It felt like I was an undergrad forever. By the time I was nearing the end of my five years at my alma mater (in which I earned two degrees, and nearly completed my minor—but I HAD to get out of there, so I left two classes short of a French minor) I was so ready to be done with my studies, my majors, and academia in general.
I knew I’d want to get back to it in due time. After all, I had spent all of college with starry careers in advertising, speech writing, or heck, catalog copy-editing spotting my well-rested, not-yet-student-loan-repaying, hopeful blue eyes. But then, as college was dragging on, as reality was setting in, as it became clear that careers in my chosen field(s) were drying up with the impending economic crisis, I made a stunning declaration: “I…just…want to be a secretary.”
Now, I don’t think I really meant it. No, in fact I know I didn’t. I loved the things I learned. These were industries I wanted to work in, even if I was a little tired and dazed by them at the time. I knew, after a few weeks, maybe a whole summer, off, I’d want to put on a power suit (though, probably something a bit different), go into a fancy office, and do big things. I thought I’d have a high-powered career, make a boatload of money, sell portions of my soul, burn out a bit, and then retire to writing and child rearing. Yes, this was the part of Laura that represents the new generation.
And then…there weren’t any jobs. But there WERE bills. Oh, were there bills. So, somehow, rather-unmagically, even while I hadn’t been serious about it at all, I…well…I became a secretary. How very previous generation of me.
There I would be, every day, coffee in hand, pencil skirt belted up high, pearl studs and hairpins and a pretend smile ready to go. And, there I am still today. Now, while it hasn’t been quite two years yet, I’m hoping my tenure as secretary has already lived its majority. I’m hoping there are more options. I’m hoping this day-job doesn’t steal all my days for me.
It’s strange though. As we continue to talk about the stereotypes for women, secretary certainly has always been one of those. Just a few decades ago, “secretary” was one of only a few accepted options for women in the working world. And now, we glorify them on television of retro-based offices, and hope to glorify them at the same time.
The secretaries of shows like Mad Men or Bomb Girls (ya know, like the rich girl before she got onto the floor) often struggle to be both historically accurate and revolutionary self-aware. Is this second part accurate? I hope so. I guess we can’t really know. We think of these “gal Fridays” as fetching coffee, typing letters without having any idea of any of the business they contain, and just shaking their heads at inappropriate sexual remarks—oh, boys will be boys.
Now, this is no longer the role receptionists, secretaries—see also: administrative assistants—play in our work place. Let’s hope it’s also the same in our mind. It’s also the same in these aforementioned characters. Look at Peggy: climbing the ranks in a male’s world at a male’s time. And not to forget Joan: she controls everything and everyone and knows it, and so does anyone else paying attention. How exactly has this change come to be?
Is it that our value of women in a secretarial role changed (again, I hope)? Has our value of women in general in the workplace changed (this I also hope)? Am I just grasping too hard at stray, overwrought straws?
While I’m not thrilled at the day job I currently have—after all, it’s nothing I studied all those years for, and nothing I have a passion for—I am lucky enough not to be treated like a coffee maker or office candy. (I suppose it also has something to do with the environment in which I am a secretary—I work at a non-profit where mostly women fill the offices. Therefore, in general I have to deal with very little unwanted advances from co-workers.)
I’m not sure where we are, where this column is, where my career is. I like that we’ve changed the perception of women in the workplace over the last several decades—including the (usually) woman at the front counter. I like that we have fewer jobs that are for men only or for women only—whether that’s as CEO or CEO’s secretary. Yet, on my desk I still have a 1947 guide on secretary tips, and I’m often told, “Oh you’re just a secretary.”
Therefore, I say, be careful what you wish for. If only I didn’t have such a sarcastic mouth.