Past Times

In the ’20s and beyond, the typewriter was the key to feminism

Office work was the path to the working world for most women, such as these employees of The News & Observer’s business office.
Office work was the path to the working world for most women, such as these employees of The News & Observer’s business office. N&O Photo

In 1924, Mary Badger Wilson, “daughter of Peter M. Wilson, who now holds an important position in the U. S. Senate,” pointed to the typewriter as the key to independence for women.

The year 1923 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the typewriter; only a half century of existence, but already it has amazingly altered both the methods and the manners of the world.

Among the interesting modifications of civilization brought about by the invention of the typewriter we may with discretion count the emancipation of woman. Fifty years ago the business world was inhabited almost entirely by men. Then a strange new writing machine began to appear in office after office. Operators were needed to run these machines, and women, with their quick hands and their low wage demands, were found to make good, cheap operators. In small numbers at first they began sifting into the business life of the country, and thus started the great feminine invasion of the economic world. The courage of Susan B. Anthony, considered pragmatically, was a smaller factor in putting over feminism than the standard keyboard.

Even now, in the far corners of the earth, one may watch the liberty of women expand under the “type touch system.” … Truly, the key to the modern world for woman has been the typewriter key. The N&O Jan. 6, 1924

Forty years later, not much had changed. N&O writer Charles Craven introduced readers in 1963 to North Carolina’s legislative secretarial pool.

They’re paid $13 a day seven days a week and their bosses are lawyers, business tycoons, farmers, teachers and what have you.

They’re members of the secretarial pools in the House and Senate of the General Assembly. Mrs. Annie Cooper, principal clerk of the House, says of her brood of 35 secretaries, “A most agreeable bunch – fascinated with their work and don’t mind overtime sessions.”

Ray Byerly, principal clerk of the Senate, is in charge of a bevy of 28 secretaries who handle the volumes of paper work for the gentlemen of the Upper Chamber. They, too – the secretaries, not the Senators – earn $13 a day seven days a week.

Byerly points out that the secretaries are well-trained, must be able to take dictation from a variety of dictators.

How are the ladies – mostly housewives and mothers – chosen? Frankly, they have to know somebody. Usually they are recommended by members of the Legislature and Mrs. Cooper and Byerly abide by the recommendations.

Most of the secretaries are from Raleigh and environs. “It’s part time work for them,” said Mrs. Cooper. “And women from other parts of the State who are qualified as secretaries usually are not willing to give up their regular jobs to take legislative job for a few months.

However, there are a few of the secretaries who are form distant cities and counties. “But we like to get applicants from other places if the members know secretaries who can come to Raleigh for the session,” said Mrs. Cooper.

If an efficient secretary once gets her foot in the door, she usually can hold on to the job session after session – provided the particular lawmaker who likes her services can get reelected. Mrs. Cooper said that legislators usually find a secretary whose work suits them. In such cases, they ask for her when they begin the new session.

Of course, other than efficiency, there is another quality that helps a secretary land a job in the legislature. Membership in the Democratic party. This is what you call “politics.” The N&O Feb. 10, 1963

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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