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“Susie Steno”: A Union’s View of Clerical Workers

In 1939, a federal Women’s Bureau survey revealed that only one in fifteen union members was female. But the same observers also noted the truism that women workers, once organized, often became tenacious and militant unionists. Unionists saw women as temporary members of the work force (as indeed most were before 1940, when the average worker was a young single woman). They mistakenly assumed that such workers would not be dedicated union members. Some saw women as unwelcome competitors for “men’s jobs” and worked to keep women out of better paid union jobs rather than recruiting them to join the union. Even the United Office and Professional Workers Association (UOPWA), a progressive union that focused its efforts on clerical workers, shared some of these demeaning views of women. A regular column in the UOPWA’s publication, the Ledger, featured “Susie Steno,” a condescending caricature of a clerical worker as a frivolous and naive young woman, albeit one who becomes a good unionist.

Susie Socializes

Dear Mom:

I’m really beginning to feel that I have a real place in the union now. Of course everyone has been nice to me all along and all that, but now I’m beginning to do something to help along the work of the union and that’s what makes me feel that I really belong.

I’m on the Social and Entertainment Committee. Doesn’t that sound gay—and important too? It’s going to be interesting work, I’m sure, although we haven’t begun work in good earnest yet, just started laying our plans for the “winter season of festivities.” The big thing is to be a dance, a swell affair with a grand orchestra and everything.

We’re going to get up a souvenir program, I believe it’s to be called “The Journal,” that’s to be full of pictures of all the important people in the union and interesting stories about the activities of the union and messages from all sorts of people who believe that the work of our union is important and deserves support and success. And that’s what I’m going to do. Several of us are responsible for getting the pictures and articles and letters together. Other people on the committee will help us in arranging these attractively and still others on the committee are making the arrangements for the music and refreshments and the dance hall. And because we want the whole affair to be lots of fun we’re starting work now although the dance won’t be held until some time in February.

Maybe you’re wondering why a union should spend so much time and trouble on anything so frivolous as a dance. At first I was a little surprised too, because usually all you hear about a union doing is conducting strikes and signing agreements and things like that. But as soon as I thought about it a little I decided that it isn’t at all strange.

In the first place, the union needs money for all the things it does, and for rent and stationery and organizers and leaflets, and we hope to make a lot of money on this dance.

In the second place, the purpose of the union is to do all it can for its members, and don’t we all need some recreation to keep us happy? All work and no play, you know—. And by getting together at this dance we’ll all have a good time and get to know each other better. So you see it really isn’t out of place at all.

As I started out by saying, because I’m really doing some work in the union I feel much more as if it was my union. After all, the union isn’t something outside that’s going to play Santa Claus for us. It’s just a combination of all of us members working together, each one doing as much as he can so that all of us will benefit. It certainly is a wonderful feeling.

I’ll tell you more about our plans later, but now I must dash off to a committee meeting. I certainly don’t have to worry about what to do with my spare time anymore.

Lovingly, Susie

“Susie Socializes,” Ledger, November l937.


Susie Steno Discovers the Union

Dear Mom:

I’ve just had the most exciting week! To begin with, Sister’s husband introduced me to those friends of his, who are active in the union for office workers. They invited me to a party which was being given for some prospective members and we had a grand time, talked about such interesting things and found out that all offices are run much the same as mine, unless there is a union organization in it. Why, everyone said that the office managers just had to keep us working at top speed or they would lose their jobs. But when there is a union, even if it’s just a little one starting out, conditions are better.

But this isn’t really the big news, although I have so much to say about this I could go on and on. I will tell you more about it later.

The big excitement is this. Sunday and Monday some of these same friends asked me to drive to Philadelphia with them. Office workers from all over the country were having their first national convention. I thought I’d just go for the ride and would be bored by the meeting because I’ve always thought speeches were awfully dull, and since I wasn’t interested in unions I’d find it dull.

But I was mistaken! I don’t know when I’ve heard so much good common sense and I’ve completely changed my mind about unions. It is wonderful to find out there are people in Toronto and Chicago and Arizona and Hartford and Los Angeles that have the same problems that I have, that want to do something about making working conditions better and who all want to work together.

Why, it makes you feel so strong and hopeful to know that other people feel the same way you do and it encourages you to want to really do something instead of putting up with a measly little job, working long hours for so little money, when you know the company is making more and more money.

I wish I could take time to write and write about all what happened at the convention and about all the things I learned, but tonight I’m going down to the Union headquarters to see if I can join. I’m a little scared, because I know my company doesn’t like the idea of unions any more than any big insurance company. They all know that if all their employees get together and stick together in an union they won’t be able to get away with much.

I don’t know either if there are any other girls in my department who have sense enough to stick together. They seem to be out just for themselves and not to care about how any one else gets along. I used to be pretty dumb, too, thinking that unions were just for common laborers, and mechanics, so perhaps I can show them that organization is the thing.

From what I heard at the convention, things are going to be moving fast from now on. You see the C.I.O. [Congress of Industrial Organizations] which has succeeded in organizing the steel industry and the automobile workers, is going to be helping white collar workers now, and we are going to help them.

Sister and Henry are so pleased that I’m interested in the union. When I first came here I was discouraged and lonesome, but now I’m getting to know so many fine people and will have lots to do. I’ll try to write you often to tell you what we’re doing. We—that’s me and my fellow workers in the Bookkeepers, Stenographers and Accountants Union!

Lovingly, Susie

Source: "Susie Steno Discovers the Union," Ledger, June l937.