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The Souls of the Skyscraper: Female Clerical Workers in Chicago, 1870-1930.

Lisa M. Fine offers fascinating glimpses into the work and social worlds of Chicago women in clerical work. Tracing women's tentative entry into the office, the discussion of women's fitness for the work, and finally the acceptance or "conventionalizing" of the woman office worker, Fine explores an impressive variety of sources. Like many other recent historians of clerical work, Fine emphasizes the variety of the work and the workers, showing both feminization and rationalization to be continuing and contradictory processes. Skillfully teasing meaning out of such reticent sources as city directories and census data, sifting letters and organizational records for the rare voices of clerical workers themselves, Fine emphasizes the agency of the women who made places for themselves in a field that was not always hospitable.

The Souls of the Skyscraper begins with the "before" picture: men's clerical work in Chicago. Fine portrays an occupation whose tasks and prospects were as varied as its workers, introducing the reader to one of the troubling problems in the historical discussion of clerical work: labels such as bookkeeper, copyist, clerk, and office boy had little fixed meaning. Workers with these titles might perform different kinds of work, wield different degrees of authority, and have distinctly different possibilities for advancement. Male clerical workers were diverse in age, marital status, and living situation. After 1870, however, the world of the male clerical worker was undermined by the vast expansion of clerical jobs and the entry of women into the field. Fine emphasizes the role of the typewriter and the private business college in paving the road to the office for these "courageous pioneers" (25). Unlike men, most of these women entered a single clerical job--the new position of stenographer-typist. Like men, however, they were a varied lot; early clerical work was as flexible a resource for women as it was for men.

Fine characterizes the period between 1890 and World War I as a transitional one in the development of clerical work. A clear demographic profile of the woman clerical worker emerged: she was "white, young, single, native-born, and lived with a family member" (31). No sooner had this profile taken shape than its edges began to blur, as small but noticeable numbers of older and married women established beachheads in the office. Chicago clerical workers resembled the nation's in all respects save one: a majority, concentrated in stenography-typing, had foreign-born parents. In keeping with their relatively elite status, clerical women enjoyed better pay, more regular work, and shorter hours than most wage-earning women in Chicago.

During this period, stenography-typing remained the mainstay of the clerical labor force, but by the 1910s, women were being hired as clerks and bookkeepers at the same or even higher rates than were men. Following those who emphasize the socially constructed nature of skill, Fine maintains that "the rationalization and devaluation of a clerical job was not a necessary prerequisite for women's entrance in that particular field" (84). Fine argues that in stenography-typing, scientific management came to the office after women did. But to thereby dissociate feminization and rationalization is to miss the larger point. The very entrance of women into the field produced greater efficiency (because women used typewriters) and economy (because women were cheaper than men); feminization was thus a first step in rationalizing the office, followed by scientific management as a second step in the rationalization process. The process in clerks' jobs and in bookkeeping might proceed in reverse--with males being deskilled first, then supplanted by machines and women--but the link between women's entry into a field and its degradation remains solid.

Close behind the intrepid women who established themselves in clerical work were Chicago educators and reformers who sought to legitimize their lives and work. Developments in public education paralleled those in the labor market: men gravitated to a four-year commercial course and women to a two-year course. Without having set out to do so, by 1913 the Chicago public schools were providing the means of entry to clerical work for the city's young women. Organizations such as the YWCA, again responding to women's own goals, eased their entry into the office with placement services. Labor unions tried, and failed, to organize office women, but the very effort acknowledged their new importance in the labor force.

Fine's discussion of Chicago clerical women during the 1920s emphasizes their still-attractive wages and working conditions, but also notes that management changes created "greater variety within the clerical sector and a more precisely articulated hierarchy among clerical jobs" (171). New jobs tended to be created in the bottom ranks, while only a few attained the coveted "executive" or "private" secretary positions at the top of the hierarchy. Vocational education became more attuned both to the specific opportunities open to women and to the acculturation of immigrant daughters to the office world. Organizations such as the YWCA came to view the office woman "not as a charity case, but a worker who needed special help to advance in her career" (185).

Fine offers a fascinating glimpse into the culture of these "conventionalized" women as revealed in the records of the Eleanor Association residential clubs. Strong homosocial, and almost certainly some homosexual, bonds formed among the women in these residences. Embracing the popular culture of the 1920s, the residents eschewed public service and immersed themselves in their personal ambitions and their social lives. In their social rituals, residents challenged categories of age--dressing as children for "kid parties"--and gender--impersonating men in such events as mock proms, in all cases making clear their distance from Victorian notions of womanhood. The Eleanor clubs offer a rare window into the social life and culture of woman workers, and I wish that Fine had expanded her perceptive discussion of this material.

A thread of more general cultural analysis runs through the book, as Fine seeks to understand how culture caught up with new social reality. Here her arguments are most problematic because they offer relatively unnuanced interpretations of trade literature, films, and fiction without arguing their salience either to Chicago in general or to its clerical workers in particular. Looking at the transitional period, Fine argues that because clerical work brought women into close contact with men and offered possibilities that threatened to destabilize the gendered balance of power, it was redefined in industry journals and the popular press as "not just a job suited to women's innate qualities, but a job suited to women's life cycle" (63). Yet we learn little about the circulation and readership of such journals as Phonographic World on which she draws so heavily. Fine is on yet shakier ground in her arguments about the 1920s, when she draws on fiction and films. She concludes that 1920s films portrayed the clerical worker as "an honest, resourceful, hard-working, fun-loving girl," (144) while novels tended to pose more complex issues such as that of the difficulty of finding a fit between personal life and work life. But without some information about the local exhibition and reception of the films and about clerical workers' reading habits, this material can tell us little about the outlook of clerical workers themselves or the larger cultural context of Chicago life. The fiction seems particularly ill-chosen as a window into Chicago office women's outlook; I would think that far more of them read popular pot-boilers than Dos Passos's or Lewis's novels. The book is at its best when it portrays the specific conditions and constraints encountered by Chicago clerical workers; the excursions into general cultural analysis are ultimately unconvincing and leave the reader wishing that Fine had concentrated her attention on the Chicago which she so vividly portrays.
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Author:Benson, Susan Porter
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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