The “secretary” as the mid-century once knew her is forever gone. Like the stewardess, now called flight attendants, the position got a name change – to “office assistant” or “administrative assistant”. Plus, it stopped being solely the domain of woman… who were basically the sexy underlings. That’s not to say the old-school stewardesses and secretaries weren’t extremely vital and skilled – it’s just the very nature of the role has changed.
Indeed, even high level positions today often don’t have a secretary of any gender. It’s not exactly cost effective and with modern day technology there just isn’t much reason to have Jane “take a memo”. I have to believe that our forefathers’ offices had more than their share of secretaries – not because they were so damn efficient, but because…… well, that was the way things were done at the Gentlemen’s Club (AKA the midcentury office). Once, the office gender dynamics changed, women’s liberation arrived, and technology improved, the secretary as they knew it went extinct. Take note of this graph from Job Voyager demonstrating the rise and fall of the occupation…
You can see the secretary position had its heyday beginning prior to the 1950’s and kept climbing until 1970, when it went into free-fall off a cliff. The backstory: Our boys had come back from WWII and found women infiltrating the workforce; subsequently, Rosie the Riveter became Rosie the Stenographer. The meteoric rise of the secretary was born. Mad Men recreates this alien office world, so foreign to us today that it almost seems like it belongs on the Sci-Fi Channel (Err, umm, excuse me – Syfy Channel. Whatever).
In the 1950s and into the 1960s, men could smoke at their desks, but women had to go to a special lounge. If a woman got pregnant, she was expected to quit – no exceptions. The secretaries were expected to dress to the nine and do the bidding of the males in charge no questions asked. Changing careers to something more profitable and less demeaning was often not an option for these ladies – universities preferred to accept veterans, and the number of female collegians dropped sharply.
During the heyday of the vintage secretary they were often the object of jokes – the office secretary was the rival to the boss’ wife, the sexy young tart eager to drop into her boss’ lap at the snap of a finger.
The man tempted by the nympho secretary has been a trope for a long time. Attribute it to male fantasies or the fears of the women who stayed home while their husbands were “helped” by some high-heeled blonde with a typewriter – whatever the reason, the “secretary as seductress” was definitely a common midcentury theme.
As Al Bundy on Married… with Children once said:
“It used to be so great to be a man. Women were there to please us. They’d look after the kids and we go out and have a good time. That’s the natural order of things.”
Well, like it or not, those days are long since over. However, it’s still fun to travel down memory lane of steno pools of yesteryear. Here is a potpourri of secretarial images to put you back to a time when business men were starched-collar chauvinists and their secretaries were leggy tarts there to do their bidding. You know – as Al Bundy said – “the natural order of things.”
The secretary above is from 1964. I’m sure she served an essential function, but I’m equally sure one of her primary duties was in the role of eye candy.
From the 1972 film Au Pair Girls. The foxy secretary was on the decline in the early 1970s, but by no means extinct.
Two adverts for temp secretarial help – the left from 1962, the right from 1967.
“On-the-Job” Training includes “Dodging Groping Hands”, “Coping with Constant Ogling”, “Laughing Convincingly at Your Boss’ Terrible Jokes” and “Seamlessly Ignoring Inappropriate Comments”.
From the 1950s (Left) to the 1970s (Right), the nature of the position didn’t really change that much. In the 70s, the typewriters may have been electric and the bullet bras retired, but it was still the same as it had ever been. The computer revolution and the sexual revolution combined forces and changed the job forever.
What these poor ladies had to go through….. but then, let’s not paint them as hapless victims. Sure, they were bound by some unfair circumstances, but I’m sure life wasn’t pure harassment from 9 to 5….. right?
Linda Thorson in The Avengers (1968). In this episode she’s posing as a secretary who gets frozen in place by trance-inducing criminals disguised as Classy Glass Cleaning Co. Ltd. workers in order to swipe Cypher HQ secrets from the Ministry Of Top-Secret Codes, and er, um…. nevermind, it’s complicated.
How many times did men purposefully place vital documents up high for their secretaries to retrieve? The mind reels.
(‘Industry Week’ magazine. April 1970)
How strange it must have been at the crossover period – the transition years between the old-school secretarial world and the “enlightened” new and improved world. (Left) That awkward working relationship between female boss (gasp!) and foxy young secretary. (Right) A young man enters the secretarial field (the horror!) – imagine his boss’ surprise when, instead of a miniskirted lass, he’s assigned a bespectacled young man.
This 1949 issue of Eyeful magazine features a section where the reader is asked to find the mistake in the photo. Can you spot it?
Yep. She’s wearing one long sleeve and one short. (Bear in mind, the sole intent is to get some gams to the reader…. thoughtfully coming up with subtle mistakes was not a priority).
I found the image at left from a 1971 high school yearbook. By then, the idea of the secretary as unskilled sex-object was already a “thing” – not an admirable position amid the burgeoning women’s liberation movement.
(Left) From the National Police Gazette, August 1973. It’s a wonder any work got done back then.
“A Secretary Is Not A Toy” from How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying
A secretary is not a toy,
No, my boy, not a toy
To fondle and dandle and playfully handle
In search of some puerile joy.
No, a secretary is not,
Definitely not, a toy.
A secretary is not a thing
Wound by key, pulled by string.
Her pad is to write in
And not spend the night in.
If that’s what you plan to enjoy.
By the 1980s, the sexy secretary who serves her master in the corner office had become a distant memory, porn fodder, and the stuff of legend. A final thought before we part ways:
Can we trace the decline of American manufacturing prowess to the loss of secretaries. The reason? Many women in secretarial positions were way overqualified – especially at the executive level. Meanwhile senior management was filed (then as now) mostly by narcissistic dumbasses that got to their lofty positions purely on political shenanigans. With the secretaries removed, the last stronghold of common sense in many companies no longer existed, and the incompetence of senior management went unchecked.
Talk amongst yourselves. Cheers.