Gender Images of Congressional Life from Behind the Typewriter
Long before Jeannette Rankin took her seat as the first woman to serve in the U.S. House, women were serving on the Hill in a myriad of congressional staff roles. Isabel Barrows, wife of Congressman Samuel Barrows, is believed to be the first woman to work on the Hill in 1871 as a stenographer. Following soon thereafter, women in increasing numbers would secure congressional staff jobs at the turn of the twentieth century as office work in both the public and private sectors was transformed from the male clerk-apprenticeship system of the nineteenth century to the modern mechanized domain of female secretaries.
The typewriter and the resulting transformation of the world of office work brought women into the public sphere in new roles in the mid-nineteenth century. Women first worked for the federal government at the Mint in Philadelphia, weighing gold coins in 1795. During the Civil War, they once again came to the aid of the nation by serving as money clippers at the Treasury. But it was the perfection of the typewriter that reshaped office life and brought women into positions formerly held by men.
Office work, including that performed on the Hill, was transformed with the invention and mass production of the typewriter by 1881. The age of scientific office management subsumed male clerks, previously part of the exclusively male-dominated white-collar apprentice system, into a growing class of managers and relegated women to the newly mechanized office assembly line with rows of typewriters, file cabinets, and stacks of mail to be processed. Since marriage disqualified women, in both a legal and broader social sense, from professional work, wages were kept arbitrarily low. Moreover, office managers (and historians) largely ignored the female secretarial experience as key social and political dimensions of work.
From behind the typewriter, one gets unique insights into the different styles with which male and female congresspersons ran their Capitol Hill offices and exercised control over their staffs. Drawing upon the archives of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center, the personal papers of two members - U.S. Senator Elmer Thomas (D-Okla., 1923-1950) and Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas (D- Calif., 1945-1950) - reveal intimate details about the life of female congressional staff and the members for whom they work.
In the case of Senator Thomas, Minnie Elizabeth Pool, his administrative assistant for twenty-eight years, typifies the twentieth century secretary, so aptly captured by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in Men and Women of the Corporation (Basic Books, 1977). Representative Douglas's key administrative assistant, Evie Chavoor, similarly had a long-term relationship with the congresswoman but the nature of that relationship was intensely personal and extended well beyond the demands of the office and official business.
From the letters and memos of these two members, preserved in the archives
of the Carl Albert Center, a unique picture of congressional life emerges.
Her experience with the Veterans' Administration first recommended Miss Pool, an Alabama native, to Senator Thomas, and for more than a quarter century she served as the Oklahoma senator's administrative assistant in Washington, D.C. As in the world of business, the role of administrative assistant was often assumed to be occupied by a "male manager" in the 1930s and 1940s, and Miss Pool (as she was called by associates on the Hill) was often mistaken as a man because she typically signed her correspondence M. E. Pool. In many ways her relationship with Senator Thomas on the Hill, however, parallels the portrait of secretarial life as Kanter presents it.
Kanter defines the patrimonial relationship of secretaries with their male bosses as the central feature of the role female secretaries have played in the twentieth century. She writes,
When bosses make demands at their own discretion and arbitrarily; choose secretaries on grounds that enhance their own personal status rather than meeting organizational efficiency tests; expect personal service with limits negotiated privately; [and] exact loyalty . . . then the relationship has elements of patrimony.
As her letters and memos reveal, Miss Pool was bound to her boss in just such a fashion.
As Senator Thomas's staff director, Miss Pool headed a changing staff, usually composed of six to eight women. The routine duties of Miss Pool were spotlighted in an article in the May 12, 1950 edition of The Tulsa Tribune:
Miss Pool serves as general office coordinator. She opens the great volume of mail and distributes it to other members of the staff. Many Oklahomans say Miss Pool has followed up successfully their appeals for government jobs or other favors.
In a brief letter written in January 1934, Miss Pool describes her workload during one of the many absences that occurred when Senator Thomas returned to Oklahoma. She writes, "I worked until a quarter of seven last Saturday night. I worked eight and one-half hours on Sunday afternoon and night." In addition to receiving the senator's callers, making appointments, and calling government departments, Miss Pool explained that the office received 150 letters in the course of three days.
Normal duties were often accompanied by what Kanter refers to as "principled arbitrariness" - a boss's prerogative to ask his secretaries to do virtually any favor for him. Thomas's memos from Miss Pool often mentioned such things as the status of his suit at the tailor and his dinner arrangements for the evening. On one occasion preserved in the archives, Miss Pool delivered the Sunday paper to the Thomas home along with a detailed message from one of Senator Thomas's fellow senators. In August 1930, she instructed Senator Thomas, "I am enclosing herewith your electric light bill . . . as I have no blank check signed by you to pay the bill for you." These random responsibilities were not confined to Miss Pool alone. For example, Daisy Goad, one of his secretaries from Oklahoma, handled his correspondence with his friend, Phil Overton, about acquiring a Lincoln Continental.
Kanter argues that secretaries served as "status symbols" or "trophies" for their bosses and notes that bosses often refer to secretaries as "my girls." Surmising from some of the letters his secretaries received from male visitors to the office, Senator Thomas's staff captured people's interest and attention. One letter, dated April 11, 1945 by a Sam Mangum, requested, "Daisy darling . . . Remember me to the Senator and all my office darlings." Another of Senator Thomas's secretaries, Elizabeth Durant, wrote a letter of inquiry about a job opportunity on behalf of a female constituent, a Mrs. Nashert. The gentleman, apparently familiar with the office and Miss Durant (He signed his name Herb), began his letter by stating that Miss Durant herself was "a thoroughbred and a pippin." A letter of thanks, signed "from Tom and Ducky," accompanied two packages of cigarettes, and it instructed that the gift be distributed among "those five other young women in the Senator's office."
Kanter states that secretaries "derive their primary rewards from the relationship with their bosses" in exchange for their loyalty. Clearly, Miss Pool derived her status from Senator Thomas's position, and her self-confidence is evident as she exercised the influence and power she acquired as the senior assistant to a United States senator. In a letter dated January 22, 1936, Miss Pool told an anxious female constituent who was seeking employment on the Hill, "You should never have asked that busy-body person to talk for you . . . I think my call and your personal interview, together with Senatorial endorsement, should be all that you needed." As the mediator between the senator and his callers, Miss Pool exerted a certain amount of control through the memos she sent the senator. The following memo, written during the Depression, refers to two eager college graduates who had been waiting all day to see the senator in their quest for a job of appropriate stature and esteem:
I am of the opinion, however, that if each of these able men would accept employment other than that of leaders of groups of men, which they seem to aspire to be, they would have no trouble in securing satisfactory employment.
Many of the memos Miss Pool sent to Senator Thomas were written in similar tones and carried her opinions and advice.
Regardless of the senator's responses to her memos or the demands he placed on her, Miss Pool demonstrated extreme loyalty to her boss. Declining a friend's invitation to join her for dinner, she writes on July 31, 1933, "the Senator is still here; hence, I am tied to my desk." After meeting Miss Pool at a formal social engagement on the Hill, one woman wanted to further her acquaintance with the secretary. Excusing herself, Miss Pool made this confession, "Personally, I must say that my office work takes about all of my waking hours; hence, I miss so many contacts with delightful people. . ."
Kanter argues that loyalty in the boss-secretary relationship often gets transformed into fealty, an attachment of allegiance that embodies a kind of servitude to the master more than mutual loyalty. Miss Pool's attachment to Senator Thomas had such elements. During the summer of 1935, Miss Pool made jealous complaints about another secretary who had not yet returned from vacation. Senator Thomas, then in Oklahoma, eventually sent her a night telegram awarding her three weeks of vacation. The ever-loyal Miss Pool responded with gratitude, "I appreciate your exceeding kindness to me and thank you a thousand times."
Although he did not increase her salary or assign her to more challenging responsibilities, Senator Thomas rewarded Miss Pool in other ways. Like many secretaries noted by Kanter, Miss Pool was often rewarded with "roses rather than raises." Sprinkled throughout her files are elaborate thank you notes for flowers she received for her work in the office. On one occasion in March of 1936, Senator Thomas wrote a letter to the Department of Agriculture, requesting that they send his senior aide "seven or eight of your lovely rose bushes."
Aside from the occasional vacation and bouquet, however, Miss Pool remained a largely invisible part of the senator's staff. This loyal and essential aide had the senator's every confidence and authority to act as he traveled extensively to the district, to federally-funded public works projects during the Great Depression, and on congressional tours of Alaska,
military bases, and Europe. But among the 1,689 photos that document
the senator's travels, only one (a newspaper photo) includes the woman
who staffed his office over his twenty-eight-year career.
Flooding in and out of Helen Douglas's office was a series of advisors and well-wishers eager to greet the star-turned-politician as she settled into her seat in the House of Representatives in 1945. Ambitious hardly describes the speeches and committee work that Congresswoman Douglas undertook and her office staff often reflected the hectic pace set in her first year in office. At the center of this fast-paced environment was Evie Chavoor who recalls "we were always short of help with so much to do. We were always behind the eight ball." Chavoor first met Representative Douglas in California where a long relationship sprung from a chance meeting between Representative Douglas and Chavoor's father, an Assyrian immigrant who delivered fruits and vegetables to the Douglas's home during the Depression. Working as the Douglas's domestic help, Chavoor financed her education in the University of California at Los Angeles and in business school as well.
Chavoor's reflections on congressional life are drawn from an extensive oral history preserved in the Carl Albert Center archives. The reflections of other Douglas aides are also documented.
Though she left the Douglas household for a time, Chavoor returned to take care of the Douglas's son Peter during the congresswoman's transition to Washington D.C. Representative Douglas's husband stayed in California to attend to his acting career; thus Chavoor proved a constant source of comfort and aid for the ever-hurried Congresswoman as she navigated Capitol Hill's corridors of power. Commented one staffer, "Evie was just a further extension of Helen and people realized that."
The close relationship they enjoyed developed out of their personal history. Chavoor remembers:
Maybe it just all stemmed from - goes right back when I first started to work for them, and I took care of the children, and I was in the house and although my role was that of a servant in the house, there was responsiveness, there was this cord, and this happened between us.
The special bond of friendship and womanhood, as Chavoor recalls, obfuscated their status differences and forged a shared sense of mission. By "including you and making you a part of everything that is happening, [Douglas] makes you want to . . . extend yourself that extra foot."
For all intents and purposes, Chavoor functioned as a political wife to the Congresswoman, performing any number of duties ranging from fixing the morning coffee and seeing the children off to school to handling office correspondences and working all night on a speech. "Living with her and being as close to her as I was, I usually knew what her reactions and feelings were." On several occasions, Representative Douglas and Chavoor would rise early or spend all night drafting the numerous speeches and letters for which Douglas was famous. Occasionally, their all-night work sessions prompted a late night visit from the police who, startled by the lights at such an hour, checked in on the house. With a slight laugh, Chavoor confesses "You're going to say, 'You've got a love affair going on with Helen Gahagan Douglas,' and I guess I have, in the right sense of the word."
Chavoor's need to clarify her relationship speaks to the many boundaries crossed between her work and her private life, a life she spent largely in the presence of Representative Douglas during their years in Washington. In addition to weekend bridge games, the two vacationed with one another and remained very close even after Representative Douglas returned to California after her senatorial defeat and Chavoor continued to work in government and politics in Washington D.C. and California. Between a male representative and a female secretary such a close and intense personal relationship might have raised an occasional eyebrow and inevitably led to rumors and gossip, but for Chavoor the work was part labor of love and personal allegiance of a kind that is quite different from the subservient fealty of which Kanter writes.
Indeed, Kanter describes the boss-secretary relationship as resembling a "marriage" in which the office wife is expected to engage in personal service, is attached to the higher-status man in the eyes of others, and makes an emotional commitment to her role. Chavoor's relationship diverges from the traditional office marriage, however, because her personal relationship developed prior to their careers in Washington and lacked the fundamental status differential and patrimonial character of male-female work relationships.
The intimacy between the two women also extended to the office as a whole and reflected the personal touch and consideration that Congresswoman Douglas brought to her legislative duties. Chavoor recalls of the office in general that:
Her [Douglas] feeling is, there's not enough time for rank. There's not enough time for vying. There's not enough time for all the nit picking, backstabbing kind of thing. We've got too much work to do, and it creates meanness with that kind of thing going on.
Juanita Barbee remembers well Representative Douglas's commitment to an equitable workplace. Barbee, the first African-American to work as a staffer for a white member of Congress, recalls meals spent at her desk while other office staff enjoyed their lunch hours in the congressional cafeteria. Soon after Barbee joined her staff in 1947, Douglas saw to it that Barbee as well as the staff of African-American members, Representatives William Dawson (D-Ill.) and Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.), could enjoy the same privileges afforded other staffers. "The thing that I never really understood," Barbee recounts, "was why either Powell or Dawson hadn't done something about it before."
Like Chavoor, Barbee stayed on the Hill after Congresswoman Douglas' bitter loss to Richard Nixon in 1950. Barbee worked for Senator Hubert Humphrey (DFL-Minn.), Representative Jimmy Roosevelt (D-Calif.), and later Representative Gus Hawkins (D-Calif.), a series of positions that speaks to the emerging professionalization and longevity characteristic of women's work on the Hill after World War II. Throughout her years in the Capitol, Barbee gained an invaluable perspective on members' differences in leadership style and office politics. Looking back, she recalls:
She [Douglas] demanded certain things and she expected them to be done, but she was more reasonable. . . I guess being a woman, she had some idea that you had your own personal things to take care of sometimes.
What for Barbee was a largely warm and personal environment absent gender hierarchies contrasts with the often-comical protocol typical of her years working for male members. Of Humphrey in particular, she remembers the entire staff gathering around in a circle as he read his mail. This was, in effect, a staff meeting, Barbee recounts. One day, as he sat signing letters, his pen "spluttered and he got a bit of ink on his finger . . . so he just held up his hand like that and somebody ran around and got a kleenex and wiped it off."
Though Barbee recalls the incident with a great deal of humor, the difference between Douglas's and Humphrey's office speaks to the contrasting management styles and work experiences women encountered as they made their way up the Hill. A similar story of hierarchical gender roles on Capitol Hill was recalled in a Boston Globe article in 1973 by Jean Stack who was described as Senator Eugene McCarthy's secretary and "protective alter ego."
She [Stack] was always careful to note, however, that she was not an
adviser, and her favorite line was, 'When Mr. McCarthy hired me, he told
me he wasn't hiring me to think.' She worked for him for 18 years, and
she never called him by his first name.
The reminiscences of loyal administrative assistants such as Evie Chavoor , Minnie Pool, Juanita Barbee, and Jean Stack are just glimpses into the experiences of the many invisible women who have worked in congressional offices. While it is difficult to generalize from such a few cases, there is every reason to suspect that the norms of most offices resemble those of Senator Thomas and his male colleagues more than that reported about Congresswoman Douglas. The paucity of female members of Congress, the small size of Douglas's staff, and the special bonds she forged with her staff are clearly factors that set the experiences of Evie Chavoor and Juanita Barbee apart from the norms of office life prior to the women's movement and women's entrance into the professions.
As more women arrive on the Hill and as congressional staff offices
become increasingly professionalized and larger, the interplay between
staff and gender roles may be changing. According to the 1999 Congressional
Staff Directory, 11 women direct the majority and minority staffs of
the 35 standing committees (15.7% of top committee posts), while 50 women
head subcommittee staffs (21.6% of the subcommittees that clearly identify
majority and minority staff directors). Another 153 women serve as chiefs
of staff in members' offices (28.6%). These figures suggest an increasing
visibility of women as congressional staff as well as the potential for
a different dynamic in gender roles.
Bryan Pepper and Misty Wetmore are Carl Albert Undergraduate Fellows under the supervision of Cindy Simon Rosenthal, assistant director of the Carl Albert Center.