While the industrial output of the country grew and consolidated so rapidly in the late 19th and early 2Oth centuries, business operations became more complex. With this expansion came a growing need to correspond, keep records, and manage offices to a degree never before imagined, thus creating a demand for an expanded clerical labor force.
In 1890 in Connecticut twice as many females graduated from high school than males. Up until this time, the only acceptable job for these women was teaching. There was then, a large literate pool of workers just waiting to be tapped.
The expansion of the clerical work force was marked by an increasing proportion of females and a decrease in pay and status for the work. At first, clerical work attracted women because it paid better than other jobs open to them. In 1900, clerical employees averaged more than twice the average annual earnings of other workers in the same industry.
In the early stages a clerical job required the skill to keep complete records of all the finance and operations of a huge enterprise. Bookkeepers or chief clerks maintained control over the entire process; but with the rise of the modern corporation these tasks were divided into jobs with little skill needed in the various departments of the business. Clerical jobs were divided into smaller and smaller tasks, with less and less skill needed.
Many women took up clerical work, making clerks the second largest female occupation in 1920. In Hartford, due to the growth of the insurance industries, particularly during the war, the number of clerks grew four-fold between 1910 and 1920. Clerks increased their share of the Connecticut work force from 9.1 percent, 10,929 workers, to 21.5 percent with 31,506 workers. In the nation the percentage of female clerical workers grew from 7.3 percent in 1910 to 16.7 percent in 1920.
It was still not an easy transition for many companies to make. At Aetna Life and Casualty in Hartford it was not until 1910 that the first women were hired as clerks to put the company’s records of mortality experience onto a holleith card file. The women were segregated on the sixth floor and used the rear elevators. In 1913, three women were hired for regular clerical positions. Then, during World War I, women were introduced more generally into the work force of the home office.
At the Hartford Fire Insurance Company the salary book of 1903 to 1921 shows that two women were hired as early as 1892 and two more were hired in 1903. Until 1918, when women were hired in larger numbers, the women were listed separately from men. One woman, hired in 1894 and who worked until 1912, finally reached a salary of $100 per month. Another woman hired in 1907 for $60 a month was increased to $110 a month when she resigned in 1920. Women’s salaries in 1913 ranged from $35 to $100 per month while men’s ranged from $30 to $500 per month. It is clear from the roster that married women did work, and that many of the women worked more years than was typically expected.
Typewriters facilitated the entrance of women into the clerical work force. Typing, a sex-neutral job because it was new, was soon considered “women’s work.” In 1890, 63.8 percent of the stenographers and typists were women. By 1900 the proportion had risen to 76.7 percent. Women also worked at addressographs, adding, punching, and duplicating machines. Thus, by World War I, women office workers were accepted. Their image in the office had turned from “frivolous creatures incapable of doing an honest day’s work” and as “risking her morality” if she invaded the male preserve of the office, to “well-suited for office work because they were tolerant of routine, careful and manually dextrous,” with the emotional attributes of sympathy, adaptability, and courtesy.
Secretaries began to be equated with wives.
Their conscious or subconscious willingness to be directed by men render them amenable and obedient and relieves them of the ambition which makes it difficult for men to put their devotion into secretarial work.
A definite parallel can be made with the large scale production of the factories which utilized more specialized machines, and thus required less and less skill and strength with a resultant increase in women employees. Industrial efficiency experts applied their methods to deal with the growing mountains of paperwork until:
Arranged behind banks of desks, strictly supervised, paid at times like industrial workers on piece work, many of the new clerical workers differed from factory hands only in status and neatness— just as the turn-of-the-century department stores employing several thousand saleswomen and cash girls differed little from fair-sized industrial establishments.
The entrance of women into clerical jobs only reinforced attitudes outside the office where men held positions of power. As in most other work places of the 1910 to 1920 decade(and of today) the division of work into less and less skilled jobs offered a way into the work force for women. But it also promoted the continued control of masses of clerical and factory workers by a small group of managers, almost always men. The ideology that women, by virtue of their “feminine docility” were naturally suited to fill low level jobs made it difficult for them to get well-paying jobs and act independently.