Women's Work: The Feminization and Shifting Meanings of Clerical Work

By England, Kim; Boyer, Kate | Journal of Social History, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Women's Work: The Feminization and Shifting Meanings of Clerical Work


England, Kim, Boyer, Kate, Journal of Social History


Introduction

For nearly a century, clerical work has been the archetypal paid job for women in North America. Initially dominated by men, clerical occupations quickly became among the most gender-segregated of all jobs: numerically dominated by women and discursively marked as 'women's work'. Three generations of women's magazines portrayed clerical work as 'the' job for middle-class women, while also being a reachable goal for daughters of the working-class. The expansion of clerical work has been intimately wrapped up with the growth of women's paid work in Canada and the US more generally, thus an analysis of clerical work reflects a wider cultural history of women's paid work outside the home. Moreover, clerical work captures some of the major cultural, social and economic changes to have shaped the late nineteenth and twentieth century, including the shift to a service-based economy powered by huge corporations, the decline of unionized blue-collar jobs, rapid technological change, and of course, the massive influx of women into paid work.

Scholarship on the feminization of clerical work and the production of gender relations in the white collar workplace tends to focus either on the 'early' period from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s, or on the period since the 1970s. (1) As a result, these studies analyze clerical work under relatively stable social and economic circumstances. While existing studies provide richly textured accounts of the feminization of clerical work at various points in time, our study adds to existing scholarship by analyzing this transformation over a much broader sweep of time: from the late nineteenth century through to the early twenty-first century. Our discussion is broken out into three time-periods: the late nineteenth century to the 1930s, mid-century to the early 1970s; and the 1970s to the present. This broader and more nuanced periodization enables us to consider how meanings about clerical work have changed across time and under very different social and economic conditions. We argue that even as the idea of clerical work as 'women's work' has proven to be a remarkably durable formulation, the content of what this means has shifted considerably under different social and economic contexts.

Our analysis is based on previous studies and additional evidence from the US and Canada. Although these countries obviously have distinct histories (including somewhat different patterns of immigration and public attitudes about race and ethnicity), we decided to consider them together for various reasons. First, the rise of clerical work is deeply interwoven with the rapid urbanization of North America, and the two countries experienced similar kinds of urban development at roughly the same time, translating into comparable kinds of urban experiences on both sides of the border, especially when compared with other countries. Second, the financial service sectors in both countries expanded and feminized at about the same time, leading to comparable kinds of work experiences, and again this is different than the European case, where these processes took place later. We suggest that for the purposes at issue here, these similarities outweigh the differences, and allow for a farther reaching investigation. Our analysis is based on primary and secondary data from both countries. In addition to reviewing and re-situating existing studies, we use our own findings based on a range of data. Some data were gathered from the published Canadian and US Census (see Figure 1 and Table 1). We collected a 10 percent sample (N = 5,491) from the 1901 unpublished nominal census for Montreal and this provides a demographic profile of women at the turn of the twentieth century. (2) We performed textual analyses of documents and personnel files gathered from the archives of seven key Canadian banks and insurance companies. (3) We also conducted a secondary analysis of oral histories collected by the first author in the mid-1980s with 28 white women clerical workers in a Mid-Western U. …

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