Why Every Man Wants One of These. (A Secretary, in Case You're Wondering); SOCIAL HISTORY SWIMMING IN THE STENO POOL

Daily Mail (London), November 25, 2011 | Go to article overview

Why Every Man Wants One of These. (A Secretary, in Case You're Wondering); SOCIAL HISTORY SWIMMING IN THE STENO POOL


Byline: By Lynn Peril (W.W. Norton, [pounds sterling]9.99 ? [pounds sterling]8.99) JANE SHILLING

DID anyone ever really aspire to be a secretary? Like waitress or barmaid, it is one of those transitlounge jobs, generally occupied by people hoping for an onward connection to somewhere more interesting.

Yet as Lynn Peril points out in her lively account of a century of secretarial work, to be a good secretary is one of the most demanding jobs imaginable, requiring the diplomacy of a UN special envoy, the tantrum-defusing calm of a super-nanny, an advanced grasp of office technology, the memory of an elephant and the linguistic skills of a fastidious grammarian.

'For over a century,' Peril writes, 'secretarial work has been extolled as a wonderful career opportunity for women -- and excoriated as dead-end work. Both characterisations are true.'

Work aside, there is the strangely contradictory image of the secretary: on the one hand the dowdy mouse who lovingly polishes the leaves of the office rubber plant before taking the bus home to an evening spent consuming a ready meal in front of the telly with only her pussy cat for company.

On the other, the office siren exemplified by Joan, the mesmerisingly voluptuous office manager of ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in the TV series Mad Men.

THESE contradictions combine to make the job of secretary seem unexpectedly intriguing -- a tantalising combination of low status and privileged information.

She (and even nowadays, Peril notes, secretaries are still overwhelmingly female) is the person who knows all the murkiest office secrets, but lacks the power to do anything with them (except, that is, withhold them -- Peril gives a fascinating account of the mysterious role in the Watergate Affair of President Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods. She it was who 'accidentally' deleted a substantial chunk of one of the President's highly incriminating secret tapes while transcribing it. Whoopsie!)

One way and another, the role of secretary is definitely ripe for analysis. Peril's book is subtitled A Retro Guide To Making It In The Office, which makes it sound misleadingly like a self-help book for would-be stenographers.

Actually it's a chirpy, gently satirical account of the outrageous sexism and other workplace horrors to which generations of bright young women with top-class shorthand and typing skills have been subjected over the decades.

Peril traces the birth of the secretary to the mid-19th century when Elias Spinner, the head of the U.S.

Treasury Department, found himself obliged by a shortage of men (they were all off fighting in the American Civil War) to hire women to trim the edges of paper money. …

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