[originally published in Crab Creek Review, Vol. 2016, #1]
But can she type?
Back in the early 1970s, when my latent feminist consciousness was starting to awaken, I bought a poster, a 16 by 24-inch image of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. I didn’t share her politics, but I respected her chutzpah. Under her steely gaze was the caption: “But can she type?” Golda was no champion of women’s rights; it was said that she climbed the ladder and then pulled it up behind her. But her personal success—making it by her wits in a man’s world—made her an icon and role model for the women’s movement. No one said, “Take a letter, Miss Meir,” or asked her to brew a pot of coffee. She was often the only woman in high-level meetings, but she wasn’t expected to take the minutes.
It was a time when young women with crisp college diplomas were starting to seek possibilities beyond the “pink collar” world of clerical work. They were warned by those in the know: “Don’t let them know you can type!” Keyboard dexterity was thought to be the wedge end of oppression for educated women. Once confessed or detected, it could get you relegated to a desk with a typewriter.
I grew up in a working-class family, and typing was my ticket to freedom when I entered the job market in the early ‘60s. It was a marketable skill that would translate to more interesting and better-paying clerical jobs in lieu of waiting tables, toiling in a factory, or selling toiletries. It would buy my independence. And a car, an apartment with friends, a fabulous wardrobe. That was the extent of my goals at the time.
My parents gave my brother a portable Smith-Corona typewriter when he was in high school and I was in sixth grade. I remember his grumbling: “What am I supposed to do with this?” When I saw that he wasn’t going to use it for his schoolwork or anything else, I commandeered it and taught myself to type. Speed and precision at the keyboard came easily to my nimble fingers after years of piano, playing Chopin’s fast-paced and challenging etudes. “Molto allegro,” Mrs. Cuthbert, my piano teacher, would say in her fluty soprano, “faster.”
When I got to high school, students were separated into either college prep or gender-specific occupational training tracks by some mysterious winnowing process. I was an honor-roll student, so grades couldn’t have been the determining factor. Looking back I’m sure we were branded by socioeconomic status. The fact that neither of my parents had finished high school and our family’s limited means must have been noted by the gatekeepers who weighed my potential. It was determined that I would want and need to go straight to work after graduation. The school counselor recommended a secretarial trajectory—typing, shorthand, bookkeeping—that my parents enthusiastically endorsed. Am I remembering this correctly? Didn’t she encourage me, tell me about scholarships, student aid, state-supported colleges (then with minimal tuition)? Did it never occur to me that I had other options? Given their own lack of education, didn’t my parents have higher aspirations for me? Didn’t I, or did I just not care?
My path appeared pre-ordained, and I accepted … no, I embraced it with an eye toward immediate attainment and tangible rewards. I’d given up the piano, but my fingers could still fly. My teacher said I was the fastest typist she’d ever seen, well over 100 words a minute. I took dictation at a rapid clip in the Gregg shorthand hieroglyphics that I still can—and do—dash off. My math facility seemed better geared to double-entry bookkeeping than to solving algebraic formulas.
During my senior year a local investment firm called the school for part-time clerical help, and I was recommended for the job. I worked for an hour every morning before school, arriving for the stock market opening at 7:00 a.m. (10:00 on Wall Street). I would post stock prices onto a blackboard as they came across the ticker tape (before the advent of electronic display boards). Moving back and forth across the platform, stretching high, bending low, making swift pirouettes, I felt like a dancer on a stage. The assembled brokers and their clients were my audience, but their cheers and hisses were for the ups and downs of their stock holdings, not for my performance. At 8:00 I would put down the chalk and dash to school for English and American government, the only classes I needed for graduation. After lunch I returned to the office to type and mail customer transaction confirmations. I preferred the work to school, and I preened in the professional environment and the approval of my solicitous grandfatherly boss. Most of all I loved the twice-monthly paychecks. Even at the $1.00 an hour minimum wage, my earnings added up. I was first among my friends to buy a car, a white ’49 Ford that cost $100.
Graduation seemed like a postscript. I’d already launched myself into the world, and I made a seamless transition to the firm’s full-time staff. Before the year was out I moved into my own apartment and a social life that felt ever so sophisticated.
For the next twenty years—through marriage and motherhood, divorce and other great and small transitions—I plied my trade in a variety of work environments, never settling into one situation for very long. Three brokerage firms, a newspaper publisher, an aerospace company, a couple of banks and law firms, a counseling center, a golf club manufacturer, two professional sports teams.
I was poised and proficient, attentive and affable like the indispensable Della Street of the Perry Mason books and TV series. In addition to typing, filing, opening the mail, and taking dictation, I fetched coffee and sandwiches, picked up dry-cleaning, bought gifts for family, paid personal bills. I lied to clients, creditors, co-workers and wives. It was all part of the job. Once I put my boss’s alimony check in the wrong envelope, sending it to a creditor whose check I mailed to the ex-wife. When she called him to report the snafu, I overheard him say something about “that god-damned Alice.” I tolerated—what else could I do?—the verbal abuse and the mild to severe sexism that was part and parcel as well. My supervisors were always men, most of them considerate and professional, but there were a few ogres and lechers. Charlie—by all appearances a “southern gentleman”—told me that the best thing about his younger second wife was that he got to enjoy being a grandfather without having to sleep with a grandmother. Working overtime one evening, he chased me around the desk. Literally. I remember his treacly drawl: “Come on, honey, I know you like me. No one’s gonna get hurt.”
The pinnacle of my career was the six years I worked for the San Diego Chargers. I went into it knowing next to nothing about football, only what I gleaned from watching it half-heartedly on TV with my husband and his friends. I would pick a team to root for—I developed a curious devotion to the Green Bay Packers—but I paid so little attention that I didn’t even know what a first down was. Now I was savvy about the game and a loyal Chargers fan. I hooted and hollered in blue and gold regalia at every home game from the coveted press level seats that were a perk of the job. On rare occasions we “girls” in the office were invited on a road trip with the team. It was always a last-minute treat bestowed by the coach when there were extra seats on the plane and rooms at the hotel. A whirlwind all-expense-paid December weekend in New York: I recall a winter wonderland, the feather-dusting of snow on Central Park, store windows ablaze for the holidays. Another frosty December in Denver, one of the sportscasters taught me to ice-skate at an outdoor rink. I managed to stay on my feet, but he fell and broke his wrist showing off. Partying with and dating the players—“fraternizing”—was forbidden, but I was newly divorced and ignored the rules. I thought I was discreet until the coach called me on the carpet. His accusations were humiliating, and they were technically wrong—it was the wide receiver I was seeing on the sly, not the quarterback. I denied his charges with haughty and convincing indignation.
I started out in a “go-fer” capacity with the assistant coaches, a bunch of foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, beer-guzzling “good ole boys,” former players whose muscle had turned to middle-aged flab. The job duties encompassed by the category of “other” included spiriting moldy, grime-encrusted coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays out of the dark, smelly caves where they watched game films for hours on end. Whenever they were in the office the hallway resounded with the pops and clicks of the projectors’ frequent stops and starts, the whirring of film being rewound, the “whoosh-snap-snap” as the last bits of film flew off the reel. And their accompanying shouts: “God damn—did you see that catch? Back it up—let’s see it again.” “Look at that mother-fucker run!” “My eight-year-old can throw better than that sorry bastard.” When they were on the road I would air out their offices. I would run fans for hours, wipe exposed surfaces with Pledge and spritz everything with pine-scented air freshener.
When a new head coach/general manager was hired, I was promoted to executive secretary and moved into an office adjoining his on the elite window side of the building. He was an ex-jock too but soft-spoken and erudite. He treated me like an equal, sought my opinions, kept his supervision to a minimum. I was privy to confidential salary negotiations, drafted player contracts, printed out the top-secret game plans. I did my share of scut work too, but I knew he valued my administrative abilities more than the maid service. I prized his friendship and his wife’s Italian cooking; they had me to their home for dinner a few times, and she often sent leftovers to work for my lunch as well as his. I proved myself essential by anticipating his needs before he voiced them:
“I’ll have to stay an extra day in Dallas….”
“Already booked it, and a car too….”
(Like Mrs. Wilson, the housekeeper in Gosford Park, who says she’s the perfect servant: “I know when they’ll be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.”)
He was fired after the team suffered a couple of bad seasons and some drug scandals—someone had to take the fall. I was reassigned to his replacement, a nice-enough but dodgy guy prone to micro-management. After six months of him telling me how to do my job and looking over my shoulder, it was time to move on. The world of pro sports had lost its glamour. I’d had enough of jocks and their inflated egos.
The world had changed in the brief span between 1968 and 1974, and so had I. Golda peered down at me from my kitchen wall. We would make eye contact, and she seemed to be goading me to get off my ass, do something with my life. Women were making slow but sure strides in the workplace, and secretarial work had become a legitimate career path for women to parlay into management positions. Look at Peggy Olson in TV’s Mad Men. She started as secretary to ad agency exec Don Draper in 1960—the same year I entered the working world—later advanced to copywriter and finally became his second-in-command. I might have taken that route, even without a college education, if I’d worked in fields like marketing or personnel that promoted from the ranks. Sure, I wanted to make more money, but I preferred the eclectic nature and casual environment of my jobs to the stifling milieu of corporate bureaucracies.
By my late thirties, though, I was bored and frustrated. My jobs were just jobs, going nowhere, and I looked ahead to decades more of the same. When a friend went back to school to get a master’s degree, a fire alarm clanged in my head. The college education I’d carelessly bypassed now tantalized me, hovering almost within my reach—if I stretched a bit maybe I could grasp the gold ring. My daughter was in her teens; I had a house and savings; I’d recently ended a disastrous relationship. I was ready for a fresh start, eager to re-invent myself.
Typing was my ticket to freedom again, my transition to a new life. I put myself through college by working flexible assignments through a temp agency. Those university years would have been their own reward, but I came away with a B.A. and a Master’s degree and a rewarding new career that carried me through the rest of my working years. I didn’t forget my roots, and when I hired support staff, I treated them as colleagues not underlings. I made my own phone calls, typed my own correspondence, fetched my own coffee.
My daughter is an executive assistant. They call themselves “admins” now—administrative, personal and executive assistants—not secretaries. Some of them have degrees, some of them don’t. The banishment of the “s” word emphasizes the administrative duties and status of the position over its subservience, as do more equitable salaries and promotional opportunities. With excellent skills, high energy and keen intuition (“the perfect admin”—like mother, like daughter), she has advanced into increasingly important positions in San Diego’s flourishing bio-tech industry. Some things haven’t changed—she’s done her share of personal errands for her bosses, both male and female. And there’s still sexual harassment, but when she was subjected to it there was a protocol in place for reporting it, and action was taken against the perpetrator.
Social and political changes over the years have been facilitated by technology. The machinery for putting words onto paper has been an equalizing force, progressing from the early Remington typewriters—with the bell that rang when you got to the end of the line, reminding you to thwack the carriage return—to today’s ever-growing and evolving array of computers. Everyone types now, male and female, executive and clerk. The stigma is gone—keyboard proficiency is an asset at all levels. If Golda Meir were writing her autobiography today, she would be drafting it on her laptop.