In Praise of “Administrative Professionals”

In case you missed it, Wednesday was “Administrative Professionals Day,”  but you still have the rest of the week to recognize all those people who make office life easier.  In the old days, this “celebration” was called “National Secretaries Day,” but at some point along the way, someone thought the name needed updating and upgrading.

Elly Peterson started her professional and political career as a secretary, after attending a secretarial school in Chicago in the 1930s. While there, she  discovered that she loved everything about being a secretary. She loved people, she loved to sell, and she loved to organize an office.

She was successful, she later reflected, because she “understood the organization, and that was really my basic skill.” She once told a writer who was working on a story about famous women who had worked as secretaries: “A good secretary can learn the business as no other position can.”

Peterson’s background as a secretary was readily apparent to anyone who reviewed her personal papers at the Bentley Historical Library. In the days before email and xerox machines, she kept a carbon copy of an outgoing letter she wrote and filed it with the incoming letter that had prompted it, making it easier for a biographer to understand the narrative. Forty years after she attended secretarial school, she might still scribble notes to herself in shorthand, presumably when she was in a hurry. (Of course, that part might as well have been written in Greek to me!)

In today’s Washington Post, columnist John Kelly highlights a project created by Lillian Cox, a freelance writer who worked as a secretary at the Republican National Committee and the Nixon White House during the period (1969-70) when Peterson was assistant chairman of the RNC and the committee’s designated liaison to the White House regarding political appointments. Cox is hoping that former Washington secretaries will contribute their memories to the Washington Secretaries History Project. I’m sure there will be a lot of interesting stories to share.

By the time she got to Washington (n 1963 and 1969), Elly Peterson had risen high enough that she needed a secretary herself.  In her second stint at the RNC, she worked to recruit women for high-ranking posts in the Nixon administration, and tried to identify and highlight the women who were already serving in high-ranking posts. Because she was, in those years, expected to be a cheerleader for the Nixon administration, she was distressed when it appeared that the lists of high-ranking women were apparently inflated with the names of women whose titles indicated they were really secretaries, albeit to high-ranking men.

Later, when she served as a deputy chairman of the President Ford Committee in 1976, Peterson tried to recruit as many women as she could for her team, some of whom had started out as secretaries. During this time, she had a somewhat contentious relationship with Stuart Spencer, the campaign’s political director. Spencer was apparently not very sympathetic to some of the currents generated by the women’s movement in the mid-1970s. “It was the start of the feminist movement,” he recalled in an oral history he provided to the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. “The women who worked for me were always having meetings and then coming and seeing me. I was not much help in some of these areas. One day they got me to agree that they weren’t to be called secretaries. They were all going to be called somebody’s assistant. I said, ‘I don’t give a damn, just do your job.’ ”

Hat’s off to those who have worked, or are still working, as administrative professionals, secretaries or whatever you’re now called. Hopefully, it’s not “girl.”

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