THERE ARE SOME features of our society which, trivial as they may seem, represent all that is most repugnant about it. During the past week, we have endured one: Professional Secretaries Week. It is peculiarly an invention of America -- an exercise, like Mother's Day, in degradation -- and it should be stamped out mercilessly. It is at no level a laughing matter, and I find few people inclined to laugh.
"It is so condescending" -- that was the mildest comment I elicited all week-- "It is so demeaning." "It is disgusting" -- that from a bartender, a woman who makes money from it -- "It is repulsive." The vocabulary of an 11-year-old might say it all: "That's gross."
Most obviously it demeans women. But by making only half the point, that in fact misses the point. It demeans the idea of labor, fairly and fittingly given, fittingly and fairly rewarded; and it is because it demeans labor, in an occupation in which it is overwhelmingly women who serve the needs and whims of men, that the effect is to demean women. It demeans them in what ought to be the dignity of an honest day's work.
Secretarial work is a reservation which we set apart for women. We might as well have an annual National Indian Week, in which the White Man invites the Indian off the reservation for a day, to tipple with him and slap his back. If secretaries were fittingly treated and fairly rewarded, there would be no place for a day of phony togetherness, the boss lording it in his favorite restaurant as in his office.
Why not have a National Domestic Servant Week every year? I would give anything to see Georgetown matrons reeling through a lunch at the Palm with their Venezuelan live-ins. (Which would drink which under the table is a nice matter of conjecture.) But domestics have to be treated with scrupulous care these days. Your best friend is waiting to hire yours. Only secretaries are treated as if the supply were inexhaustible.
When one says that Professional Secretaries Week is an invention of America, one is talking, of course, of the crass commercialism to which this nation's capitalism in the end reduces everything. One need only mention the commercializing of motherhood in Mother's Day to make the point. The more thoughtful defenders of capitalism admit it: It traduces, by commercializing, the very values it claims and wishes to uphold.
As the critics of modern capitalism have pointed out from its beginnings, it does this no more clearly than in its degradation of the idea of labor. It proclaims the work ethic while it degrades work. There are glamorous magazine stories about doctors and nurses, architects and lawyers, but none about secretaries, because secretarial work is the helot labor of commercial or office capitalism.
But there is something more specifically American to Professional Secretaries Week than this. In a society which relentlessly breaks down every familiar bond, there grows a nostalgia for togetherness which in the absence of the true article takes on its own phoniness. It is worth paying attention to these words which Irving Kristol wrote in 1972, lamenting that the "provincial nation has been liquidated" by urban civilization:
"To anyone like myself who watches old movies on television . . . the most striking impression is of a world that belongs to another era. These movies have farmer's daughters -- honest-to-goodness farmer's daughters . . . ; they have happy, neighborly suburban families who smugly and snugly pass the evening watching themselves on television; . . . they have hicks who run gas stations and cops who drop in for apple pie; they have children who address their fathers as 'sir'; they have virginal college students and hardly any graduate students at all; they have wildly efficient and fanatically loyal secretaries . . ."
This is a fascinating and, from Kristol, typically honest passage. It is irrelevant to point out that Kristol would not want to be or do any of the things which he so affectionately describes, although it is a little more relevant to ask him if his quite recent ancestors were happy in these conditions. What is much more to the point is that he is describing a world in which everyone more or less knew their place and more or less accepted it.
It is doubtful if this provincial world ever existed so snugly and ideally. But insofar as it did, the urban civilization which he says has destroyed it, whose discontents he laments, is the civilization of the very capitalism he defends; and with it has gone this romanticized world of honest-to-goodness farmer's daughters, hicks in their gas stations, cops with their apple pie and virginal college students.
He gives an idealized picture of the togetherness of provincial life -- except -- except -- in the jolting last image which seems not to belong with the rest. "Wildly efficient and fanatically loyal secretaries." All sense of snugness and smugness, lazing hicks and lazing cops, and perhaps even of lazy virginity, is scattered to the winds. The world of the secretaries is hectic: They are wild and fanatic in performing.
He is right in one sense: That is how the movies showed them. But he has jumped from images of the provincial world, where there were social bonds, to an image of the capitalist world, where essentially there are only economic bonds. He could not have described his honest-to-goodness farmer's daughters -- has he ever met a farmer's daughter? or inquired about their virginity? -- as wildly efficient and fanatically loyal even in their duties.
The bonds of provincial life did not call for wild efficiency or fanatical loyalty. That is why the cop could drop in for apple pie. But there is no bond, other than economic, of the secretary to her job. Let her try dropping in for apple pie on her boss in his office. Let her try to chew a straw like the hick who, rather improbably, Kristol wants lazily to wash his windshield and chat.
So once a year, one of the most impersonal jobs in our societies, the secretary's, must be made to seem filled with togetherness. Does it alter by one whit, for the rest of the year, the relationship in the office? Far from it, it reinforces it. Few bosses today treat any other workers as inconsiderately as they treat their secretaries. They extort a personal loyalty which has no real substance.
If a Professional Secretaries Week, why not a National Bosses Week? Let the secretaries choose the date, and let it be midwinter. Let them take their bosses to the carry- out, and choose what yogurt they may. Let them then sit their bosses, with their brown bags, on a bench in Farragut Square. Or let them skip lunch altogether, and take their bosses to their hairdressers, in their lunch hour and not office time.
Let them get their bosses back to the office promptly after an hour. Let them then make their bosses get the coffee, put through their calls even to the country club, and order the presents for their husbands and children. Let them make a reservation on a plane, cancel it at the last moment, and demand a reservation on the next plane out. Let them vent on their bosses their ill temper, and then smooth them with another yogurt next midwinter.
Professional Secretaries Week is for the benefit of florists and bar and restaurant owners. It is also for the benefit of the credit card companies, for which the paperwork will have to be done by the secretaries. That much is obvious. But it is also for the benefit of the bosses. Did you watch them in any bar or restaurant last week? There was what the conservative Edward Heath called the ugly face of capitalism. And it was making a sham of both the comradeship and dignity of labor.