Guest post: What can we learn from clerks in twentieth-century Cape Town?
How race and gender interact to explain the feminisation of the labour force
Men and women tend to do different jobs. In South Africa in 2018, 97% of domestic workers and 72% of clerical workers were women, while only 32% of managers and 11% of ‘craft and related trade’ workers were women. This is not a new phenomenon. Historically, humans have categorised work as ‘women’s work’ or ‘men’s work’. Yet these categories are not fixed; at different points in history, some jobs have gone from being ‘men’s work’ to ‘women’s work’.
Clerical work is one such occupation. In the 19th century, most clerks (in all the parts of the world that employed clerks), were men. By the 1920s, in places like Canada, England and the USA, the number of clerical workers increased rapidly, and more than half of those newly appointed clerks were women. What caused this change? While the definition of clerical work changed over time, the basic idea stayed the same: clerks performed various types of office work.
So why do certain occupations become segregated by gender and others not? There are many different theories. One argument is biology. On average, men are stronger than women, and this makes them better at certain jobs that require heavy lifting, such as mining and construction. This does not, however, explain why the demographics of clerical workers changed, as there is no advantage for clerks to have physical strength.
Another argument is that this segregation is caused by patriarchy – the idea that men hold authority, privilege, and power in society to the exclusion of women. The patriarchy argument is that mundane and lower-paid jobs (that, theoretically, men are not interested in) would become ‘women’s work’ in patriarchal societies.
This is a compelling argument in the case of clerical work. At the end of the 19th century, a number of technological developments, such as the invention of the typewriter and stenographer, changed the nature of clerical work. Clerks went from being well-paid men, specialists who did administrative, managerial, and accounting work and who had the opportunity to be promoted, to women who did repetitive, mundane work that required little training and had few prospects to move up the office hierarchy.
Claudia Goldin has argued that the demand for office workers in the 1920s outstripped the supply of male clerks. This increase in demand was precipitated by the changing nature of the economy. She outlines that the development of labour-saving household technologies from the 1920s increased the availability of female labour. Women were thus provided the opportunity to enter the labour force as clerks as the demand for office workers increased. These office jobs were deemed to be ‘nice’ jobs; jobs that young white women could be involved in temporarily, without risk to their morality, and just until they married. Goldin argued that before the 1920s, the jobs available were: ‘often dirty, dangerous, repetitive, and long in hours per day and days per week’.
But what happens when gender and race are considered? Twentieth-century Cape Town provides the perfect opportunity to observe the confluence of race and gender on employment patterns.
In my PhD research, I find that, just as in other parts of the world, clerical work in Cape Town and South Africa went from being a male occupation to one most commonly filled by young, white, unmarried women in the 1940s. These young white women had increasing freedom in the city as they attended college, earned their own money, and lived in their own accommodation.
The feminisation of the clerical workforce in Cape Town was, however, complex. White women moved into clerical work at the same time as it became harder for coloured men and women to take part in it. Limited educational opportunities, racist expectations of workplaces and increasing legal barriers (such as the Civilised Labour Policy) meant that clerical work was not seen as a job for coloured women (or men). In fact, between coloured men and women, clerical work de-feminised. Clerical work became a white, female phenomenon through the exclusion of coloured women and men and, perhaps, as a deliberate way to exclude coloured women and men.
So why are most clerks women? In short, it’s complicated. Inevitably, new technologies shift both the nature of and demand for workers. These shifts can play out in many ways, and the social, legal, and cultural – in short, the formal and informal institutions of the time – determine who benefits and who loses out. As the case of clerical work in Cape Town and South Africa shows, systemic sexism and racism influenced access to white-collar jobs. Despite the removal of these formal institutions of apartheid, it is very possible that these historical effects still linger into the present.
Amy Rommelspacher completed her PhD in History at Stellenbosch University in 2022. This blog summarises her recent article: ‘Truly a Three-Dimensional Job’: The Feminisation of Clerical Work in Cape Town, 1900–1960”, Gender and History, (2022).