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June 1949. The American Medical Association’s annual convention was held in Atlantic City, filling the run-down seaside town’s parking lots with out-of-state Cadillacs. One of the main events of the weekend was demonstrating a new tool for training doctors, medical color television, a futuristic-seeming replacement for the tiers of ringed seats of the traditional operating room surgical amphitheater. But TV was too poor a teaching substitute until color came along. After an elaborate luncheon was over, a spokesman for the manufacturer, Smith, Kline, and French, strongly suggested that the doctors’ wives leave the hall, as the live images would be very graphic.
To his surprise, most of the ladies stayed and watched, most of them impassively sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes. (I mentioned it was 1949, right?) Someone explained to the SKF man that the women were, or had been nurses, and had seen far worse. “They met their husbands on the job”. In 1949, that was as common a fact of women’s lives as hats, white gloves, and handbags. For women, getting ahead in life generally involved marriage, with the goal of marrying “up”. It had always been the way of the world.
November 1977. A brave new world for men and women, after the overlapping but different ‘50s–‘70s cultural revolutions associated with Playboy, Cosmopolitan, and Ms. magazines, but far from a completely changed one. Xerox Corporation held its worldwide conference for executives in Boca Raton. The last day was Futures Day, when most of the attendees would finally get their first-ever look at the next-generation office technology that the company had been creating since 1973. To them, the Xerox Alto workstation was a TV you could type on, like the personal computers that were just beginning to appear. But Alto came with word processing (a new term) built-in, networking, and a new invention that played to Xerox’s strengths, the laser printer. Attendees were invited to step forward and spend some time using the new equipment.
The men were moderately impressed. “Interesting” was the consensus, but by and large, they weren’t that excited by seeing what a productivity step like this could mean for business. By contrast, their wives, nearly all of them well-to-do or outright wealthy, jumped right in, folded their Chanel tweed jackets, kicked off their high heels, and started typing and formatting, exclaiming to each other what an amazing thing this was. It looked incongruous, even funny as the rich ladies quickly figured the system out.
But it made sense. Almost all of them had been secretaries. That’s how they met their husbands: on the job. For the 1977 wives, many of the furtive office romances that led to matrimony took place in the Mad Men era, 1960-’70, back in that mixed time that fell between Playboy and the phenomenon we’d come to call, simply, the women’s movement. In 1974, New York Magazine did an issue about the world a quarter-century back. The lead article was titled 1949: Feminism’s Nadir.
Only a few years later, now forty years ago (where does the time go?), I encountered that “future office”, even the very same networked computer system, now christened the Xerox Star. A friend of mine, a fledgling lawyer, got me a temp job in a large, busy law firm when another job offer fell through and I needed rent money fast. I was there for a couple of months, first as a file clerk, then as organizer of their rapidly growing stock of magnetic media.
The law firm was a well-oiled machine that ran lean and stacked up the billable hours. Think litigation, not Perry Mason. Except for the three partners, the other two dozen or so lawyers spent their long workdays reading documents, dictating into a microphone, or (more rarely) talking on the telephone.
The product of all this endless, day in and day out, talking and dictating and interviewing and deposing was handed off to a large secretarial pool, pounding away at IBM Selectrics. Only the three partners had their own assigned staff; everyone else competed for resources. And if the firm were an army, the officers were all men, and the enlisted ranks were about 90% women. That was pretty typical in those days.
Not one of the lawyers so much as had a typewriter in his office. There were no computer keyboards on their desktops either—not quite yet. By contrast, by 1981 there had already been generations of college women who’d helped their boyfriends by typing their papers. Wives typed their husbands’ ways through law or medical school. That was perfectly normal in those days. Unless they’d been clerks in the armed forces, few men even knew how to type. Many men prided themselves on it.
The costly Xerox Star system was, so far, only used for editing and formatting the most valuable of their legal documents. Only the top echelon of secretaries, the firm’s uncompromising Bene Gesserit, was permitted to work with it, and the elite corps of young women at its three terminals were accompanied by one full time (male) systems technician who I suspected, even 40 years ago, of merely pretending he was needed.
Five days a week until well after five, the two dozen men with fancy sheepskins on their walls were separately trapped in their surprisingly small and un-fancy offices, although making a lot of money. By contrast, the five dozen or so women were all massed in big, noisy open-form offices, a vast, busy, and very social unit that amounted to a female company-within-a-company. They spent most of their work lives typing, correcting, and editing the work product they got on tape from the lawyers. The rivers of talk led to rivers of printed text, which led to rivers of money, which led to all of our paychecks.
The older ladies frequently showed patience while tacitly helping teach newly hired-but-“green” young male lawyers how to deal with the firm’s assembly-line pace. The women weren’t lawyers, and in that era had rarely expected to be. They expected, deserved, and got, respect for the jobs they did choose. So it was with muted, oddly mixed feelings that they greeted a young woman, fresh from a Florida law school, newly admitted to the California bar. This wasn’t a rarity by 1981, but it was still new to most of the lawyers and secretaries.
If this were a Lifetime made-for-TV movie, the women would have stood up as one, proud and sassy, with a big, smiling round of applause for the new attorney. Sure, a couple of unattractive, clueless men in the office might have tried to get handsy with her, but she’d have effortlessly put them in their place. Gestures of sisterly solidarity would have covered her path like rose petals.
In real life, though, it didn’t work out as simply as that. So far as I could tell (admittedly, a real limitation, but there was little to no privacy there), the men didn’t try to hit on her. She got an office and staff support equal to her male coworkers. A no-nonsense sort, she got right down to business. A brisk, successful transition, by all appearances.
But the stereotype-breaker was: the women didn’t like her and didn’t like working with her. Partly it was her chilly personality. She didn’t go out of her way to relate, and she clearly didn’t see herself as being much like the other women. In effect, she saw herself as needing to prove herself as if she were an officer among enlisted ranks; they saw her as a stuck-up snob who thought she was better than the rest of them. Neither was entirely wrong. Despite what the era’s slogans said, Sisterhood isn’t always powerful.
There was another, entirely human and understandable element in the secretaries’ reactions that did track with female dissatisfaction with the workplace, a mixture of only semi-admitted envy and an undercurrent of self-blame: here she was, making the big bucks and giving orders. What did I do wrong?
My temp job lasted four months. The managing partner offered me a full-time gig, which was more than decent of him, but the real job that I’d been holding out for came through. About a year later, out of nowhere, a lawyer sent me an invitation to one of their elite social mixers at the Beverly Hills Country Club, which I was happy to attend.
As the evening drew to a close and I started drifting towards the exit, I fell into the conversational circle of an elegantly dressed woman in her late forties. I’d later learn she was the wife of one of the partners. I was introduced, rather generously, as someone who’d once worked at her husband’s law firm. When I told her I wasn’t a lawyer she perked up. “Oh, thank God!”, she said, laughing. She asked what sort of things I’d seen in my time there and I told her.
I wasn’t surprised that she was conservative; in Beverly Hills, it was not nearly as rare then as it would be now. The boards of directors of L.A.’s other country clubs went after studio chiefs as marquee names; BHCC went after Buzz Aldrin. One of the other guests lit her cigarette while the valet ran to fetch her car. She turned her attention back towards me. “I know you’ve heard lots of bad things about the Fifties, but for me, it was a wonderful time in my life. I liked being an office girl”. She looked amused at my (no doubt) doubting expression.
“Oh, I knew I was luckier than most. There were some drawbacks once in a while. But I met a fine man and married him. Women today don’t get a full picture of back then”.
That old quote came to mind: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there”. Its lessons are rarely simple or one-sided. She was talking about her life twenty-five years earlier. It’s been forty years since this conversation took place.
She sighed, stubbed out the cigarette, and donned her fur coat. Blackgama, the best of its time. The valet re-appeared with the car. She smiled and nodded goodbye. The big black Cadillac swallowed her up and she vanished down Wilshire Boulevard.Published in