Friday, 13 May 2005

The Plight of Secretaries: Today & in Ancient Rome

AMANUENSIS, or AD MANUM SERVUS, a slave, or freedman, whose office it was to write letters and other things under his master's direction. The amanuensis must not be confounded with another sort of slaves, also called ad manum servi, who were always kept ready to be employed in any business.

Not much seems to have changed since then for secretaries. They are expected to work long hours, do work which is outside of theri job description, write letters for the boss and generally do any kind of shitty work without complaining. For if you complain you are not 'flexible' or you do not have the 'team spirit' and are therefore not fit to be employed. It seems that a secretary, especially in an investment bank, is viewed as a brainless, inannimate object, someone to do all the donkey-work while at the same time maintaining a smile on her face (I say 'her' because unfortunately secretaries are always female, which also points to teh fact that we still live in a patriarchal society...).

Slaves in Ancient Rome held positions such as pedagogue, water carrier, treasurer, goldsmith, chamberlain, reader, secretary, wetnurse, caterer, midwife, doorkeeper, baker, masseuse, doctor, cupbearer, musician and gardener. Slaves were expected to perform their duties efficiently and without complaint. If for some reason the slave did not meet expectations, then the master had to determine the cause of the poor performance. Seneca advises:

"If a prisoner of war suddenly thrown into slavery keeps some traces of freedom and does not jump at the idea of performing degrading and laborious tasks; if he is slow because he is unfit and does not keep up with his master’s carriage; if in the midst of his daily duty he falls asleep; if after being transferred from the city with its holidays to the farm with its hard work, he either refuses to work on the farm or does not tackle it energetically; in all these cases we should find out whether the slave cannot do the work or simply will not do it."

Suetonius was emperor Hadrian's private secretary and no wonder he wrote about the lives of the Caesars, exposing all their filth, exploitation and cruelty.
Procopius, who wrote the Secret History, (see post about Theodora), was also private secretary to the Byzantine general Belisarius and his writings are full of bile and caustic criticism.

Notice that in those days at least, mostly men were secretaries, which is certainly not the case today...



6 comments:

Richard said...

I believe that Rome was a patriarchal society.I could be wrong, but in early America secretaries were men?

Alterior said...

Yes, rome was patriarchal but my point was and is that although many think that we do not anymore live in such a society they are wrong. Unfortunately it is still very much a man's world, although women have made alot of progress through the years in fighting for their rights. Men however, have not given up their old ways and still reign high and mighty...
Sadly equality of the sexes is but a dream.

lenin said...

Andrea Dworkin is reincarnated!!

Peter said...

unfortunately secretaries are always female, which also points to teh fact that we still live in a patriarchal society

As you mentioned it, I'd say it probably has far more to do with biological differences than any social conditions.

For example, while the average intelligence of men and women appears to be roughly/exactly the same, women tend to cluster much closer around that average, while men vary much more. So there will be a lot more men than women who just don't have the intelligence to be a competent secretary, and also a lot more men than women who can realistically aspire to be the one with a secretary rather than the secretary. Both factors are likely to reduce the number of males applying for the position, and to reduce the numbers being offered it.

Women are also far more liable than men to put their careers second to their children, and it's a struggle to believe this is solely down to social expectations. A woman can be certain all her children are indeed hers. A man cannot. So even if nature doesn't endow women with any greater natural abilities in childrearing (and breastfeeding is an obvious example of that), you'd still expect her natural inclinations towards spending her time looking after children as opposed to working in an office to be greater.

Food for thought.

Alterior said...

First of all, men do not aspire towards a secretarial career because they aspire to positions of power and there is no power to be gained in being a secretary. Men see this position as humiliating and therefore appropriate for a woman, who is seen by many men as inferior and thus well suited to such a job. Sad but true. For years I have heard men in offices putting secretaries down, blaming them for things which are not their fault (using them as scapegoats) and generally talking to them as if they are brainless, do not quite understand and "oh, well, what do you expet, she is afterall a woman and should be really at home looking after kids".

You said women are more likely to be staying home and looking after kids, in your words: "you'd still expect her natural inclinations towards spending her time looking after children as opposed to working in an office to be greater." I have to disagree with you on that one as I know plenty of women who are devoting their life to a career and not to having children etc. Women in the past had to do that because that was all the male-dominated society would allow them to do. Not all women wish to be baby factories and even if they decide to have a child, they do not necessarily have to give up their careers to look after them. A woman who has established a "career" and is as succesful as a man in investment banking, can earn well over £100,000 a year and therefore can afford to pay for child-minders.

Men are more likely to devote their lives to their careers because society demands that they do so. Think of the phrases "bread-winner" and "business-man". Society expects men to dedicate themselves to a career, then marry a nice woman who will behave herself and stay home to look after the kids.

gettinggrip said...

One exception is our program in the univesity, which is quite different from other programs and is very much controlled by the female secretary. Even the male director and professors listen to her. This is because they (and we, students) know that theprogram highly depends on her (to coordinate activities and stuff). She is one powerful secretary. And she is becoming a tyrant these past 2 years (the "abused becoming an abuser"?).

I agree that not many men prefer being secretaries. In my previous office, they are called administrative assistants.