Secretary is formed from secret. The noun suffix -ary comes from a Latin masculine form and means “belonging to or engaged in.”
The first “secretaries” were men who kept records and wrote letters for kings, i.e., they were people who could be trusted to keep secrets of state.
Even today, although the word secretary in a business context lies on the trash heap of “political correctness,” it remains in honored use as the title of a highly placed government official, for example, “Secretary of State” and “Secretary of Defense.”
At the beginning of the twentieth century, educational opportunities for women increased and the male fatalities of World War I opened new avenues to female employment. Ambitious young women, like the maid encouraged by Lady Sybil in the Downton Abbey series, aspired to the job of secretary as a means of escaping the drudgery and subservience of domestic employment.
In previous decades, employment as a secretary had been a man’s job. As more and more women entered the occupation, the word secretary became feminized in the context of office work.
Hollywood movies, novels, and television shows contributed to the various stereotypes that have grown up around the word:
- brainless young woman who files, takes telephone messages, and provides coffee for the men in the office.
- beautiful woman with large bosom ogled by boss and other men in the office
- beautiful/scheming woman looking to break up the boss’s marriage
- unattractive, highly efficient woman who conceals a decades-long love for the unsuspecting boss
- highly efficient elderly woman who lives only for her job
I have never watched the television series Mad Men, but the Web abounds in articles about its presentation of the role of secretaries in the 1960s. These excerpts from an article in the New York Post (April 6, 2015) indicate that the writers for the series drew shamelessly on secretarial stereotypes:
In six and a half seasons, Don has churned through nine secretaries, who were often the victim of their boss’ womanizing ways.
A switchboard operator in Season 1, Lois becomes Don’s secretary in Season 2 after Peggy’s promotion, but he fires her for being incompetent.
The model-like Jane gets assigned to Don’s desk in Season 2 and it isn’t long before she starts an affair with Roger Sterling, who leaves his wife to marry her.
A Sterling Cooper employee since Season 1, Allison started as a receptionist and became Don’s secretary in Season 3. When a drunken Don forgets his keys after a Christmas party, she delivers them to his apartment and the two sleep together.
After Allison resigns, Joan assigns Bert Cooper’s elderly secretary to Don’s desk, knowing she’s the one secretary he won’t have an affair with (though it was revealed that in her younger years, Roger did just that). Blunt and cantankerous, Ida provided some comic relief before dying suddenly at her desk.
The French-Canadian Megan was promoted from the typing pool to Don’s secretary after Miss Blankenship’s death and quickly leads her boss back into his womanizing ways. On a trip to California in the season finale, Don proposes on a whim and the two later marry.
An image search for “secretaries cartoons” brings up screeds of drawings of varying degrees of offensiveness that perpetuate the stereotypes. It’s not surprising that the organization founded in 1942 as “The National Secretaries Association”—after several intervening name changes—has settled on this one: “The International Association of Administrative Professionals.”
The widespread change from calling the employees formerly known as “secretaries” to “administrative assistants” is justified by the argument that running an office is more complicated than it was in the past. But, isn’t everything? We still call teachers teachers and doctors doctors. Words other than secretary exist or could be coined for office jobs that do not entail as much work and expertise as that of secretary: receptionist, filing clerk, mail clerk, errand-runner, coffee-maker.
I predict that if the occupation of “administrative assistant” turns out to employ mostly women, the term will take on the same sexist overtones as secretary.
Euphemisms tend to take on the connotations they are invented to dispel.