retirement, etc. Working for that woman was the proverbial straw.

    Now I'm back in school and on my way to other things.

    ReplyDelete
  45. I teach in a large TAFE (community college) and I depend on the help of admin people (women) and IT people (men). I give the admin people chocolates at Christmas, and I give the IT people all the leftovers from catered events during the year. The women help me because it is their job, and the men help me because I give them food.

    ReplyDelete
  46. hehe I will skip the first question, too many memories... now it's not called secretary, the word just does not appeal anymore but job description stays the same no matter how you call it... and there's a movie I recommend that has the same name, 2002;)

    sorry I don't stop by so often nowadays, sewalongs make me hide,it feels like skipping classes at school! I am afraid I could enjoy them too much like a guilty pleasure so I stay away;)

    ReplyDelete
  47. Editors often start as secretaries. I was my husband's secretary. And, you're wrong, they do quite regularly these days.... Films are morality tales to keep the lower orders in their place. They are not true, Peter. You know that, don't you?

    ReplyDelete
  48. Even Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?

    ReplyDelete
  49. couturearts is right, the best ever secretary movie is 9-5. I had the pleasure of seeing its opening along with my company's secretaries, and a few of the boys. In a theater that held close to a thousand people. We all screamed with delight through the whole thing, and the boys were looking a bit green around the gills when we saw them at the end.. Imagine that.

    ReplyDelete
  50. My official title is PTF Clerk within the USPS.
    Since I do everything and (almost) anything, I suppose I am the secretary to the PM.
    Which makes her Dr. Jeckll because I cannot bring myself to get her coffee or pick up her numerous stinkin' coffee cups. I'm a rotten secretary, I know.
    9 to 5 was outrageously good but my first admiring secretary experience was Della Street on Perry Mason on KPTV 12 at noon which we were allowed to watch when we were staying home sick from school.

    ReplyDelete
  51. Synchronicity is at work (maybe it's got to do with International Women's day?). I missed the MPB shirt sew- along, but have just started on a shirt. Crisp black cotton with white pinstripes, white cotton collar and French cuffs and eventually some cufflinks out of vintage rectangular black buttons. Though it’s nothing like the costumes she wore in the film, when I decided on it, I was channelling Joan Blondell in ‘Footlight Parade’ in the role of Cagney’s smart-talking good hearted best-pal organiser/ assistant whose gumption saves the show. I hope the shirt will look just a little like the illustration on the vintage S4465, though in fact it’s a modified version of a current pattern –V1033. I’m also hoping that wearing it will somehow create a million new neurone connections so that I stop forgetting where my spectacles have gone …..Oh there they are on my nose….

    ReplyDelete
  52. My mother actually went to school to become a secretary, in the '60s. In her mid-60s now, she's a legal secretary currently, very near to retiring. She was also a baton twirler in high school,on the synchronized swimming team in college, and the president of her sorority--all of which seem so mid-last century to me. And though she's not exactly a fashion icon now, looking at her pictures from her 20's, and what little clothing from that time she still kept (for reasons unknown), she was once very stylish and fashion-forward. I wonder if they covered fashion in Secretary School? I'll have to ask.

    ReplyDelete
  53. People who work for a living, especially those in this profession might not appreciate this, Peter. I know I don’t.

    http://www.iaap-hq.org/

    http://www.theaeap.com/default.aspx

    http://www.asaporg.com/

    ReplyDelete
  54. Lorrwill, I value my readers opinions tremendously and I am sorry you were offended. This piece is a tribute to a generation of women who held very narrowly proscribed jobs and were held back by virtue of their sex. Many highly intelligent, capable people -- male and female -- still work as secretaries and assistants, but the secretary as she was portrayed in the popular culture of the last century is -- if not entirely extinct -- on her way out, in my opinion.

    ReplyDelete
  55. I am a secretary! Sure after four years of college ending with a Bachelor's and year of graduate school I find the title a little demeaning. But over the last year I have taken to wearing fitted clothing and heels; completing most outfits with red lipstick. I figure if I am going to be called a secretary I am going to play up the image.

    ReplyDelete
  56. A great book for those interested in secretary as cultural icon is Lynn Peril's "Swimming in the Steno Pool," a kind of cultural history. And since she supports her writing habit by working as a secretary in a law office, she knows what she's talking about.

    ReplyDelete
Related Posts with Thumbnails