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  • Transcribing Class and Gender: Masculinity and Femininity in Nineteenth-Century Courts and Offices
  • Carolyn Strange
Transcribing Class and Gender: Masculinity and Femininity in Nineteenth-Century Courts and Offices. By Carole Srole (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2009. viii plus 324 pp.).

Before the advent of the hit television series, Mad Men, few would have considered the day-to-day details of office work and office politics to be sexy. This assumption also prevails among historians in regard to the history of clerical work. Compared to the interest shown in factory labour and worker politics, as well as the rise of the professions, the world of typists and stenographers has attracted scant attention. Carole Srole's Transcribing Class and Gender shows what we have missed through this inattention. And she demonstrates that office labour is surprisingly sexy, not just historically but historiographically.

This book develops research Srole conducted for her 1994 PhD thesis on the feminization of clerical work in Boston, from 1860 to 1915. This study tells a larger story by stretching back to the antebellum period and widening its frame to the nation. In addition it reflects major historiographical trends since the 1990s: social history has seen its twilight; cultural history has hit full stride; and gender history has overtaken women's history.

The enduring utility of census records is demonstrated in Srole's charts of the micro shifts in the nineteenth-century labour market for stenographers, typists, amanuenses, and court reporters. These shifts underlay a macro-historical trend in the gender distribution of office workers, from a field dominated by men in the pre-War years, to one in which women developed a significant presence and, in the lower rungs of the field, began to dominate. This was a national trend, Srole shows, but it occurred over a contracted period in the cities of the Eastern seaboard, where the rise of commerce and the expansion of state governments and the federal government created a demand for labourers who could copy letters, type reports and record court proceedings. The urban East and Midwest were also the places chosen by proponents of stenography, who set up training schools with rival systems of shorthand. For aspirants with the right character and training, respectable employment and advancement prospects awaited. Or so the circulars claimed.

In the pre-War years employers thought only of men when they looked for clerical help. By moving her time frame to the antebellum period Srole analyses how the apprenticeship model operated: young men in shops or businesses learned how to keep accurate accounts, prepare invoices, and draft correspondence, in the hope, one day, of becoming partners or owners. As enterprises grew and a broader pool of clerks was recruited, few had the chance to own their own businesses. This is where the sex comes in. The floating pool of male clerks, untethered to home or community restraints, made the city their playground and generally gave clerking a bad name. How, then, did office work become respectable, and a field in which both women and men worked?

Transcribing Class and Gender revolves around these questions. To answer them Srole uses an array of sources, including company records, novels, advertisements, cartoons, poetry and photography. Her exploration of the changing labour market's cultural dimensions aids her deeper objective: to demonstrate the mutual constitution of class and gender through the experiences of clerical workers over a volatile period, in which old forms of labour (such as copying) generated novel class and gender implications, in which new forms of labour [End Page 1141] (particularly typewriting) transformed from masculine to feminine specialties, and in which some techniques (rapid transcription, for instance) came to be associated with professionalism.

In this topsy turvy landscape women and men struggled to find their feet, first of all to secure employment, and secondly, to find a "gender balance." Srole uses this term to describe how men and women "tried to strike a certain combination of contemporary masculine and feminine traits that embraced elements of conventional definitions of both manhood and womanhood and carved gender difference out of both" (5). Moreover, this "gender balancing enabled the molding of the middle class" (5). This argument...


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