Lisa M. Fine
In 1885, a young, single, white, native-born woman named Isabel Wallace did something that was still considered quite unusual in its time; she took a job as a clerical worker in Chicago. Isabel, who lived with her mother and apparently needed to help supplement the small family's income, took a temporary position as a copyist in an office in Chicago where her uncle already worked. (Copyists copied letters and other important documents into large ledger books in the era before typewriters, carbon paper, and photocopying.) Even though Isabel was grateful for the job, she expressed some anxiety writing to her mother. "The desks are comfortable, the chairs, etc. light, good, and the room well heated," and "there seemed a pleasant set of ladies," but, " [I] felt like somebody else all day. Out of my element and sphere somehow. It made me feel less womanly and somehow as if I was doing something I didn't approve of. I suppose it's because it's in the Court House and in an office."
Throughout much of the twentieth century, office work was considered one of the most natural jobs for women. Along with nursing and teaching, office work was one of those jobs where a female worker was assumed. This gender association was the product of history. Throughout much of the nineteenth century the image of a clerk was a man. But, by the end of the nineteenth century in large cities like Chicago this association began to change and young women like Isabel Wallace were in part responsible. When Isabel Wallace penned these lines to her mother, she probably did not realize that she was a pioneer and that her painful and tentative steps into the office would help not only to change office work into woman's work, but also initiate a transformation of urban spaces in cities like Chicago, making the city more accommodating to women's daily presence. Young women like Isabel Wallace helped to open up an array of office jobs to women workers, and woman's work in the city, for better or for worse, would never be the same.
In Isabel's day, office work was very different than we think of it today, especially because it was still primarily a man's job. Before the widespread use of the typewriter (during the 1890s) and its association with stenography, most office workers were copyists, file clerks, and bookkeepers. In 1880 in Chicago, almost 90 percent of the 1,120 office workers listed in the census were male. The huge increase in the number of office workers between 1880 and 1890 (from 1,120 to 41, 015), due to the creation of the position stenographer/typist, doubled women's percentage of the office work labor force to 21 percent. And this started an unstoppable trend. By 1920, the number of office workers in the city approached 200,000, with women comprising half of the labor force.
These statistics reveal that two very big changes occurred between 1880 and 1930. First, the numbers of office workers increased dramatically, the result of the industrial and commercial growth of Chicago and its importance as a headquarters city for many national corporations. The first skyscrapers were built in Chicago because of the demand for office space in the bustling downtown (and to rebuild in steel after the great fire of 1871.) While the streams of immigrants from abroad and migrants off the land provided the labor for industrial establishments, young, single, white, native-born women, usually with some high-school education, provided the white collar, recordkeeping services for the bureaucratic divisions of corporate America.
The second great change was the entrance of women into these new office jobs.
There was nothing pre-ordained or natural about women taking positions in what was essentially an entirely new white-collar sector of the labor force. Women had not traditionally held these kinds of jobs before. They did not have qualities deemed by Victorian society to render them naturally qualified (such as teaching or domestic service), and there were many obstacles to overcome. When Isabel Wallace described that she felt out of her sphere, she was articulating a generally recognized concept of women's sphere many in society understood to mean that woman's place was in the home, tending to her husband, household duties, and children. Respectable women would certainly not mingle with men of indeterminate backgrounds and classes in the public
spaces of the office or any of the other public spaces that women would need to traverse to get to the office or inhabit when remaining downtown during the day—the street, mass transit, and restaurants. In fact, many downtown restaurants during this period were saloons that provided a free lunch for the price of a beer, not exactly a haunt for a respectable lady. Even Progressive-era reformers such as Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House, doubted whether women's entrance into business offices for these jobs was truly progress. In her famous book A New Conscience and An Ancient Evil, written in 1912, Addams claimed that these girls were in danger of falling "into a vicious life from the sheer lack of social restraint... [P]erhaps no young woman," Addams continued, "is more exposed to the temptation of this sort than the one who works in an office where she may be the sole woman employed and where the relation to her employer and to her fellow-clerks is almost on a social basis .. .The girl is without the wholesome restraint afforded by the companionship of other working women and her isolation in itself constitutes a danger."
This rising tide of women in office work, however, could not be turned back. Rather, as women flooded into business office and the schools that trained them for these jobs, they transformed the occupation and the city. That women were able to take these new white-collar jobs should be understood as an important and vital expansion of the limited number of job opportunities available to women. But this development had a negative consequence as well. As women entered office work and the number of those clerical jobs increased as the nature of the jobs changed, the status of office work declined. Just as women were entering the office, office work was becoming a dead-end job. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, an office job was an entry-level job for a promising young man. No such upward mobility would be possible for the women who entered offices during the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Women who performed work that was essentially the same as men were considered temporary workers and paid less. Employers assumed that women would leave their jobs as soon as they married; therefore paying them the equivalent to a man, who would make a long-term commitment to the company, seemed unnecessary.
Many women, however, did jobs that were quickly dominated by women workers. Some of the largest establishments in Chicago, like Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, that began their famous mail-order businesses during this period, hired hundreds of office workers and organized their work with factory-like efficiency. A young woman working at Sears
".. . The girl is without the wholesome restraint afforded by the companionship of other working women and her isolation in itself constitutes a danger."
Roebuck, for example would start her day at 8:00 a. m. sharp after punching in at 7:55 a.m., taking her seat in an enormous room with as many as 150 to 200 other women. The company kept records on the punctuality, attendance, behavior, and productivity of its office force, all computed monthly and used as a basis for wages. Discipline was strict; any unnecessary talking, as well as entering a saloon within a certain perimeter around the offices was prohibited. These newly "rationalized" female office workers could not aspire to any job other than supervising other female office workers. On the other end of the spectrum were the private secretaries. These more autonomous, highly paid assistants to corporate bosses increasingly came to be seen as "office wives," the epitome of a woman's office career aspirations. With large numbers of women entering office work, companies created two paths for mobility in turn—a female path with what we would call today a "glass ceiling" and a male path. While young boys might start as a lowly office clerk with hopes of becoming a vice president one day, young girls could only realistically hope to be the vice president's secretary.
While female office workers took on a variety of different jobs—stenographers, typists, clerks of all sorts, bookkeepers, office-machine operators, and private secretaries— those concerned with the plight of young women "adrift" in the city took notice. Reformers like Jane Addams and others involved in educational, civic, political, women's, vocational, and religious organizations responded to what they perceived these women, new on the urban scene, might need to make their lives safer and more fulfilling. In addition to concerns about the dangers of the office itself, reformers worked hard to provide services and spaces for these women. Because women often came unaccompanied to the city, where they encountered the worst of the city at its various train stations, Travelers' Aid Society strategically stationed their representatives to direct women to safe and appropriate destinations. A variety of organizations worked to establish some of these destinations by providing room-and-board type housing where working women could live cheaply, safely, and happily. Jane Addams's Jane Club and the YWCA are well-known examples, but organizations like the Eleanor Association, privately funded and run by Ina Law Robertson, provided rooms for "business girls," in six well-equipped, comfortable dormitories throughout the city. Groups like the Chicago City Club, the YWCA, and the Eleanor Association also maintained club rooms in the downtown business district to provide places where women working downtown might eat, rest, and meet friends. Finally, a variety of organizations provided helpful services to business women: educational classes, employment services, and cultural opportunities. For example, after World War I, the YWCA of Chicago devoted much of its employment service to the placement of women in clerical jobs, and the Eleanor Association sponsored and organized trips to the Art Institute of Chicago and to resorts in Wisconsin for the edification and pleasure of its members.
After World War I, attitudes about women engaging in office work in the city began to change. Women took many unconventional jobs during the war and proved that they were up to the challenge. By 1920, women had won the right to vote, ushering in a decade associated with a "revolution of manners and morals." Flappers began to appear in the movies at the local Nickelodeon, and office workers seemed an interesting and appealing example of this "new" woman. In 1923, a writer in the main journal of Chicago's business community, Chicago Commerce reflected that the typewriter and all of the developments that resulted from its widespread use had contributed to the "economic emancipation'" of women. "The typist," he continued, "blazed the path by which other women entered every department of business," and the entrance of the "girl stenographer and typists," into the business world felled "ancient barriers."
The results of these developments were mixed. The 1920s and 1930s saw a large influx of second-generation immigrant daughters into office work in part because of the adoption of a clerical course in the Chicago public schools. The public educational establishment not only acknowledged women's special relationship to office work but also the challenges posed by the new entrants into these jobs. In light of the range of positions available, Chicago's educational administrators worked to match the potential clerical work with the appropriate job, revealing their assumptions about class, race, and ethnic background. The head
teacher of the all-girls Winchell Continuation School claimed that even though training in commercial skills was certainly important, courses in hygiene and civics have "given the students the knowledge and opportunities [they] needed to make [themselves] more efficient business girl[s]. Instruction in diet, sleep, manicuring, skin care, shampoo, clothing maintenance, shoe care, sitting, standing, poise, and dancing was necessary because, "a large percentage of these girls [were] of foreign parentage and reared in the most limited environment possible." Racial and religious restrictions remained in many workplaces. Chicago's African-American women would only find opportunities in office work in some black-owned businesses primarily on the south side. Some firms also discriminated against Jewish women. Other firms maintained marriage and/or pregnancy prohibitions. Many of these types of restrictions would remain in place until the 1950s and 1960s. Even though the Chicago Women's Trade Union League attempted to organized female office workers before World War I, the results were short-lived and not successful again until the Congress of Industrial Organizations organizing drives in the 1930s (and then the success was not particularly widespread.)
Despite the increasing numbers of older, self-supporting women engaging in office work through the twentieth century, most employers (and American citizens in general) imagined office workers were young, white, and single and doing the work until they married. Promotional opportunities, better pay, and respect were not necessary. The skills necessary for office work—facility with language, stenography, typing, organizational and personal skills—became devalued as a female worker was assumed. These negative developments need to be understood alongside the meaning that engaging in office work had for the diverse group of women who took this job during the years after World War I. Women's occupational shift to office work provides strong proof that women voted for their preferred occupation with their feet. For the daughters of immigrants, office work was not simply a safer, better-paid, cleaner, and more respectable alternative to factory work or domestic service, it was also a way to become an American. Even though the wages and working conditions could allow these women to live better lives and help their families, the exposure to American values and customs often caused difficulties in families. May's story is typical. May had to battle with her traditional German family to continue her education beyond the eighth grade to train for a clerical job and then, after three years of working, for control over her own salary. She won both battles, paying her mother $9 a week for room and board and helping around the house. "Now that May had bobbed her hair and had begun to dress as the other girls did, her mother found new matters for criticism. May had joined the Young Women's Christian Association club and began to go to the movies with her new girlfriends. There were too many late hours. The climax came when May wished to spend her vacation away from home. "With bobbed hair, rouge-brightened cheeks, and silk dresses exposing, "silk clad knees undaunted to the world," May was not only "hard headed and capable about [her] work and business relations," she was also "capable of spending [her] own money and planning vacations away from home."
According to Ruth Shonle Cavan who published the study Business Girls in 1929, this caused continual irritation to a mother who believed that a girl, "should be fitted for wifehood and motherhood ... be submissive to her family until such time as she becomes married."
One of the major issues during the last thirty years within the women's movement how to reconcile fulfilling remunerative work and family. Many today still struggle with this despite recent backlashes sending women back to the home, renewing their commitment to essential woman's roles of hearth and children. Women's entrance into the expanding field of office work did not solve this ongoing issue of modern woman's life; rather, it set in motion the discussion itself. Office work was one of the very first occupations that allowed women a space in the heart of the city and in corporate capitalism as well as, for some, the opportunity for self-support and/or independence. Consider this rumination by an anonymous resident of one of the Eleanor
Association Boarding houses that appears in the Association's journal in 1919. She begins by stating the conventional wisdom that "no matter how independent the woman, a home is the thing to which she looks forward." Then, she continues, "there is satisfaction and contentment in the triumphs and trials of earning one's bread that is not to be gained in dependency on human affection; and numberless women are now enjoying the wheels turn[ing] noiselessly in some office who in other decades got their satisfaction from a kitchen or apartment." Whether feared or lauded,
women's presence in the office not only changed the way American society perceived the downtown business district, the urban work space, and the nature of women's work, but, more importantly, altered the way young women thought about their lives.