* Prices may differ from that shown
The subtitle of this book "A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office" suggests a survival guide to secretarial work. However, this is definitely not a handbook, but an examination of the portrayal of the job and those who do it in the media and in handbooks over the last 100 years. It is an American book and all the references are to handbooks, media, popular fiction and advertising from the US, but as a secretary in Britain, I still found it relevant, interesting and very entertaining.
Lynne Peril is the author of several non fiction books about women's issues including the colour pink and education, but continues to support herself as a secretary, apparently with rather more sympathetic and understanding bosses than many of those who appear in the pages of her book.
The chapters are organised thematically rather than in chronological order, with chapters on advice on getting a job, etiquette, the boss, love and sex (including everything from affairs and relationships to sexual harassment), promotion, rebellion and the future of secretarial work.
The history here includes the stories of the two men who set up America's main rival shorthand systems, the various men and women who founded some of the US's best known secretarial schools, the movement of women into office work, and the impact of technology over the years, including audio dictation and transcription equipment, and of course computers and word processing.
I was fascinated and amused by Peril's many quotations from a collection of secretarial handbooks going back more than a hundred years. Some of these are quite disturbing reading, with advice on how to make yourself what the boss needs and put the needs of boss and company before your own at all times. Some advice is really chilling, such as advice on how to deal with sexual harassment.
This book is thoroughly researched with extensive endnotes and a bibliography, but it is no dry academic work. Peril's writing style is informal, chatty and anecdotal. Best of all, there are more than 40 illustrations, many taken from advertisements for secretarial training and office equipment - for this reason I would recommend the paperback edition rather than the ebook.
Peril clearly writes from a feminist perspective throughout the book, showing an interest in the portrayal of different roles for (mostly male) bosses and (almost all female) secretaries. She also writes about the differences between women's liberation activists and the leadership of professional organisations for secretaries such as the National Secretaries Association. At the 1968 protest against the Miss America pageant, the assorted items of female oppression thrown into a Freedom Trashcan included shorthand pads alongside the padded bras. (This was the episode which led to 'bra burners' being used as a dismissive phrase to describe feminists).
At the end of the book, Peril speculates on the future of the secretary. Many of the most prestigious secretarial colleges of the past are long gone. Recession has hit American clerical and administrative workers (and British ones) quite badly, as employers cut back. While working as a virtual assistant may have some advantages, there are real concerns about benefits. She also worries about the ways in which things have not got better and may have even got worse - she cites two cases of secretaries who sued for sex discrimination after being fired for not making coffee - Diana Becker won her case in 1977, whereas the judge in Tamara Klopfenstein's case 30 years decided that she could not prove discrimination as the company she worked for only hired women in her job (as receptionist) and there were no men in similar posts. This is scary and depressing stuff.
I confess this book is about one of my pet subjects - I have a collection of real secretarial handbooks too, for interest rather than their practical value. I thought it was fascinating, informative and funny at the same time, and would recommend it highly.
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk
This book published in the US and might be tricky to find in high street bookshops, but is available in paperback from Amazon for £9.99. The Kindle ebook is only 50p less and I think the illustrations are worth more than that. New copies are available from Amazon Marketplace sellers for under £7 including postage, too.