Before Admin Assistants, There Were Secretaries For decades, secretary positions were the only ones women could hold in many workplaces. The hit TV show Mad Men has fed nostalgia for a time when secretaries typed letters and kept the boss happy. But those duties, and the women who filled them, have come a long way. Host Michel Martin talks with Lynn Peril, author of Swimming in the Steno Pool.

Before Admin Assistants, There Were Secretaries

Before Admin Assistants, There Were Secretaries

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For decades, secretary positions were the only ones women could hold in many workplaces. The hit TV show Mad Men has fed nostalgia for a time when secretaries typed letters and kept the boss happy. But those duties, and the women who filled them, have come a long way. Host Michel Martin talks with Lynn Peril, author of Swimming in the Steno Pool.


Are you a fan of "Mad Men" or very much not? How you feel about the hit show on the AMC cable channel about a 1960s advertising agency may have something to do with how you feel about its depiction of the time when secretaries were not administrative assistants, personal assistants or executive assistants. No, they were secretaries - and they were not to forget that.

Here's a clip from "Mad Men" season one, when Joan, a senior secretary, gives advice to a new hire on her first day.


CHRISTINA HENDRICKS: (as Joan Harris) Now, try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology. It looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Secretary) I sure hope so.

HENDRICKS: (as Joan Harris) And, listen, don't take this the wrong way, but a girl like you with those darling little ankles - I'd find a way to make them sing.

MARTIN: As the program has progressed from 1960 to 1966, viewers have also watched how the role of secretaries evolved over that critical period in the country's history. And that got us to thinking about the role of secretaries in real life over time. And for that, we turn to Lynn Peril. She is a secretary. She's also the author of "Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office." It's a history of the profession of being a secretary.

Welcome, Lynn Peril. Thanks so much for joining us.

LYNN PERIL: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So, Lynn, how did you decide to become a secretary yourself?

PERIL: Oh, my gosh, I didn't decide to become a secretary. My parents, like many, many other mid-century parents, told me to take typing as something to fall back on and that's actually what happened. I started working as a word processor in a law firm and that has really been - office work has really been my support ever since then. It supported my writing career, so it's been a good thing for me.

MARTIN: Why did you decide to write this book about the history of secretaries? And it is a very tongue-in-cheek title, by the way, because it's not like - you're not exactly telling people how to vamp it up. It really is very much a history. What gave you the idea? Was it "Mad Men?"

PERIL: Actually, the first little bit - I write a column for Bust magazine called "The Museum of Femoribilia" and I've been a collector of prescriptive literature for many, many years. That's all sorts of guide books about, you know, how best to be a woman and how you're doing it wrong. And there's just this really, really wonderful subset of literature that is the Secretarial Guidebook.

I wound up writing a column for Bust - oh, back before "Mad Men" actually started - and my editor and I both kind of had the same idea at the same time to write more about secretaries and the history of the secretary.

MARTIN: Well, you know, there was a time when the title, secretary, was something that women in the workplace aspired to. I mean, you can just imagine that women who were doing, you know, domestic work, you know, working as, you know, housekeepers, you know, and maids would have loved to have had the opportunity to work in an office and that was considered, certainly, a step up.

So how did it happen that, you know, secretary became a title that people kind of choke on - some people kind of choke on? Or was it always something that people had ambivalence about?

PERIL: Oh, at first, secretary was especially - women aspired to be a private secretary or an executive secretary, to move to the top of the office hierarchy, to move out of the steno pool, to stop being a stenographer who just went in and took dictation from her boss, to not be a typist, to be a secretary. So it was really something that women looked up to and towards.

But, at the same time, there was this pop culture tradition. The term, office wife, really goes back to the 1920s and then sort of throughout the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s and up into the '70s, this evolution of the idea of the secretary as this hot-to-trot, pencil-pushing woman who's there to have an affair with the boss, meet a husband. And it's not a very positive image.

So, by the '70s, when women are really starting to strike out for their rights in all sorts of ways, they asked to be called administrative assistant because administrative assistant actually means you're taking your job seriously. It's a way to say, I'm doing my work. I'm serious. I'm not a secretary. Secretary now has a bad connotation, but I'm an administrative assistant. I take myself seriously. I take my job seriously.

MARTIN: We're talking about the evolution of the secretary. Our guest is Lynn Peril, author of "Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office." And we should mention, she is, herself, a secretary.

You embrace the term. You don't have a problem with it.

PERIL: You know, I don't have a problem with it, but I know many women really and truly do. I've definitely heard it when I've been out doing, you know, promotion for my book. Women who are of a certain age who worked in the office in the '60s and '70s really do have an issue with it and I don't blame them.

For myself, it doesn't bother me, so if you want to call me a secretary, I'm fine with it.

MARTIN: Again, going back to "Mad Men," in the program, Peggy, a young woman who starts out as a secretary, eventually becomes a copywriter. Remember, this series is supposed to be about an advertising agency. She's the first woman to hold that job. In this clip, Peggy is responding after her own secretary tells her to be more ladylike.


ELISABETH MOSS: (as Peggy Olson) The thing is I have a job. I have my own office with my name on the door and I have a secretary, and that's you, and I am not scared of any of this.

MARTIN: That was a scene with actress Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson. Does that capture anything real? This idea that, as more women advanced in the workplace and worked outside the home, you know, in offices that there was this need somehow to differentiate themselves from other women who had been doing administrative support work? Do you think that that captures something?

PERIL: Oh, I think absolutely. I mean, you know, actually, women have been doing copywriting for a really, really long time. It's one of the other careers that women could have outside the home. But I think the idea is that you wanted to - you aspired to be, you know, a private secretary, but then, really, what was there for you beyond that?

One of the quotes in my book that still makes my jaw drop to the floor is from a 1965 guidebook and it basically - the woman who wrote the book actually had a wonderful career. She wants to help other women get up and pull them along with her, but in her book, she says, you may have once dreamed of being a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist, so today, you study to be a medical secretary or a legal secretary or a scientist's secretary, because that was what was available for women.

MARTIN: You also go on in the book to say that some of these guidebooks tell you that you should actually be happier because this is really what you're better suited to, you know, your nature, that you'd just be frustrated, you know, trying to be a doctor of a lawyer. So you should just get over yourself and do what you really should do. So you have that part of it, too.

But what about the office wife idea? In your research, I wasn't sure whether you were saying that women were actually encouraged to go to the office with the expectation of trying to find a husband or not, or the opposite of that. Or you should do everything you can to dispel the idea that you're there to try to find a husband. Which was it?

PERIL: That's totally typical for prescriptive literature then and now, is to give you two completely opposite pieces of advice and expect you to follow both or neither or, you know, to be confusing. Because some books...

MARTIN: Or you're wrong, no matter what you do.

PERIL: You're wrong, no matter what you do. Exactly. Because some books definitely said, hey, guess what? You're going to be in an office. You're going to be with men. Dress up, look nice. Hey, if you dust his office every morning, he's going to see what a great housekeeper you are and you never know. You could be meeting your future husband.

And then, of course, there's other people who are like, you know, look, you want to be taken seriously. This is a job. This is not a place to look for men. This is a place to do your work and to be professional.

So - yeah. There's definitely both strains.

MARTIN: And what about coffee? You point out in the book that people actually were fired for refusing to make coffee.

PERIL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And I know I'm sounding incredulous because I'm just trying to sort of process the idea that somebody could be fired from a job for which she - generally she - was otherwise qualified for refusing to make coffee. And I'm thinking about how long and hard I think before I ask one of our interns to go and get me a coffee, which I often promise to reciprocate the next time I go out. But tell me about that.

PERIL: Yeah. Coffee's like the fault line, I think, that in the office where gender politics where push really came to shove in the feminist era. Not every secretary was a feminist, but once the feminist movement started, a lot of women started looking at themselves differently and they started realizing that they enjoyed working as secretaries. They enjoyed their job, but they didn't the parts that were the waitress-y type of thing and what they all pretty much agreed on was they hated making and getting coffee, because it was always a one way street.

And the thing that surprises me is that it still remains a - you know, here it is, today. You're just as likely to have a female boss and, occasionally, you've got a male, you know, admin assistant. The gender politics of the office have changed in many ways, but coffee is still a really, really delicate negotiation. You just mentioned it yourself.

You know, I think we've all worked with someone who looked on you as little more than a waitress or a little happy helper bee. And I think there's the idea that this is something that they can make you do. It's a power play. If it's a power play, that's no good. If it's just - hey, we want some coffee, that's fine.

MARTIN: Lynn Peril is a secretary. She's the author of "Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office." It's actually a tongue-in-cheek guide to the history of the profession of being a secretary. She joined us from Oakland, California.

Lynn Peril, thanks so much for joining us.

PERIL: Oh, it was my pleasure. Thank you.


MARTIN: Up next, people around the country have been shocked by the allegations of sexual abuse by a former Penn State football coach. Lauren Book wasn't. She was just 11 when she began to be abused by none other than the woman hired to take care of her.

LAUREN BOOK: Sexual abuse happens across all cultural, socioeconomic backgrounds, religion. It matters not.

MARTIN: She shares her story in the memoir, "It's OK to Tell." That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.


MARTIN: The school year is winding down, so maybe the teens in your house are starting to think about a summer job, but does scooping ice cream or stocking shelves build character or resentment?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I worked as a teen. I hated every moment of it.

MARTIN: We'll ask our panel of moms about the pros and cons of summer jobs, plus a big-picture take from a researcher who's actually studied the issue. That's next time on TELL ME MORE.

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