Woman as Machine: Representation of Secretaries in Interwar Magazines

By Marcellus, Jane | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Woman as Machine: Representation of Secretaries in Interwar Magazines


Marcellus, Jane, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Magazine representation of secretaries and telephone operators during the 1920s and 1930s depicted expectations about technology, sexuality, and domesticity. Using semiotic analysis, this article examines editorial copy and advertisements in Forbes, Ladies' Home Journal, and The American Magazine. In the dominant media image, the secretary was a sexualized machine whose individuality was nullified and whose domestic role was emphasized. Operators were subjected to sexism as well, but had more autonomy.

Between 1870 and 1930, the number of female typists and stenographers in the United States grew from fewer than ten to more than 750,000.1 In increasingly complex, newly mechanized offices, women found that their chances for upward mobility were far fewer than they had been for the male scriveners who preceded them. Office work became unmistakably feminized. "Woman's place," historian Margery Davies wrote, was as naturally at the typewriter as it was at the kitchen sink.2

Women's workplace presence grew more prominent during the 1920s because of postwar business expansion and changing social attitudes. During the Depression, controversy arose over women working while men were unemployed. The magazine industry flourished in the decades between World War I and World War II, with the average family reading about seventy issues per year in the early 1940s, up from just under twelve issues yearly in 1919.3 Yet how to portray employed women, particularly secretaries, posed a problem for editors and advertisers who had long prescribed proper feminine behavior and for advertisers who used social tableaux to sell their products.4 Idealized femininity was increasingly bound to women's role as consumer.5 As Carolyn Kitch contended, many present-day media stereotypes of women emerged in early twentieth-century magazines.6

As the economy expanded in the 1920s, President Calvin Coolidge told the American Society of Newspaper Editors that "the chief business of the American people is business."7 Women had won the vote in 1920 and were using their postwar social freedom to take more jobs. Companies hired multitudes of women to be telephone and telegraph operators as well as clerks and bookkeepers.8 However, domesticity was emphasized during the Depression as social pressure and public policy urged women to give up their jobs to men. Notably, section 213 of the 1932 Economy Act barred both partners in a marriage from holding federal jobs. Although section 213 did not mandate that the wife lose her job, that was often the case because men usually made more money. Local governments and private industries followed suit.9

Meanwhile, scientific management theories such as Taylorization dominated workplace protocol. Standardized routines, strict division of labor, and cooperation rather than individualism were emphasized. Workers' movements were scrutinized in "time and motion" studies that set rates of production.10 According to Donna Haraway, the human being between the wars was seen in "managed capitalist terms" as a physiological organism that must be adapted to society's needs. She wrote:

Nature was a problem in test design. Adaptivity meant solving the problem of the rational control of nature on the level of individual organisms. . . .By the 1930s, human engineering in the form of personnel management integrated the methods of physical, biological, and social sciences in order to produce harmony, team work, and adjustment. . . .Co-operation most certainly included rational organization of head and hand, of subordination and dominance, of instinct and mind.11

Literature Review

According to Davies, a combination of patriarchy and capitalism brought about the feminization of clerical work. Elyce Rotella argued that women were desirable employees because they could learn typing in school and transfer the skill from firm to firm. Companies avoided training costs, and female employees were cheaper, since it was legal to pay them less than men.

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