LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Thoughts on women’s roles in society

Mar 15 • FEATURE SIDEBAR, Live Local, NEWS & VIEWSNo Comments on LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Thoughts on women’s roles in society

March 8 was International Women’s Day. I found myself in an email exchange with a female friend who was inquiring about possible job openings at the bookstore. Instead, I offered a lot of transcription work I need done—something she could do at home while her baby naps. Therefore it eliminates the need of finding childcare.

WORKING WOMAN OF THE ‘30s: Circa 1935, Eddy Law and Insurance Offices secretary. Photo: Courtesy of the Office Museum,

WORKING WOMAN OF THE ‘30s: Circa 1935, Eddy Law and Insurance Offices secretary. Photo: Courtesy of the Office Museum,

I started thinking: If her husband had asked me for a job, would I have brought childcare into the equation? Or would I have assumed she had it under control?

On the same day, John and I were painting the roof of my VW bus when a gentleman got out of his truck to talk to us about the van. Specifically, he spoke to John. After several awkward moments of him steadfastly addressing questions to John and refusing to make eye contact with me, he was startled when John pointed to me and informed him I owned the van. Moreover, I was leading the project of restoration. (It got more weird when the assumption that John was my husband was put forth. “I’m just hired help!” John finally quipped in self-defense.)     

Yes, I am looking to hire out transcription work. (Actually, about 800 hours of interviews, to be more exact.) In an age of voice recognition software, it’s a different animal than it was 20 years ago.

On International Women’s Day I thought a lot about my mother. She belonged to a generation of women who really spanned a bridge of change for societal expectations of women. Like many women of her generation, even though she had a graduate degree, she began her professional life as a secretary, taking dictation and transcribing it.

When I was little, I was fascinated she knew shorthand, which I considered to be a fabulous secret code. In the 1970s, she worked in different medical offices and transcribed medical-chart notes. I remember when she told me about the obstetrician she worked for while pregnant with me. By that time it was standard to dictate medical notes to audio tape.

“He was from Guyana and had an incredibly thick accent,” she said. Years later, I remembered how she shook her head in frustration. “Just imagine trying to decipher medical terms from an audio tape—and when you miss a word because you can’t understand the doctor’s accent! Oh!”

She threw up her hands. “You can’t get it wrong—that’s someone’s life depending on you getting it right.”

Shorthand really became popular as a skill for secretaries in the late 1800s. An Englishman, Sir Isaac Pitman, developed what we would think of as short hand (actually called “Pitman‘s Shorthand”). Though in the U.S., Gregg Shorthand and speedwriting became the dominant system by the mid 20th century. The change in the available labor force created by the two World Wars made secretarial work an acceptable job for a respectable woman. Previously, a well-educated young man would have been preferable. Instead, those well-educated young men went off to war, and when they came back, they began to employ women as secretaries (and could pay them less, because they had less qualifications, right?).

Actually my mother’s mother went to “business college,” as it was called in the 1930s, to learn to be a secretary. This was quite a blow to her; she received a scholarship to go to university. Think about that: In the 1930s, a teenage girl, the daughter of immigrants who didn’t speak English at home, earned a university scholarship. Her father spent the money on her younger brother’s education because he wouldn’t waste money on a girl. Sending her to secretarial courses was luxurious enough. So, instead of studying science or liberal arts, she learned transcription and typing.   

When I came along, my mother took one year off from work—and washed the windows on the house inside and out every week. I think my father must have been the most relieved man on the planet when she went back to looking for a job. Like I said, my mother had a graduate degree, but they moved here because my father was offered a teaching position at UNCW, so she decided his career was the one they would focus on.

She started over again as a “Kelly Girl” or a temp as we would now think of the job title. I don’t know how many assignments she was sent to—if it was one or 12—but at some point she went to the brokerage firm E. F. Hutton to answer phones. Did I mention her graduate work focused on communism and the Chinese Revolution? Yet, it was in the stock market at a brokerage house where she spent the majority of her professional life.

My friend Abigail and I were talking a few months ago about the time she learned about being a secretary. Her grandfather suggested she would be a good secretary because she is super organized. She asked him what a secretary did. At the end of his answer, she responded, “Oh, you mean run the company?”

According to secretaries now earn an average of $12 in the U.S. According to the U.S. Census of 2010, close to 4 million people—96 percent female—worked in secretarial positions. I guess, in spite of all the things that can be off-shored (like customer service via telephone), an actual human body in the office to efficiently handle any crisis that may arise is still something people are willing to pay for. But is that a living wage? Can a secretary support a family as a single parent on $12 an hour? If companies were hiring a man for the same job, would they offer them more money? Would they really expect to hire someone with an MBA or a Ph. D. to do filing?

So, here I am in the early 2000s, looking to hire out transcription work. In an odd way, it must mean some sort of forward movement for the options available to women; what was expected of my grandmother and was my mother’s path forward in one generation leaves me on the other side of the transaction in the next generation. That we continue to have a real pay gap for women in this country is absurd. The unconscious bias we still wrestle with is undeniable. Half our world’s population, and half our society’s earners and spenders, are far too important to our economic future to continue to discount them out of hand.

On International Women’s Day, it is wonderful to reflect on just how far we have come as a society, but it is also a powerful reminder we still have miles to go. There are currently 20 women serving as United States senators, and we have 100 women in the House of Representatives (out of 435 seats). Out of 13 seats in congress North Carolina, currently three members are women and both our senators are men. Somehow, that really doesn’t look representative of our population, does it?

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