Taking Shorthand for Literacy: Historicizing the Literate Activity of US Women in the Early Twentieth-Century Office

  • Janine Solberg University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Keywords: clerical work, literacy, stenographers, shorthand, deskilling, diaries, women, writing


In this essay, I argue that neglect in literacy studies of the early twentieth-century office as a site of women’s literate labor has been reinforced by two commonplaces about clerical work: first, that clerical work was routinized and deskilled after the turn of the century (and, consequently, became “women’s work”), and second, that the labor of writing was split into the “head” work of male executives and the “hand” work of female clerical workers. Focusing on the figure of the early twentieth-century female stenographer, I identify some of the problems with these two commonplaces and urge literacy scholars to recover the labor of clerical workers in their histories. The essay concludes with a brief discussion of the diary of a stenographer named Irene Chapin, who lived and worked in Western Massachusetts in the late 1920s.

Author Biography

Janine Solberg, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Janine Solberg is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research and teaching interests include literacy and writing studies, gender and women's history, writing technologies, new media, and technical communication.