By Lynn Peril
W. W. Norton & Company, $16.95, 290 pages
Don’t be fooled by the tongue-in-cheek title of Lynn Peril’s “retro guide.” This book is a well-researched cultural study on the role of women in the secretarial field from the late 19th century until today. Peril pays particular attention to the media’s portrayal of the secretary in advertising, print magazines and how-to manuals. It is hard to believe that only a few decades ago women in this field were victims of blatant objectification, their skills often marginalized by the expectation that they be attractive, charming, have a beautiful over-the-phone voice, and carry a “posture or stance that smacks of Hollywood.”
While the subject matter of Swimming in the Steno Pool is the female secretary, the overall theme of the book is exploring how the social construct of a male-dominated workforce struggled to deal with women “coming out of the kitchen” and into their workplace. The first part of the book deals primarily with the period leading up to second-wave feminism in the 1970s, while the last three chapters look at the evolution of the secretary as she continues to break through the “glass ceiling” while still dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. This is a great book for courses in women’s studies or media studies.
Reviewed by Cheri Woods-Edwin