When one thinks of the word “secretary,” certain things usually come to mind. Lynn Peril, author of Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office, outlines the stereotype well: many have “the idea of the secretary as this hot-to-trot, pencil-pushing woman who’s there to have [an office romance and] meet a husband.” But the secretary was not always thought of this way; the position has a long and change-filled history.
The word “secretary” comes from the Latin term, secretarius, meaning a person entrusted with secrets. In these early times, secretaries acted as confidantes and trusted assistants to persons of power and influence, often performing duties as scribes, taking dictations, or even functioning as advisors. Shorthand was an invaluable skill for secretaries since writing was primarily done using chisels and stone or styluses on clay, wax, or wood. Secretaries of this era were exclusively male.
As trade and commerce increased and expanded and with the rise of the merchant class came an increased need for secretaries. Secretaries at this time were required to have a broad education spanning varied foci. These men held significant power, sway, and social standing at this point in history.
During the Renaissance, secretarial work expanded to incorporate more clerical work, including keeping accounts books and records, filing, and attending to correspondence in addition to acting as stenographers (persons employed to take dictations and use shorthand).
The history and the position of the secretary changed irrevocably in the 1880s. A boom of industrial expansion instigated the need for more secretaries in order to handle the paperwork overload of the time. With the invention of the typewriter earlier in the century and the belief that women were better suited to the use of the typewriter than men because their fingers were thought to be more dexterous, women made their first steps into the field of secretarial work. By the 1930s, women made up roughly 95% of all secretarial workers. The post of secretary was attractive to many women; it provided them with the much desired opportunity to work outside of the home and the freedom that comes with financial independence. But these desires were not to be fully met. It is uncertain whether it was the diminished status of the secretary or the entrance of women into the field that came first, but whatever the case, the luster of the secretarial position for women was fast waning; even though they were offered a place in the work force and economic opportunities, they worked for lower wages than their male counterparts, were treated as subordinates, were generally not provided with opportunities for advancement, and seldom were enabled to use their higher faculties beyond stereographic, clerical, or domestic duties. In essence, the secretary had completed its full transformation from a prestigious position to that of a degrading, dead-end job.
But this is not where the history of the secretary ends. Though women still dominate as secretaries today, men are slowly returning to the field. Secretaries enjoy higher pay, are entrusted with more duties and responsibilities, have more opportunities for advancement and independent project work, and are encouraged in the use of a more varied skill set. The future once again looks bright for the secretary.