Cultural Production and the Politics of Women’s Work

My book is under contract with Routledge and is scheduled to be published by 2019.


Viewers of the TV show Mad Men, set in mid-20th century, are familiar with the figure of the secretary. Young, obedient and sexually available the secretary was as ubiquitous in U.S. white-collar offices as she was in popular film and fiction. However, the secretary entered the scene much earlier, in the first decades of the 20th century. As white, middle-class women started working in offices for the first time in the 1910s and 1920s, their presence became codified in images that highlighted both domesticity and sex-appeal. For a while, these working- or “business” girls were figures for the modern woman—newly liberated from Victorian norms. Yet as the 20th century wore on, the association between women’s domestic and sexual roles and their positions in the workplace limited women’s occupational choices and reinforced economic inequality.

This book takes the feminization of clerical work and the rise of the image of the secretary as a starting point, investigating the effects of these social, cultural, and economic trends on writers and filmmakers. Just as women were relegated to subservient, lower-paid positions in the office, they could only participate in cultural production as low-ranking editors, screenwriters and writers of popular fiction. In the Modernist movement, the appearance of the female clerical worker led influential writers to distance themselves from popular forms by modeling “high” literary authorship on elite professions from which women were excluded. Following a chapter that investigates early secretarial work through Sinclair Lewis’s The Job (1917), Cultural Production and the Politics of Women’s Work focuses on women writers who struggled to produce sophisticated, critical works of literature and film under this patriarchal structure. The authors discussed include Edith Wharton, Nella Larsen, Anita Loos (as a screenwriter) and Sylvia Plath.

calkins business detail

Book jacket of Business the Civilizer (1927). by Ernst Calkins . NYPL Digital Archives. 

Academic Abstract:

Cultural Production and the Politics of Women’s Work interrogates three common narratives about the first 60 years of the 20th century: the rise of Fordism as a “hard” and affectless mode of production and the transition to an era of “soft” work; women’s liberation through the sexual revolutions of the 1920’s and the 1960’s; and the progressive narrative of aesthetic liberation, encompassing the rise of Anglo-American modernism and the beginnings of post-modernism. By reading the emergence of secretarial work through Antonio Gramsci’s writings, I suggest that women’s affective labor was integral to the operations of the Fordist business sphere. Unlike in the factory, in the white-collar office proletarian work was casualized and feminized. Cultural institutions followed this model as they welcomed women in the roles of assistants, editors and screenwriters, yet barred them from professional and managerial positions. Most accounts of women’s participation in modernist cultural production downplay this structure of disempowerment. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, I argue that the white- or pink-collar workplace was an important site of subject-formation, affirming dominant discourses through ineluctable economic practices. In my readings of diverse U.S. authors, such as Sinclair Lewis, Nella Larsen, Anita Loos, and Sylvia Plath, I present an alternative history of American Modernism, one that is more attuned to gendered and racialized discourses of labor than histories that focus on individual categories of identity. I also argue that Fordism is significantly continuous with post-Fordist production so that its ideologies and practices continue to inform U.S. and global culture. My approach of examining the micropolitics of power within cultural institutions allows me to move beyond the dichotomies of exclusion/inclusion and interrogate the terms on which women and minorities are able to participate, and the ideas and experiences that enter the field of intelligibility.