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Q&A

What happened when women joined the office

Coed work life has improved since Helen Gurley Brown’s day, says historian Julie Berebitsky—but not as much as we might think.

This ad, which appeared in Fortune in 1969, made clear that gender equality at the office still had a way to go.
This ad, which appeared in Fortune in 1969, made clear that gender equality at the office still had a way to go.FROM “SEX AND THE OFFICE,” COURTESY OF YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS/Yale University Press

In her 1964 book “Sex and the Office,” Helen Gurley Brown told the story of a game called “Scuttle,” which she had witnessed while working at a Los Angeles radio station. Every afternoon, she wrote, a group of men would choose a secretary, chase her around the office, catch her, and take her panties off. (The game was later recreated on an episode of “Mad Men.”) In her book, Brown treats the game as a pleasant diversion, even a source of wistfulness about her own appearance. “Alas,” she wrote, “I was never scuttled.”

Brown went on, of course, to become the legendary editor of Cosmopolitan, and her death this month, at 90, has sparked a number of broad discussions—about women’s sexuality, gender relations, and how much the American workplace has and hasn’t changed. Brown herself was a conundrum to modern-day eyes: As a high-powered career woman, she preached women’s independence. But she also demonstrated a stunning acceptance of male misbehavior and urged women to use their sexuality to get ahead.

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If that attitude seems contradictory, that’s because Brown “was as much a product of her time as a challenge to it,” writes Julie Berebitsky. Berebitsky, a history professor and director of the women’s studies program at Sewanee: The University of the South, devoted a whole chapter to Brown in a book published in April—titled, like Brown’s 1964 book, “Sex and the Office.” But while Brown’s book is a sisterly guide to the benefits of calculated office flirtation, Berebitsky’s is a serious history of women in the white-collar workplace.

The new “Sex and the Office” spans more than a century, from the first female office workers in the 1800s to the victims of sexual harassment today. Certainly, it makes clear that progress has been made since the “Scuttle” days. But Berebitsky believes we haven’t come as far as we may assume. Even today, she argues, entrenched ideas about gender and masculinity make it impossible for men and women to be treated as equals in the workplace.

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Berebitsky spoke to Ideas from the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, where she is researching a book about Republican feminists.

IDEAS: Your book suggests that Helen Gurley Brown wasn’t a revolutionary so much as part of a continuum of women who were learning how to manage their sexuality in the workplace. What did she do that was different?

BEREBITSKY: She certainly doesn’t ever offer a new philosophical justification for why women should have sex before marriage. What she says is, “Women are doing this. Women, like men, have a sex drive. So it’s natural; women shouldn’t feel ashamed.”...If you’re supporting yourself and you’re independent, why shouldn’t you have sexual freedom the way men do?

In the early 1960s, before the feminist movement, imagine how worried you are if you believe that your chance of getting married is dependent on being a virgin or having a good reputation. You’re going to be frightened around men. But if she’s saying, “You’re sexually free if you’re independent,” then all of a sudden, more career options become available.

IDEAS: But she was excoriated in the 1990s, when she defended Senator Bob Packwood during his sexual misconduct scandal.

BEREBITSKY: In the 1950s and ’60s, when she starts to publish, she is so far ahead of her peers. But then she never evolves....After harassment laws are passed, she’s very much supportive of stopping quid pro quo harassment, but the rest of the stuff that we refer to now as “hostile environment,” she just sees as people being human and men being men and what’s the big deal?...She says, “I don’t want my girls to be afraid of men. I don’t want my girls, the Cosmo girls, to see men as the enemy.”

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IDEAS: When and why did women start going into office work?

BEREBITSKY: In the middle of the 19th century, in some cases, there’s a man shortage. After the Civil War: Obviously, lots of men die. Also in New England after the Civil War, there’s really no land for men, so lots of men are going West to increase their chances of success. So you’ve got a man shortage, maybe not all middle-class women are going to be able to find a husband, and you’ve got women who need to support themselves. Their fathers can’t support them...these women can’t stay there with their families forever, so they need a respectable job.

IDEAS: Was office work ever considered just a means of finding a husband?

BEREBITSKY: In the 19th century, women going into clerical jobs, for the most part, are women who really need the jobs. If they find a husband, great, but they need a job and they want a job that is respectable. They are very concerned about losing their class status, and a factory job would do that. In the 19-teens and ’20s and ’30s, you really get the idea of “Oh, they’re looking for a husband.”

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IDEAS: And with that, you write, the view of women in the office shifted—from potential victims to threats to businessmen and their wives.

BEREBITSKY: We think of women gaining sexual freedom as something that is good and positive. And it is, right? Except when women start to be thought of as sexual creatures, that means there’s no protection for them. Any discussion of “Oh, women might be vulnerable” is lost.

IDEAS: It seems the burden was entirely on them: If they were harassed or attacked, they had to stave it off, or find a new job.

BEREBITSKY: For the most part, these women are low-skilled employees. So if they’re complaining, you know that there’s another low-skilled woman out there who will be able to take their job.

IDEAS: Having studied all of this must make you watch “Mad Men” in a different light.

BEREBITSKY: I’ve read lots of commentary that says, in essence, “Oh, we can congratulate ourselves on how much progress we’ve made, that sort of outright sexism [in “Mad Men”] doesn’t exist, that would never happen. And that, I think, is false. There’s still a lot of sexual harassment out there, especially the “hostile environment” kind.

Now, women are very much accepted in white-collar spaces, academia. But...we still have understandings of masculinity that are very much defined by men’s sexual prowess. We still expect women to be feminine, attractive, and sexy. I was interviewed by the women’s editor of Forbes Magazine. She told me she talked to a journalism class and the women came up to her and said, “How should we dress, how are we supposed to be both professional and attractive?”

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IDEAS: That sounds very Helen Gurley Brown.

BEREBITSKY: Exactly. Things have changed, but in terms of our understanding of gender and gender roles, not as much has changed as we would like to think.


Joanna Weiss is a Globe columnist. E-mail weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.