Holding The Keys - How The Typewriter Shaped The Workplace For Women

The Stack speaks to Alison Taubman, curator of The National Museum of Scotland's new exhibition ‘The Typewriter Revolution’, to discover the role of the typewriter in setting the parameters of the world of work for women

By Hannah Connolly

6 August 2021

hen thinking of typewriters perhaps it is images of the tortured writer - a Jack Kerouac figure, sleeves rolled up, cigarette plumes billowing whilst hammering away on the keyboard that are summoned. A quaffed Elizabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in a 1960s pea coat circa Mad Men? Or is it a pre-digital age invention, that though romantic, is a thing very much of the past?

“Though the typewriter has been swapped out for desktops and laptops, its legacy continues to define the world of work for women to this day.”

What may not immediately spring to mind is the typewriter’s role in the introduction of women to the world of business and the restrictive parameters it has inadvertently established. The typewriter, for better and for worse, has changed the women’s workplace since its inception, and though the typewriter has been swapped out for desktops and laptops, its legacy continues to define the world of work for women to this day.

The National Museum of Scotland is home to the new exhibition The Typewriter Revolution, which features a range of stories charting the typewriter’s impact on the world we live in today.

Below, The Stack spoke to the exhibit’s curator, Alison Taubman.

“For working class women this story is very different, they have always worked and it is important to stress that.”

The Question Of The Superfluous Woman

“What comes across in this exhibit - and what makes it special - is to be able to present technology within quite a feminine context, to use a lot of visuals of women which for this type of exhibition is quite unusual,” explains Taubman.

The invention of the typewriter itself, it must be said, was not some great lightbulb moment. It was, rather, a series of tinkering of previous ideas done by a series of inventors, but the typewriter as we know it, is largely attributed to Christopher Latham Sholes who first patented his machine in 1868.

Yet, the story of the typewriter and women begins its tale as a middle class concern. “Converging in the second half of the 1800s is this great question of the superfluous woman or the redundant woman referring to middle class young women who were highly educated but had limited outlets beyond becoming a governess. This was, of course, teamed with the understanding that they wouldn’t - and shouldn't - work. For working class women this story is very different, they have always worked and it is important to stress that.”

What the typewriter found itself aligning with was huge societal shifts. The later decades of the 1800s marked great swings in the working world. In the UK, the industrial revolution had shifted ways of working forever and big business reigned. “There was this big increase in bureaucracy at that time, and all of this needed to be documented and processed,” said Taubman.

Historically the role that acted as the predecessor to the typist was that of the clerk and was traditionally a man's occupation. Acting as the sponge for information and by hand creating all records and correspondence for their employers (think Bob Cratchet). With the advent of the typewriter and the need for speed and efficiency the role of the typist was born.

With the question of the superfluous woman in mind, the typewriter emerged as a “safe, clean and respectable form of work and crucially paired with a new device that came in so women weren't taking existing jobs from men.” says Alison Taubman. Though it is important to note that from this opportunity, the previously shut off world of business, politics, lawyering and so on allowed women to access through the first door but did and often still does, hold the keys to the rooms beyond.

“Offices literally had nowhere to put women, they had no toilets for women - all of this infrastructure, they just couldn't deal with it, but very quickly what businesses realised is that ‘okay here is the job to do and this machine allows it and if we let women operate them they will do it for half the price.’”

The Pay-Gap Solution

The idea of cheaper labour at the hands of experienced operators sealed the deal for relinquishing the widespread disapproval for women entering the workplace, but established an ongoing rhetoric.

“Women would do it for half the price and they were very good at it, they were highly educated and so from a businessman's point of view what's not to like? Well, the resistance towards women in the workplace was undoubtedly there but the economics facilitated it.”

And thus in some sense, we see the inception of the gender pay gap in startling clarity. As women entered the world of business for the first time, their contribution was immediately seen as worth less than men because of their gender.

From the civil services own reports at the time it was declared: “The wages offered will attract male operators from an inferior class of the community and will attract females from a superior class.” The incentive of hiring women not only used as an economic advancement for the male owners of businesses, but also a direct attack on class. Going on to add “women are less disposed to get together to extort higher wages.”

“Offices literally had nowhere to put women, they had no toilets for women”

Over Qualified & Under Paid

This again coincides with societal change with the Elementary Education Act of 1870, which implemented the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 12 in England and Wales. “If at school girls were seen to be bright and able in English, languages and maths, typing was then an opportunity for them or of course clerk work in general. So you could get a foothold in that world otherwise you would probably be working in the domestic industries that were womens’ choices at the time.”

It is important to stress that these women were often hugely over qualified. Alison explained, “this job was not easy or at all straightforward. Of course, like any job, there is a scale but even for a woman employed as a copy typist it was still required that you would have good numeracy and literacy skills and often you would need to read and write Latin. If you worked at a legal firm or a doctor's practice for example you would then need to know and fully understand all of the terminology that came alongside that.”

The Typing Business

In the midst of this new world of work emerged a generation of women who could see clear business opportunities. Women began opening their own typing pools and schools. Forging networks amongst themselves to offer their clerical services to a world they were entering for the first time.

In fact, the oldest typewriter in the exhibitions collection was bequeathed by one of these such women, Ethelinda Hawden who, alongside her partner, set up her own typing pool and would later go on to play an instrumental role in the fight for women's suffrage.

“Then from the 20th century onwards, you do get more working class young women coming in from the inception of open typing schools, yet of course regardless of class status all of these women were expected to leave once they were married,” said Taubman.

The impact of the war was also insurmountable. What this period of time illuminated for women was the understanding they could, and wanted to work, having done so in the absence of the men away fighting, but well into the 20s and 30s the practice of leaving once married was commonplace and almost all older women working as typists would in fact be unmarried women.

“I think in these years women saw an opportunity, they saw how they could establish business, but what is also interesting at this time are the professional societies like the Typist Society of the 1880s that began appearing. These groups were allowing women to network and communicate with one another which is why you see the role of women and the typewriter converging in the suffragette movement.”

The typewriter was used as an ally for political and social protesting, to create leaflets, posters and channels of communication on an entirely new and portable scale than had ever been seen before.

The Key Issues

Though undoubtedly typewriters opened doors, its role in the landscape of a woman's working life was also hugely detrimental. “Of course alongside all of the good, runs issues right up to the end of the 20th century. With women in these very male dominated spheres they were open to all kinds of exploitation and to sexual abuse.”

An issue that remains prominent to this day, though typewriters have been exchanged with desktops. It’s terrifying that workplace harassment and abuse is still at the forefront of women’s lives today.

The role of the woman typist also presented itself as a huge threat to men, explained Taubman. “From the 1880s onwards you get this cartoon depiction of female typists, depicted as a threat to their male boss and even as a threat to other women.” With this came the hyper sexualised deception of women and ultimately of their objectification. This lasted well up to the late 1980s and continues today in part, owed to the influence of the typewriter.

“The typewriter was used as an ally for political and social protesting, to create leaflets, posters and channels of communication on an entirely new and portable scale.”

The New Woman

The typewriter also assisted in the proliferation of the New Woman in popular culture. This hyper modern woman and the great threat she represented at the turn of the century and well into the 1920s. “The New Woman is the archetype of this threat to societal structure, in these caricatures she is depicted as typing whilst smoking, whilst riding a bicycle all while wearing trousers, this is it all coming together in this one figure. These were the women that were not following the norm, they had the means to earn their own living, to run their own lives and from this she became a figure of popular culture,” explained Alison.

She was everywhere at the turn of the century from the typist characters of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series, Meena in Bram Stoker's Dracula, to the real life characters such as Colette and actresses such as Theda Bara.

“They are there because they represent this independence and inquiring spirit. The book Odd Women by George Gissing, written in the 1890s, right when this is all happening, documents these women through the lens of a group of friends that run a typing school. They are referred to as odd in the sense that they live outside the normal, whether people liked it or not it was very much a phenomenon.”

Write Up To Today

“There are these amazing stories from much later on and we look at that too. The 60s and the 70s are a time when secretarial roles are very much established. The Equal Pay act happens, then of course you can't as easily pay women less but what you do get are these pivotal strikes,” explains Alison, on the scope of the exhibition.

“A strike with factory workers at the Imperial Typewriter Factory in Leicester in 1974 showcases unions at one their worst moments, refusing to support striking workers. A large number of Asian women went out on strike after they found out they were not receiving the same bonuses and flexibility to working hours as their co-workers. Shortly afterwards another strike organised by Asian women fighting against their terrible working conditions was this time supported by the unions and though the unions failed these women, it showcased the voices of women that were being silenced by their employers.”

This is part of the mission of the exhibition - to show the scope and breadth of the typewriter's influence and archive this by following a legacy of stories that permeate generations.

To this day, women's experience in the workplace is affected, both positively and negatively by the parameters established by the role of the typewriter, what cannot be denied, however, is the fact that the typewriter has impacted the way we as women work forever.

The Typewriter Revolution, curated by Alison Taubman, will be running from: 24th July 2021 to the 17th April 2022. With thanks to Alison Taubman and the National Museum of scotland.

The Short Stack

The Stack catches up with the curator of the National Museum of Scotland’s ‘Typewriter Revolution’ exhibition and discovers how the invention affects women in the workplace to this day.

By Hannah Connolly

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