From "How to Be a Super-Secretary," published by Remington Rand, 1945. Source: Hagley Museum and Library

How Secretary Manuals Were Oddly Empowering

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By Molly Olney-Zide

In the 1945 edition of Remington Rand’s "How to Be a Super-Secretary," the stunning Betty Grable poses on the front cover dressed as an "ideal" secretary would.

The tips the publication included on how to dress and act "lady-like" at work might make professional women of today shudder. Preceded with the caveat that these hints are ones "your boss will never tell you," secretaries are encouraged to be beautiful in looks and actions, hide personal matters, and pass credit for originating good ideas to the boss.

Smoking in the office, wearing bobby socks, being emotional and being "smart but not smart enough to hide it" rank among some of the biggest pet peeves of the surveyed bosses.

Although pamphlets like these seem now degrading, in their day they provided an important -- and often empowering -- tool for women as they worked their own way up the professional food chain.

Remington Rand, a New York typewriter manufacturer, used its publications to appeal to women because they were the primary users of their products. In fact, a persuasive typewriter advertisement is slipped seamlessly into the pages of "How to Be a Super-Secretary."

With female secretaries holding such an important role in the success of its business, the company would never have intended condescension or offense toward them; even if women weren't typically bosses at the time, they were still a very powerful ally for the company. By creating pamphlets to help female secretaries improve their work ethic and, in turn, the boss-secretary relationship, Remington Rand simply hoped to increase its sales.

A similar balance is apparent in an earlier Remington Rand publication, "Rem Rand Notes: For Young Women Who Aspire to Greater Business Responsibilities," which clearly aimed to advance the relatively new idea of women in the workplace.

Its issues were filled with advertisements encouraging women to buy professional wear and typewriters, but also to enroll in correspondence courses at the American Institute of Filing to hone their skills. They also promoted Remington Rand products (such as the Sit-Wel chair) claiming a comfortable secretary could produce "better work."

Although there are many suggestions on etiquette (such as dressing appropriately and keeping makeup fresh), "Rem Rand Notes" principally is filled with articles (many written by women) discussing topics such as the importance of typing speed, whether shorthand will become obsolete and office-filing tips. Nowhere in the pages will you find a suggestion that such skills represent a cap for a young woman’s "greater business responsibilities."

These publications may strike a sensitive nerve in professionals today. But we shouldn't underestimate the role they played in advancing the acceptance of women in the workplace.

(Molly Olney-Zide is the Cataloger in the Imprints Department of Hagley Museum and Library. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this blog post: Molly Olney-Zide at

To contact the editor responsible for this blog post: Timothy Lavin at

-0- May/02/2012 17:20 GMT