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Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire

Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire

by Julie Berebitsky

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In this engaging book—the first to historicize our understanding of sexual harassment in the workplace—Julie Berebitsky explores how Americans’ attitudes toward sexuality and gender in the office have changed since the 1860s, when women first took jobs as clerks in the U.S. Treasury office.

Berebitsky recounts the actual experiences of female


In this engaging book—the first to historicize our understanding of sexual harassment in the workplace—Julie Berebitsky explores how Americans’ attitudes toward sexuality and gender in the office have changed since the 1860s, when women first took jobs as clerks in the U.S. Treasury office.

Berebitsky recounts the actual experiences of female and male office workers; draws on archival sources ranging from the records of investigators looking for waste in government offices during World War II to the personal papers of Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown and Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem; and explores how popular sources—including cartoons, advertisements, advice guides, and a wide array of fictional accounts—have represented wanted and unwelcome romantic and sexual advances. This range of evidence and the study’s long scope expose both notable transformations and startling continuities in the interplay of gender, power and desire at work.

Editorial Reviews

Jennifer Scanlon

Sex and the Office brings critical new historical insight to the sexual culture of the white-collar office. Culling an impressive array of sources, Berebitsky explores gendered office practices, including men asking employment agencies for ‘pretty blondes,’ women using sex with ‘superiors’ to supplement their wages, alienation-of-affection lawsuits waged by wives of adulterous bosses, and feminist attempts to name and address sexual harassment. A rich, important read.”—Jennifer Scanlon, author of Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown
Ava Baron

“After reading this book we gain a clearer, more well-defined understanding of the ways sex has saturated the white-collar office and the implications this has had for men as well as women who worked there. By giving sex in the office a history, Berebitsky provides valuable insights into the nature and meaning of sexual harassment today.”—Ava Baron, Rider University
Margaret Marsh

“Erudite, lively, and compellingly argued, this important book deserves a broad audience among scholars, lawyers, policy-makers, and general readers who want to understand the ways in which progress in gender equality has—and has not—changed sexual attitudes and behaviors in the workplace.”—Margaret Marsh, coauthor of The Fertility Doctor: John Rock and the Reproductive Revolution
Slate - Jennifer Szalai

“Berebitsky…makes thorough and thoughtful work of the material at hand, showing how sex is never just about sex; it’s often about money, too.”—Jennifer Szalai, Slate
Shelf Awareness

“Both an interesting read and a valuable resource.”—Shelf Awareness

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Society and the Sexes in the Modern World Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Sex and the Office



Copyright © 2012 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11899-5

Chapter One

Dangers, Desires, and Self-Determination

Competing Narratives of the Sexual Culture of the New, Gender-Integrated Office

"HAS LEFT HIS WIFE—Picard Loved Miss Berry," read the front-page headline of the July 29, 1904, Boston Daily Globe. According to his wife, Alfred L. Picard, fifty, had sold his prosperous electrical contracting business to start a new life out west with his typewriter, Ella Berry, because he "could not live without her." Destitute, Mrs. Picard was now working as a stenographer and had not heard from her husband since he left in early June. Their marital trouble had started two years before, when Picard had hired Berry, thirty, at seven dollars a week. Within a month, Mrs. Picard asserted, Berry was making twenty dollars a week and "running the office, hiring and discharging the men," her husband now "merely the office boy." Here, it seemed, was proof of a pretty typewriter's ability to wreak havoc on a man's lifetime of hard work and domestic order.

At the end of the account, a much shorter story appeared in which Ella's mother confidently denied Mrs. Picard's accusations and described her daughter as a quiet girl who did not even attend dances. In other words, Ella Berry was not a pleasure-seeking seductress who would engage in an affair with her employer but a victim of slurs designed to injure her reputation. And, to be sure, she appeared at the Globe's office the very next day to refute Mrs. Picard's charges and "to be at hand to prevent any new attacks on her good name." She was only nineteen (and, in the Globe's assessment, modest and refined), she had earned just twelve dollars a week, and her relations with Picard were strictly those of employer and employee. Berry had not heard from him in weeks and had no idea where he was. She was sure, however, that he was a gentleman who would return to defend her honor.

Picard did return, though not until about a year later, and his arrival in Boston did nothing to help Berry's reputation. After checking in to a hotel, he sent a note to his estranged wife, asking her to meet with him. After a short, tense conversation, he returned to his room and shot himself in the head with a revolver. The suicide made him front-page news again. Though the Globe did not mention Berry by name, its report recounted the earlier scandal without noting that she had publicly denounced the affront to her honor. Three months later, she shot herself in a New York City hotel room. Her father tearfully told reporters that even after the Globe published her side of the story, everywhere she went "somebody was ready to point to her as a girl who had been mixed up in a disgraceful affair." Seeking work outside of Boston did not help. Within a short time, the scandal would reach her employer and she would be told that she could not remain. Picard's suicide made matters worse, and she grew still more despondent. As she wrote in her suicide note, "I cannot bear this false stain upon my character.... I would not do this thing if it were not that I am nearly out of my mind with grief and horror at the awful story which everybody seems to think is true."

The violent ends that befell the young stenographer and her employer were unusual, but the narrative formulas the Globe used to recount their lives were conventional and predictable, resembling similar sensational accounts of the sexual goings-on in the white-collar office that were routine features in the nation's newspapers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—variations of which continue to this day. The Globe's coverage was unusual only because it contained elements of all three of the dominant stories Americans told about the moral character of the office and of the people who worked there. One plotline cast Berry as the unfeeling vamp who made a fool out of a man and mincemeat of his marriage; another revealed her to be the vulnerable victim of either a lecherous man or his vindictive wife, who blamed her marital troubles on her husband's office help. Still one more portrayed her as a new kind of woman, a moral and strong-minded individual capable of protecting (or at least standing up for) herself, even in public. These competing understandings of womanhood were coupled with oppositional conceptions of men, in which Picard was alternately the victim of his base desires, a sexual predator willing to exploit his position of authority, or a gentleman who had failed in his role as protector of female innocence.

These narratives spoke directly to the experiences of urban middleclass Americans who witnessed firsthand the explosive growth of the office workplace in the post–Civil War economy and with it, a new and rapidly expanding workforce of women. But they were also part of a national conversation about sex, marriage, and family life in a rapidly modernizing world. Most especially these tales of intrigue reflected disagreement about the place of women—their role, rights, and safety—in the public sphere. At the heart of debates about the sexual culture of the office lay the question of women's sexual nature and their individual agency. Those who saw women as emotional naïfs wondered whether workingwomen would be able to resist seduction or coercion, while others believed that at least a few willingly engaged in illicit affairs just as they had chosen to enter into a labor contract. For their part, some women office workers asserted their personal integrity and capability, claiming ownership of their virtue and responsibility for their lives.

Such assertions were necessary at a time when Americans were in a panic over the possible links between women's employment and immorality—even prostitution. Concern focused mostly on the young, working-class women who labored in factories and department stores and spent their leisure hours at dance halls and amusements parks. Unable to afford these entertainments on their meager wages, they allowed men to "treat" them, exchanging sexual favors for a night of fun. White-collar women did not completely escape the reformers' gaze: stories in magazines and newspapers regularly told of the dangerous propositions attractive women received during job interviews. An extended series on urban workingwomen in Harper's Bazar in 1908 began with a letter from a young stenographer who was ill for two weeks after the men at her first two interviews made sexually suggestive comments. A similar series in the New York Times in 1909 concluded with an independently minded young woman running home to her mother and loyal boyfriend after receiving an offer to be a "private secretary." The interviewer's comments on her beauty and his "soft, purring tone" made her "instinctively draw away."

Female office workers and their advocates, however, were able to utilize the intersecting ideologies of gender, class, and sexuality to diminish anxieties about the myriad dangers—to themselves, to men, to families, to society—posed by office employment. By laying claim to the moral authority grounded in the middle-class ideology of female passion-lessness, they were able to affirm their superiority to working-class women even when they, too, were workingwomen—and even as many working-class women occupied low-level clerical jobs by the century's end. Everywhere the office workers looked, though, they saw signs that the celebrated belief in female virtue and middle-class respectability was outweighed by deep-seated convictions regarding women's capacity for sexual deceit and men's corresponding defenselessness. No matter how pure her actions, how modest her bearing, for example, Berry's reputation never recovered from the moment of first suspicion; even to be thought to have aroused desire could lead to ruin. Picard fared no better; he was prima facie evidence that a man could become, as his wife described him, a mere office boy in the hands of a scheming stenographer.

Picard and Berry were not the only boss and stenographer to find details of their relationship splashed across a newspaper's front page, and other sources also contemplated this new workplace relationship—one that, in many ways, mirrored the dynamic between a husband and wife. Employment guides, reformers and religious leaders, and even juries offered up opinions. In other words, Americans had countless opportunities to think about women's nature and appropriate place.


Popular accounts of workplace entanglements often focused on the typewriter's irresistible allure, and especially on the threat she posed to men's self-control, a stable society, and marriages. Women and men working together raised the specter of an array of untold immoral possibilities, and, perhaps more troubling, the typewriter seemed to offer greater pleasures than the wife at home. In part, then, these stories spoke to the question of marital sexuality. Typewriters responded that they were not "love pirates" and offered public reassurances that a businessman's wife had nothing to fear. Despite their denials, newspapers regularly portrayed the office girl as a siren who ruined good men and solid marriages.

As the citizens of Buffalo learned in 1893, it did not take long for such destruction to occur. Alice Brand, twenty-six, needed only two weeks to turn Alex Fortier, forty-eight, a respected veteran and chief clerk of the city's Health Department, away from his upright life and his wife of twenty-three years. This was not completely surprising, the Buffalo paper noted, for those who "should know whereof they speak say that when it comes to a fast life a pretty blonde stenographer can do much more execution than wine and cards in destroying a man's standing in a community." When Mrs. Fortier filed for divorce, the city learned of the alliance, which included nights spent at the office on the pretense of conducting business.

Fortier had abandoned his wife financially and physically. In a six-month period, he showered Brand with "clothing, shoes, bon-bons, bouquets and luxuries of many kinds." He also had taken her to the theater, to restaurants, and to an art gallery, where he "got her to sit for her picture half nude and exposed," which he then wore under his watch and showed to his friends and acquaintances. While Fortier showered Brand with gifts, he gave his wife, who suffered from an incurable eye disease, so little money that she could no longer hire household help—a marker of a precipitous decline for a middle-class woman. The Health Department quickly suspended Fortier and demanded Brand's resignation.

Fortier was soon back at work in his office. He confessed to visiting Brand at her home after work and to being "indiscreet at times," but he vigorously denied any improper relations and declared himself the victim of malicious gossip. Mrs. Fortier admitted that she had no concrete proof of his affair and agreed to drop the divorce proceedings. The Health Department chief reinstated Fortier, but Brand was not rehired. She had not denied the allegations, and the chief stated that he would no longer hire women, taking care to note that he was "not slurring 'noble womanhood,'" for which he had the highest esteem. With Fortier in and Brand gone, the story seemed over. Within a few weeks, however, Fortier had disappeared, leaving a trail of unpaid loans borrowed from friends and concern that he had embezzled from the Naval Veterans Association. A few months later, he was still missing. The papers made no comment on Brand's whereabouts.

Newspaper coverage in this case never focused on the "other woman," or the effect of the scandal on her life; this narrative was about the social calamity that ensued when men succumbed to temptation. Brand "worked hard" and "was pleasant ... rather than bold," but even if she was something less than a vamp, she was still dangerous. She tested Fortier's self-control and he failed, giving in to his physical desires—and, just as problematically, to the temptations of an expanding consumer economy. Fortier had spent wildly on his lover: clothes, candy, even a bicycle—perhaps a tribute to her New Woman status. But nineteenth-century middle-class men were supposed to focus on work and delay gratification; uninhibited consumption was the provenance of women. They bought things, while men made them—or the money to buy them. Succumbing to the delights of things, then, was no less a threat to a man—indeed, the same type of threat—as yielding to a seductive temptress. In Fortier's surrender to pleasure, everything—the funds of the Naval Veterans Association, the money for his ill wife's medicine, the savings of friends, and the reputation of a once respected man—was consumed.

Why were men like this so vulnerable to the charms of their "pretty typewriters?" Were they, as one critic argued, honest husbands before these women lured them from their homes? Or had these men's wives done something to drive their husbands away? These stories can be read as part of a larger reevaluation of the relationship between a husband and wife and the importance of sexuality in marriage, a reevaluation prompted in part by the rising divorce rate. By the end of the nineteenth century, one of every fifteen marriages ended this way, and middle-class Americans talked about a divorce crisis. The ideal of wifeliness that emerged from commentaries about "pretty typewriters" was domestic, but also sensual. Her primary purpose was still to serve as helpmate, but the new white-collar breadwinner needed a partner in pleasure, too.

In some ways, this reconsideration of the erotic in marriage was linked to the rise of a bureaucratic workforce. With more and more men becoming salaried corporate employees rather than striving for entrepreneurial independence, leisure time increased and took on greater significance. At the same time, the mature industrial economy churned out more and more consumer goods promising to make life more pleasurable and fun. Marriage—and the home and family more broadly—began to be seen as a means to fulfill an individual's need for happiness. While spouses still needed to fulfill their old gendered duties, such as breadwinning and nurturing, they also had to bring excitement to the marriage. But as the rising number of divorces showed, blending the old and the new was often not so easy. Men wanted wives who were domestic and sensuous, virtuous and thrilling. Women wanted husbands who provided, but for much more than the household basics. The emphasis on sexual pleasure within marriage, which increasingly became the guiding principle after 1900, also proved a source of discontent and confusion for some couples.

The case of a wandering industrialist illustrates how the uncertainty surrounding marital sexuality and the modern middle-class wife's role found expression in heated discussions of the sexual temptations of the new heterosocial workplace. In 1908 Mrs. Benedetto Allegretti, the wife of a wealthy Chicago candy manufacturer, sued her husband for divorce because of his involvement with his eighteen-year-old typewriter. Allegretti denounced all typewriters as "love pirates" who menaced happy marriages. Office girls consciously exerted "an influence for evil" on men, who compared their neat gowns and picture hats with the work dresses of the busy homemaking wife. The social reserve that usually guided men's and women's interaction was also gone. According to Allegretti, men knew their typewriters better than the girls' mothers did, and typewriters certainly understood their bosses better than did their wives. And there was always the "sex element to be reckoned with."

When Allegretti's charges made the newspapers in many American cities, typists and their supporters countered her attack, blaming men or their wives for adulterous relationships. A girl who entered such a relationship did so not because she was a business girl, one typewriter maintained, "but because she is that kind of a girl and would do that thing in whatever position she was placed." On the relatively few occasions when improper advances occurred, men made them, and they were "a source of great annoyance to the girls." The "average business woman" was "too level-headed to waste her time on a married man."

Some defenders of female workers noted that office romances often developed between unmarried men and women, a defense that challenged representations of the office as professional, asexual space—although no one addressed the inconsistency. Instead, typewriters used the fact of love matches begun at work to praise the qualities of office women and to criticize businessmen's wives. "It strikes me that Mrs. Allegretti lost her husband because she thought it no longer necessary to appear attractive and dainty before him," one proclaimed. "It is a wife's fault if she allows her husband to stray from her, for by observing the habits of the business woman she can hold him always." Another picked up the thread. If a typewriter married, she would know how to keep her husband interested and amused. Her home would not be a tomb of "gray respectability" but would be filled with pleasure to "lighten the recollection of his heavy hours of routine." Business experience made women more stylish, less selfish and narrowly focused, and more understanding and sympathetic; it was too bad that all women could not work some before marriage.

Some discussions hinted, too, that the time spent at work with men gave women a greater understanding of erotic pleasures. While fiction published in stenography journals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often showed women finding love with their employers and coworkers as the reward for dedicated service, desire began to appear in other venues. In 1910, for example, the Atlanta Constitution emphasized the importance of sexual attraction in its coverage of an office romance that quickly led to marriage: when a pretty stenographer goes to work for a bachelor, there is "apt to be more than an interchange of mere business formalities." Other representations of romantic and sexual interaction in the office were more complicated. While portraying sex as a source of rejuvenation and fulfillment for men, these accounts also suggested its danger and expressed—at best—ambivalence about the character of women who aroused desire.


Excerpted from Sex and the Office by JULIE BEREBITSKY Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Julie Berebitsky is professor of history and director of the Women’s Studies Program at Sewanee: The University of the South. The author of Like Our Very Own: Adoption and the Changing Culture of Motherhood, she lives in Sewanee, TN.

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