Wednesday was Administrative Professionals Day, which means if you forgot to get your secretary, receptionist, administrative assistant, clerk or general office dogsbody flowers or a Starbucks gift card, you are in big trouble.
Luckily, Administrative Professionals Week goes through Saturday, so you still have a few days to make things right.
What if you are an administrative professional? Then Lillian Cox wants to hear from you. Lillian is a freelance writer who was once an administrative professional herself. Actually, she was a secretary, which is what people in that job were called until roughly Oct. 15, 1984, when suddenly you couldn’t use that word anymore. For five years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lillian worked as a secretary for the Republican National Committee and then in the speechwriting office of the Nixon White House.
Lillian has lived in San Diego for close to 40 years, but she still thinks about the unique vantage point secretaries have in our town. She’s hoping former Washington secretaries will contribute their reminiscences to something she’s calling the Washington Secretaries History Project: washingtonsecretaries.blogspot.com.
“I know there are secretaries out there like me who were witnesses to history,” she told me. “And those stories haven’t been told.”
The word “secretary” is related to the Latin word for someone trusted to keep a secret. Lillian thinks it’s time for those secrets to come out.
“I was with one of John Dean’s secretaries when we both learned about the Watergate break-in,” Lillian said, hinting of interesting revelations.
As for what exactly those revelations might be, Lillian says she’s saving them for a book. “Most books about Watergate were written by men,” she said. “It’d be good to get one from the women’s perspective.” (One wonders what sort of book the most famous White House secretary of them all — the leg-stretching, tape-erasing Rose Mary Woods — would have written.)
Lillian has researched the evolution of the secretary’s role, how early secretaries were men, how the two world wars opened the doors for women to join their ranks. She remembers the Washington School for Secretaries, founded by a former economics professor. His school had a room for learning typing, another for learning the Dictaphone. Even so, Lillian said, he believed that only 25 percent of a secretarial job involved technical skills. The other 75 percent was charm. Said Lillian: “That’s what they taught: charm.”
Of course, some bosses looked for more than mere charm. Think of “Mad Men’s” Joan, the shapely redheaded secretary who gets hit on more often than the front wall of a racquetball court.
Sexism was depressingly common back then. Take “Pretty Girls for Nixon,” for example. That’s what it said on a campaign button that White House secretaries were asked to wear during the ’72 presidential race. Lillian was hardcore GOP — she’d been an officer in the Teenage Republican Club at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in the ’60s — but she couldn’t bring herself to wear the button.
(And doesn’t it just smack of desperation, anyway? Hey, you free-loving, Nixon-hating hippies! We have some hot broads, too!)
As a political appointee, Lillian had experiences that might have been different from those of career civil-service secretaries, women she remembers as being ferociously competent. Lillian sometimes stumbled while trying to produce flawless correspondence on her IBM Executive typewriter.
“What complicated things was you had to be fast and you weren’t allowed to use erasures, Ko-Rec-Type or Liquid Paper,” she said.
Even more fascinating to me than Lillian’s experience as a secretary in the White House is what came next. Disillusioned, she moved to San Francisco to join a commune and temp for Kelly Girls. The eight-person communal house on Arguello Boulevard was the master’s thesis project of a Berkeley student she’d met in Washington at the White House Conference on Youth.
Every morning, the phone would ring for Lillian. It was former colleagues, using the White House WATS line to kvetch about the slow drip of Watergate revelations and Nixon’s inevitable implosion. Lillian’s housemates thought something more sinister was afoot. “We had a commune house meeting to air grievances,” she said. “That’s when they told me they thought I had been planted there.”
By Nixon. How else to explain the phone calls?
Lillian the secretary packed her bags and moved out.
Do you have interesting secretary stories? I’d love to hear them.