In grade school, many of us were assigned book reports or projects that were meant to explore the biographies of famous historical figures. Following the assignment, the class proceeded to quarrel over who would cover George Washington, Thomas Edison or any of the other staple historical men on the long list, leaving girls like me to sit in the classroom straining to find an example of a famous female besides Amelia Earhart or Hellen Keller. New wave feminism seeks to recognize and bolster the past triumphs of equally inspiring women to educate future generations and help them in their book reports — empowering historic women and giving them the platform they were not allowed to assume during their time.
When thinking of female empowerment and its history, the role as a secretary in the 1950s and beyond might not be the first occupation that comes to mind. I would like to change that.
Produced in the 1870s, the Remington #2 and Sholes typewriters were typing machines capable of producing both capital and lowercase letters in a heavy metal frame meant for tabletops. They were new advents of technology that entered many offices once they hit the commercial space. Their introduction allowed for quick note-taking and record keeping of business practices and meetings, revolutionizing the office and overall conduct of business. At the same time, increased paperwork and typing technologies of the Industrial Revolution corresponded with a decreased need for full-time employees with full-time salaries. Yet training on the keys was a skill that took nimble fingers and high-speed accuracy. In “Manual of the Typewriter,” John Harrison explains that “the typewriter is especially adapted to feminine fingers. They seem to be made for typewriting.” As condescending as that sounds, it’s what opened the office door to women. Subsequently, the temporary female worker took over the industry all while being dressed in long petticoats and white gloves.
The temporary worker was a freshly independent woman entering the office for the first time since World War II, creating a new category of employee: the “Kelly Girl.” William Russell Kelly began Kelly Office Service in 1946, aiding booming Detroit businesses in the last-minute need for mathematically skilled and typewriting machine-trained workers. Instead of wealthy businessmen learning shorthand and sorting accounting records on their own, a Kelly Girl was ready at a moment’s notice to fill the seat in front of the office’s typewriter all while being paid around 61 cents to the male dollar. As fast as the strikers hit the ribbon, the role of secretary became synonymous with ‘female’ as, in the 1950s, 1.7 million women worked as stenographers, typists or secretaries. According to author Margery Davies, a woman’s place was not at home, but at the typewriter, and it couldn’t have been more refreshing yet completely misconstrued.
Kelly was the behind-the-desk embodiment of Rosie the Riveter, except Kelly was dressed in style and was only temporarily working until her kids needed to be picked up from school. This image was relentlessly marketed by the business industry, printing thousands of campaigns of Kelly Girls and “White Glove Girls.” Her image was sprawled across business magazines like the U.S. News & World Report, Good Housekeeping, Fortune, The New York Times and even The Michigan Daily, evoking marginalized respectability. This message conveyed in a pair of white gloves was no accident, glamorizing the job when in reality it was a role of family sustenance and self-fulfillment. In a research study conducted in the early 1960s, 73% of Kelly Girls reported that they worked “to earn money” while less than 15% worked for “relief from the boredom of housework.” Despite marketing advertisements depicting Kelly Girls as glorified assistants, they did not just work to buy cat-eyed glasses or saddle shoes. These women were trained and eager, entering the male-dominated office for the first time and not closing the office door behind them on their way out. Paid a fraction of a man’s salary and given a fraction of the respect, these women changed the world beyond just business.
My role model is my grandma, whom I call Grannie, considering she is the reason why my fingers strike the keyboard and my major is in business. I could not write a book report about her in grade school considering her role as a Kelly Girl is socialized to be viewed as marginal “women’s work” or “acceptable sexism.” I contend that female secretaries are worthy of being presented on, for they can be considered movers and shakers of business feminism that allowed for assistants to become bosses.
My grandma Patricia attended Detroit’s High School of Commerce. Four years of business and secretarial-focused curricula allowed for her mastery of the typewriter and shorthand, where she later moved on to work for Kelly Services. Her intelligence and sharp mind can be mistakenly downplayed, something modern feminists, like me, refuse to perpetuate. Her poise and humility are generationally inspiring, yet it is something she and many others do not recognize due to the lack of a college diploma or a high-paying salary. This shouldn’t be the case. The reason why women are no longer just filling assistant positions and instead are becoming CEOs is that intelligent, capable and inspiring women like my grandma opened the door to self-sufficiency and entered socialized sexism at its peak, only allowing for progressive ceiling-breaking to ensue in the years to follow.
In the 1970s, Boston secretaries formed 9to5, a group tasked with a mission to change female working conditions by demanding written job descriptions, equal pay and the destigmatization of the word secretary, among other pleas for equality. Following the grassroots movement came the catchy Dolly Parton song and hit movie, but its generational impact on modern women has been the greater catch.
Grannie was the launching point that allowed for the push for equity beyond her years. For that, our grandmothers and mothers should be celebrated for their worth that was at first not allowed to be fully realized.
Leaving behind the floor-length dresses and gloves, we should recognize that it was women like her that paved the way for business students like me to further transform the role of women in the office. Our gratitude should be paid towards those who came before us. The introduction of the typewriter is what allowed women to enter the office and to catch up to the heightening glass ceiling with immense speed and finger dexterity. Although the typewriter is widely regarded as obsolete, the revolution it caused has simply manifested into the MacBook I am typing this article on and will change the world with.
Julia Maloney is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.