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Why I always wanted to be a secretary

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I took my first secretarial job in college, where I worked down the hall from a Triga Mark II nuclear reactor. I lasted just two lonely weeks, waiting to answer nonexistent phone calls and compulsively checking my radiation exposure badge.

Three years and three secretarial jobs later, my new employers referred to me as an "administrative assistant." They seemed to think the new title conferred greater respect for my work; yet no one has ever suggested that the secretary of state should be called the administrative assistant of state.

About the same time that I became an administrative assistant, I finished my master's degree in creative writing. My mother, who named me after a college I would never attend, expected me to pursue a doctorate and become a professor. My grandmother knew better. After all, she was the one who trained me to be a secretary.

For most of my childhood, my after-school day care involved walking the five blocks over to the law office where my grandmother worked. There, I sat in the back room and read library books while my grandmother answered phones, took dictation and typed letters. She would not have looked out of place on the set of Mad Men: poised, perfectly coiffed, lipsticked and imperturbable. The quintessential secretary.

Her manicured nails produced a delicious clicking against the keys of her new electric typewriter that roused me from my reading. Her retired Underwood No. 5, a hulking tangle of keys and levers, glistened black and chrome under a layer of dust in the storage room. When I made my first attempts at it, I barely had the strength to depress the keys and engage the steel trap of its type hammers.

Other women, hearing my first tentative pecks, might have shooed me away, but my grandmother gave me a stack of discarded paper and showed me how to spool it into the typewriter. I was hooked. Not just on the mechanical pleasures of keys striking paper and leaving a mark, but on what it all was for: the words on the page.

By then, Grandma was using an IBM Selectric II typewriter, producing mountains of onionskin legal filings from that humming, chattering beast at 120 words per minute. When Grandma deemed my typing adequate, she gave me real letters to practice on. When they were perfect, they went to the lawyer's desk for his signature. Even then, it was clear to me that without a secretary, the lawyer wouldn't have been able to do much lawyering if he had also needed to type briefs, answer the phone and make his own coffee.

The other thing I understood was that this was how books were made. I'd seen photos of Ernest Hemingway and Pearl Buck at work on their novels, and I knew if I was going to be a writer, I would need to be able to type. In my mind, typing was necessary to writing, and secretaries were the foremost experts in typing.

When the time came to choose between a secretarial career or the uncertain prospect of a job in academia, the choice was easy. The secretaries I knew seemed happier than the doctoral students I knew, and when they left work at the end of the day, the secretaries had plenty of time for gardening and needlepoint. I skipped all the lesson planning and paper grading, and made writing my after-hours hobby.

I became a career secretary in the late 1990s, just as everything was changing. Typewriters gave way to computers. The mimeograph machine that started me down the road to tendinitis gave way to a photocopier. Electronic mail and calendars promised to make secretaries obsolete — even if they haven't yet succeeded. And men started to return to the field, after a 100-year hiatus.

Calling secretaries "administrative assistants" was supposed to make our work more dignified, but it often feels like a thin veneer over a contempt for women's work. That's nowhere more clear than in offices where men have recently been hired as administrative assistants. Even if he has no prior secretarial experience, a man will often receive a higher salary than his fellow secretaries who are female.

But that's just the start of it. I've had every aspect of my appearance critiqued by supervisors, from my hair being "too curly" to a boss who told me to "never wear that dress again," because it reminded him of his mother. I've never seen a polo- and khaki-clad male administrative assistant policed on his appearance.

In one job I had a few years back, in an office of five secretaries, it was impossible not to notice that the lone man was never expected to answer phones or wash dishes. I've seen male supervisors made so uncomfortable by a man performing "women's work" that, having hired him, they conspired to promote him, no matter how poorly qualified he was.

The sad fact is that so many people who utterly rely on secretaries still consider the work demeaning. "Secretary" comes from the same Latin root that gives us "secret," and a secretary is, above all, the repository of institutional knowledge. Institutional secrets. A secretary is the bedrock of any office — something people choose to overlook until she is unexpectedly out sick and chaos reigns.

It's the secretary who deals with walk-ins, including the homeless woman who dresses like a nun and insists on dousing everything with her "holy water," which contains a higher concentration of vodka than most holy water. It's the secretary who solves the jammed copy machine and finds the right condolence card.

And she is everyone's confidante, whether she wants to be or not.

The truth is, even after 20 years of working as a secretary, I am less of one than my grandmother was. I abandoned pantyhose and heels, and I never achieved 120 wpm. I've also been promoted into management — a career move once impossible for a woman. I supervise a handful of secretaries and, be they male or female, I do my best to ensure they're treated with the dignity they deserve.

As a manager, I retain the aura of a former secretary. No one expects me to make coffee, but they think nothing of asking me to type up minutes for their meetings. When they do, I try to channel my Grandma's spirit. I freshen up my lip gloss, tidy my unruly hair and never look at my hands when I type.

Bryn Greenwood is the author of three novels, including the forthcoming All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. She wrote this essay for the New York Times.

Why I always wanted to be a secretary 01/24/16 [Last modified: Sunday, January 24, 2016 5:58pm]
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