December 13, 2010

"Complaints against women"

Writing in 1894, Miss Agnes Amy Bulley and Miss Margaret Whitley (prefaced by Lady Dilke!) elaborate on the many career choices open to women in the late Victorian era.  One of these areas is clerical and commercial work in the General Post Office.  I have already discussed elsewhere the working conditions and benefits employees could expect.

Not only do the Misses Bulley and Whitley describe careers at the GPO, but they feel it necessary to mention the fact that members of the public have lodged complaints about the shoddy service they have received.  Things got so bad that the Postmaster-General himself (Sir James Fergusson) felt compelled to issue a circular, requiring "greater civility" from the girls when dealing with the public.

Customers experienced "indifference and carelessness" from the telephone girls, who seemed to have forgotten that "important business transactions" were being conducted.  The authors even report that at one exchange, which they refuse to name, the Post Office had to resort to replacing the women with men.  Undoubtedly, everyone in the town would know which office this was; it would have been the only one with an all-male staff working the day shift.  A newspaper editor was always glad when the day shift (worked by women) was over and the night shift (worked by men) came on.  Reading between the lines, the authors merely mention the subject as a warning: 'behave yourselves, girls, or else this new line of work will be cut off to you in the future.'

Young boys were the first telephone operators but they didn't last long.  They kept messing about and had to be replaced by docile, obedient young women.  You only need to look at any contemporary photographs to see rows of young women seated at their switchboards, backs ramrod straight, a matron-figure patrolling behind them and the managers/engineers seated at their own desk to one side or in the middle of the room.  These girls didn't even have a chance to exchange a surreptitious glance with their neighbour, never mind being insolent to a caller.  And, of course, if the call was for business, then the caller undoubtedly would have been male and much older than the operator.

I find it strange that the authors inserted this paragraph ("Complaints against Women") in what is essentially a careers guide for young women, having details of wages, qualifications, etc.  There are many other jobs described in the book (teaching, commerce, textile trade) but nowhere does it mention customers complaining about employees' behaviour.  On the contrary, quite often the authors describe grievances attached to certain professions, such as low wages, long hours and so on.  Readers thus gain an honest picture of what's in store for them.  It's almost as if the Post Office told them to write this paragraph?

A. Amy Bulley, Margaret Whitley.  Women's Work.  London: Methuen, 1894.

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.