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Friday, October 28, 2011

The Polyandrous Neo-Office Wife

An article in a recent issue of the ABA Journal may help to shed some light on how women partners fare at larger law firms in terms of office support.  The article describes how, in a survey of 142 legal secretaries at larger law firms in 2009 conducted by Chicago-Kent law professor Felice Batlan, not a single secretary expressed a preference for working with a female partner.

The article detailed some of the explanations given by survey respondents: 
• “Females are harder on their female assistants, more detail oriented, and they have to try harder to prove themselves, so they put that on you. And they are passive aggressive where a guy will just tell you the task and not get emotionally involved and make it personal.”
• “I just feel that men are a little more flexible and less emotional than women. This could be because the female partners feel more pressure to perform.”
• “Female attorneys have a tendency to downgrade a legal secretary.”
• “I am a female legal secretary, but I avoid working for women because [they are] such a pain in the ass! They are too emotional and demeaning.”
• “Female attorneys are either mean because they're trying to be like their male counterparts or too nice/too emotional because they can't handle the stress. Either way, their attitude/lack of maturity somehow involves you being a punching bag.”
• Women lawyers have “an air about them.”
According to the article, Professor Batlan wrote that some legal secretaries indicated that they did not like working for women because women are too independent. One respondent in the survey wrote of her male boss: “My partner in particular tends to forget the little things. I often find myself tailing him as he's walking out the door to a meeting going down a list of things he may need. Oddly, I don't feel like my female attorneys need that kind of attention.”

This last comment is a reminder that while women’s participation in the work world over the last several decades has allowed women greater social, economic, and sometimes even sexual autonomy,  women’s move to the work world did not always herald a decrease in dependence.  Instead, there may sometimes be a displacement of dependence.  This is because women employed in workplaces alongside men, especially male bosses, sometimes became “office wives” to such men. The phrase "office wife" has been common in the United States and Canada since at least the 1930s, popularized by Faith Baldwin’s 1930 novel The Office Wife and its 1930 movie adaptation. 

The notion of the “office wife” has been rendered more gender neutral via “office spouse” (or the addition of “cubicle hubby”). Some modern renditions view such relationships as reciprocally beneficial for men and women. However, many commentators have observed that notwithstanding a move toward gender neutrality, women are still often expected to be subservient to men in office settings. In even modern times women secretaries and assistants are often constructed as office wives who are “deferential and ladylike” and who act as “loyal, trustworthy and devoted” extensions of their usually male bosses, according to Rosemary Pringle’s iconic essay “What is a Secretary?” “Office wife” is a phrase that conveys mixed notions of work, domesticity, and sexual promise, even in some modern contexts. For instance, some relatively recent court case have involved women claiming to have served as “office wives" to men in workplaces; not all of the claims were by way of complaint. Even in modern times , women employees have often been expected to serve as helpmates in office settings.

Although the notion of the “office wife” or “second wife” was apparently discounted by some survey respondents as an explanation of the phenomenon seen in Batlan’s survey since modern secretaries often work for more than one boss, I think it may be too soon to discard the idea. Instead I fear that we could be facing neo-office wife syndrome: the office wife is not gone; she is, as the results in the survey may suggest, still fiercely heterosexual in her choice of boss, with the twist that she is now also sometimes polyandrous because she has more than one husband-boss.

[Some of this discussion is drawn from my unpublished PhD dissertation, "Sisters Underneath Their Skins,a qualitative analysis of legal discourses produced in court decisions concerning white mothers involved in intimate relationships with black men while seeking custody of their white children. ]