Author: Rona Jaffe
This book gives a shocking account of what women faced when they first joined offices in the US as secretaries.
The author was a secretary herself and she wrote the book based on her experiences albeit in the form of a novel. The book has been initially published in 1958 and the story is happening in the early 1950s. In 2005, the author wrote a foreword to the new edition and then noted that sexual harassment was not known at the time and women had to cope with being in a man’s world, as offices were seen at the time.
Therefore, women in this book cope with forced kisses, hugs and groping, as well as insults when they turn their heads and refuse affection from men. The story is happening in a major publishing house and women who are protagonists of the book are secretaries typing correspondence and doing the filing. There are three editors above them, two men and one woman. One man is friendly and is not seen as sexually harassing anyone albeit he does have a weird romance with one of the secretaries. However, the other man is drunker who harasses women and then, in one instance, when a woman refused his affection he calls her a bitch and threatens to sack her. She did not ultimately get sacked, but the writer has portrayed her despair quite well and the reader really feels for her despair of a potential to lose the job she so sorely needs. The women editor is clearly paranoid about one of the girls taking her job and progressing as she did. In addition, she has an affair with an elderly CEO and the book clearly portrays the normalisation of sexual harassment in offices during the 1950s and conditioning jobs with threats and abuse.
The book follows life stories of a group of women of different background who come to work in the office for different reasons. However, what seems to be common for all women is either disappointment in love, loneliness or a desire to find a perfect man and get married. This applies even to women who completed a college degree, and thus this story fits perfectly into what Betty Friedan wrote in her book.
Friedan wrote a book called ‘The problem that has no name’ in 1963 in which she has recognized this issue. Thus, Friedan observes how women who were encouraged by the first wave of feminism during the 1940s to go to school and seek equal rights, were all of a sudden pushed back towards the domestic sphere. In that, she particularly mentions magazines and advertising that started to promote the perfect housewife and the perfect life of having a family and a house in the suburbs, etc. According to Friedan (1963), “by the end of the 1950s, the average marriage age of women in America dropped to twenty and was still dropping, into the teens. Fourteen million girls were engaged by seventeen. The proportion of women attending college in comparison with men dropped from 47 per cent in 1920 to 35 per cent in 1958. A century earlier, women had fought for higher education; now girls went to college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bar….” (p. 2).
The book by Rona Jaffe explains exactly the way of thinking of these girls, and the office culture women faced. As such, Jaffe’s book presents a must-read for everyone interested in office culture and organisational culture.
Thank you for reading.