Feminist News Network

Will dumping their title change their job?

President Obama’s recent embrace of the Buffett Rule has filled headlines and opinion pages alike for the last few days, but amidst the growing tenor of Democratic moralizing and Republican indignation, one editorial has stood apart from the rest.  Writing on CNN.com yesterday, columnist Megan Carpentier broke from the issue’s traditional fault lines to rebuke Mr. Buffett’s tax proposals on radical new ground. Donning the persona of the late Andrea Dorkin, the author argues that the primary problem with a proposal that reeks of Occupy-style class warfare isn’t its spurious economic underpinnings or its assault on success; rather, its most glaring deficiency is its architect’s insistence on calling his “personal assistant” a “secretary.” In what reads like a neo-feminist diatribe, Ms. Carpentier attacks Mr. Buffett for embracing such an anachronistic term, one that conjures up images “of pearls and sweater sets, sensible heels and knee-length skirts” as symbols of a bygone age of white male dominance. In so characterizing the role of a secretary, Ms. Carpentier not only reveals a knowledge of business informed only by a season or two of Mad Men, but also launches a personal vendetta at the expense of reason and commonsense. 

 The thrust of the author’s argument rests upon the deeply flawed assumption that the term “secretary” caries an intrinsically sexist connotation. Without any supporting analysis, Ms. Carpentier contends that this label acts as a malicious time capsule, a reminder that a woman’s true place is on the far side of the mahogany doors, answering the phone and fetching coffee for the man within. As such, calling someone a “secretary” is akin to categorically denigrating them to the status of female servitude and plunging feminist progress back to the 1960’s. To Mrs. Carpentier and her dozens of supporters in the comments section, nothing could be more offensive. 

The problem with this inference, however, is that it ignores the obvious in its efforts to be inflammatory. To any reasonable person, the term “secretary” is nothing more than a job description, befitting a support staffer or administrator. Consulting Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary, one finds that the label contains three definitions, not a single one of which can be construed as the least bit misogynistic:

  1. One employed to handle correspondence, keep files, and do clerical work for an individual or company. 
  2. An officer of an organization in charge of minutes of meetings and other important documents.
  3. An official presiding over an administrative department. 

Note the use of gender-neutral nouns. This is, in fact, the norm and not the exception; in consulting the definitions of three other dictionaries, I found that not one referred to the term with feminine verbiage, defining “secretary” as a job title equally befitting of a man or a woman. Thus the author’s empirical claim that such a label for a working woman is intrinsically sexist defies reason. 

Perhaps then, Ms. Carpentier would respond by pointing out that the term’s denotation only reveals so much; after all, a word’s meaning is most often formed by the connotation it acquires from continued use within society. She would certainly point out that the high incidence of subservient female secretaries in the 1960’s belies an inherently sexist intimation in the position, one that the continued use of the label perpetuates. While she is right to note its historical attachment to females, her analysis omits any reference to the term’s usage either before or after the one episodic implication it acquired fifty years ago.

By her own reasoning, anyone who now or has ever borne the title of secretary is some weak-willed, servile female, bending to and fro in support of her male master’s every whim. Unfortunately for Ms. Carpentier, this paradigm doesn’t stand up under even the most cursory of scrutiny. Was Joseph Stalin some self-effacing poofter when he accepted the title of General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922? According to Ms. Carpentier, if he was a secretary, he most certainly was was, but if we were to shed that label in favor of “General Administrative Assistant of the Communist Party,” his  formidable nature then becomes known. Is it possible that Henry Kissinger served in two White Houses and opened up China to the West while wearing “pearls and sweater sets, sensible heels and knee-length skirts?” Perhaps if his title were retroactively revised to “Administrative Assistant of State,” it would be. Was William Seward “Don Draper’s vassal” when he consistently opposed the spread of slavery, annexed Alaska, and fought off an assassination attempt? No, but unless he were an “administrative assistant,” Ms. Carpentier and leagues of feminists would suggest otherwise. Thus, in her analysis of Mr. Buffett’s tendency to call his secretary what she is, she has ignored the obvious to form a half-baked analysis that throws more heat than light. And to what end? 

Does Ms. Carpentier sincerely believe that eradicating the title of secretary is going to somehow make women more equal society? In an age in which they are routinely infiltrating the upper echelons of corporations (12 Fortune 500 CEO’s are female) and men have routinely taken on the role of “secretary” in the work place, such a war on words seems rather unproductive. Should we dump the term “nurse” while we’re at it because of its historical association with women? “Physcian’s assistant” certainly sounds much more eloquent. How about teacher? It used to be that primary education was a field dominated by female professionals. Has that label now been ruled off limits as well? The fact is that such extreme political correctness only serves to do more harm than good. Revising titles does not actually solve the problem; instead, it merely obscures it. The stigma will only continue to exist if we sequester the label from the contemporary lexicon. As Ms. Carpentier points out in her own analysis of connotation, a word derives most of its meaning from its current use in a culture. Thus, if left in use as the societal circumstances surrounding the word continue to evolve, then the meaning we associate with it will also adjust in due course. Any effort, then, to infuse job titles with multi-syllabic words of equivocation are next to useless. They are nothing but tools of angry people with a blind eye toward progress. 


— Nicholas P. Desatnick