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From Cather Studies Volume 9

Cather's "Office Wives" Stories and Modern Women's Work

“Miss Willa Cather, the editor of the Home Monthly, is . . . such a thoroughly up-to-date woman she certainly should be mentioned among the pioneers in woman’s advancement” (2), wrote Jeanette Barbour in an 1897 interview with the up-and-coming young editor. Barbour’s short interview appeared in the Pittsburg Press and placed Cather’s profile alongside those of other notably employed women, including architects, an embalmer, a dentist, and a real estate dealer (Bohlke 1). Although Cather was less than a year into her position at the Home Monthly, her editorial work was already celebrated as a predictor of her future professional success: “Miss Cather is just beginning her career, but she is doing it with the true progressive western spirit, that fears neither responsibility nor work, and it will be a career worth watching. To go off, when one is but twenty-one, into an entirely new part of the country and undertake to establish and edit a new magazine requires plenty of ‘grit’—a quality as valuable in a business woman as in a business man” (Barbour 2–3).

Barbour’s brief profile documents how Cather’s early success fit into a wider context of female achievement and highlights her outsider persona as a westerner in the urban East. Notions of Cather’s “western spirit” and “grit” would become staples of her public persona as an American writer. In addition to forecasting Cather’s professional success, Barbour’s article also provoked its subject to undertake her own editorial revision of the article, a revision that reveals how Cather understood herself in relation to the wider advancement of women. Rather than clipping the entire article from the newspaper to send to her family in Red Cloud, Nebraska, Cather removed its accompanying Gibson girl–style caricature of a woman editor, as well as the introductory two and a half sentences. The omitted lines contain a brief history of the young editor’s Virginia roots, her childhood relocation to Nebraska, and her father’s foreclosure on their town’s only newspaper (Bohlke 2).[1]

Cather may have purposefully clipped the article so as to omit fictionalized claims about her and her family’s past. Nonetheless, it is significant that, so early in her life and career, her cutting also eliminates a description of herself as “a thoroughly up-to-date woman” who ought to be cited with other “pioneers in woman’s advancement” (Barbour 2). Cather’s lifelong reluctance to construct her own accomplishments in relation to her gender—to point toward her career as exceptional at a time when critically acclaimed and financially successful women writers were exceptional—has become an easy justification for ignoring how her work directly engages issues associated with the turn-of-the-century feminist movement. In recent decades, feminist scholarship has contended with Cather’s complex relationship to her own gender and the larger “woman question.” As part of that feminist project, this essay specifically addresses three of Cather’s short stories from the 1910s portraying women office workers and situates them within Cather’s career and era in order to illuminate her skepticism about such women workers’ chances for “having it all” in the New Woman era.

Cather’s small body of office fiction dramatizes the tensions and ironies of a modernizing workplace in need of women workers to fill low-paying clerical positions. The contested territory of the urban office was ample enough material to compel her to propose to the Century that she write a series of stories titled “Office Wives.” Ultimately, however, Cather’s expectations for this series and its subsequent collection into a book yielded only three published magazine stories never collected by Cather: “The Bookkeeper’s Wife” and “Ardessa” appeared in the Century in 1916 and 1918 respectively, and “Her Boss” appeared in the Smart Setin 1919.[2] No other fictional representations of Cather’s “office bohemia” are currently known to exist, in either print or manuscript form.[3]

Cather’s three extant office stories do at times mirror her professional experiences in newspaper and magazine offices, but they also pointedly depart from her perspective as a middleclass, college-educated woman from the Midwest to focus instead on women with working-class, “business school” backgrounds, whose goals are generally more practical than artistic. These stories resist autobiographical narrative and its attendant authorial perspective(s), instead engaging more directly with issues pertinent to common workingwomen of Cather’s day and participating in a contemporaneous discussion about women’s place in America’s modernizing labor market. Specifically, they grapple with sex-specific workplace standards shaping the modern office.

In contrast to most of Cather’s other early short fiction, her office stories have garnered less critical attention.[4] Francesca Sawaya and Ellen Gruber Garvey have analyzed Cather’s office fiction as part of their (re)examinations of Cather’s work as an editor and journalist. Their analyses map the larger cultural forces that shaped not only Cather’s journalism and editing but also her sense of professionalism in those fields. This essay builds on Sawaya’s and Garvey’s efforts by looking beyond what the stories suggest about Cather’s editing work to explore instead how they undermine optimism about female secretarial employment at a time of rapid growth in women’s participation in the labor force. I argue that Cather’s office fiction is an experimental space in which Cather tests a variety of models for women workers who are very unlike herself and, in so doing, exposes the depersonalized and morally perilous position these women occupy in the modern American workplace.

During the years just before and well after the start of the twentieth century, young women, particularly those who were white and middle class, crossed many of the educational, professional, and social boundaries that regulated the lives of earlier generations of American women. With their increasing individuality and independence, these “New Women” were the subject of much interest and debate. For example, magazine advertisements adopted imagery of New Women as early as the 1890s by featuring hearty, active American women, such as illustrator Charles Dana Gibson’s Gibson girls. Concurrently, writers developed New Woman figures in the plotlines of popular fiction, often following a formula in which a heroine’s unconventional life and desires challenge the nineteenth-century “True Womanhood” ideal.[5] Since the historical New Woman was generally dependent upon the resources afforded by white, middle-class privilege, fictional representations of her often reflect this perspective.[6]

Cather’s own background and social position correspond with that of the New Woman, including her middle-class upbringing, college education, fulfilling urban career, economic independence, frequent travel, and unmarried status. She eventually left a successful editorial career at the offices of one of the most influential magazines of her day to devote herself more fully to her art, a fitting story arc for a New Woman heroine of popular fiction. Yet Cather, like other modern women of the early twentieth century, defies easy categorization; one might expect a successful professional woman to support women’s rights, but she was ambivalent about women’s suffrage. Nonetheless, by examining how Cather depicts modern women workers in their urban office spaces, we can see her preoccupation with the ways in which the ideals of modern womanhood merge with the ideals of the urban American office. She depicts a new space in which women’s clerical service is as crucial as the individual women who perform it are dispensable. Notably, Cather’s office stories do not strictly follow any of the typical New Woman narratives because they focus on the experiences of working-class women, whose class status and more limited educational opportunities excluded them from the idealized New Woman paradigm. Because she focuses on these women rather than depicting educated middle-class women like herself, Cather depicts workingwomen characters who struggle to balance the economic benefits of office employment with the patriarchal attitudes of their male supervisors. Cather demonstrates that many women could only gain a modicum of economic self-sufficiency if they adhered to gendered codes of conduct—a misstep such as a change in marital status often meant dismissal—and also stayed competitive in ever more fast-paced and impersonal jobs. In her stories, then, Cather simultaneously draws on the material of her lived office experience as an editor and writer and resists a direct self-portrait. Her office women are not editors or writers, nor are they motivated by artistic expression. Instead they are pragmatically motivated and occupy more common, if less glamorous, pink-collar positions as stenographers, typists, and clerks. Through these female characters, Cather avoids the formulaic fantasy of popular stories of New Women and instead presents a realistic portrait of many an urban working woman’s experience. These stories present scenarios in which women workers in both the office and the home navigate—with varying degrees of success—the boundary between their own ambitions and their employers’ or husbands’ beliefs about proper women’s work. Ultimately, Cather’s office stories are pessimistic about clerical work as a means for urban women to accomplish something more individually meaningful than an economic independence that may prove temporary.

At the turn into the twentieth century, Cather’s urban, working-class “copyists” (a term she uses to encompass stenographers and typists) are relatively atypical, since manual factory labor and retail work were the two principal types of position available to urban women (Goldin 82). Secretarial service was still a relatively novel vocation for women during the years Cather published her office fiction, although women rapidly filled new clerical positions as jobs evolved. In fact, by 1930, women held 95 percent of all typist and stenographer positions (Brown 96). For publishing houses, as well as other office spaces in sectors such as insurance and banking, modern business and its attendant paperwork necessitated a large clerical staff. Despite the influx of females into the labor market, women workers were not replacing men; instead, women filled newly created positions as stenographers and typists—jobs that rarely offered promotion or advancement or a guarantee of economic independence or stability. Companies staffed these pink-collar positions at offices like those in Cather’s stories mostly with single young women, many of them trained in business “colleges” (not institutions granting baccalaureate degrees) or technical high schools. Employers’ patriarchal beliefs about the social conditions and economic value of women’s work led them to view individual clerical workers as temporary and replaceable, expected to leave their positions as they married.[7] Despite these conditions, pink-collar jobs were preferable to factory or retail employment for women. In the big picture of women’s employment, even a clerical worker with little job security represented “the elite of working-class women” (Schneider and Schneider 74).

Employment in magazine offices in particular meant a connection to literary production, which had real cultural value. The special enticement of jobs connected to publishing stems from a long-standing cultural belief that editorial work was closely aligned to reading, and women were well suited for it. As Garvey explains, “the earlier gentlemanly aura of magazine editing evidently seemed congruent with sheltered, ladylike work” (182). Consequently, middle-class, university-educated women like Cather found editing work a suitable alternative to that traditional staple of middle-class female employment, teaching. Certainly Cather’s career complies with this model, though she and many literary scholars alike have customarily designated her editorial work as an inferior, if necessary, career stage. However, as Garvey has shown, Cather used her time as a single woman employed in the modern editorial office to advance her writing skills and career. While at McClure’s she earned enough to live comfortably as well as save for her future as a full-time writer. She also developed her narrative technique by editing others’ writing, learned the value and practice of literary research, created a national literary reputation, and forged connections with other writers (Garvey 190–91). These accomplishments are integral to Cather’s development as a novelist. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Cather situates the plot of her best-known office story, “Ardessa,” in a magazine office, but she did not confine herself to this particular office workspace in her other two office stories.

Though Cather experienced office culture at the Home Monthly, the Pittsburgh Leader, and McClure’s, this setting did not appear in her fiction while she was at work in these communities. In fact, she had already transitioned from managing editor of McClure’s to full-time novelist when, in 1916, the Centurypublished her first story featuring modern American office workers, “The Bookkeeper’s Wife.” The story’s title, like the titles of Cather’s other two office stories, suggests a focus on a central female character; however, the story is unique among Cather’s office fiction because it largely unfolds outside office walls and focuses substantially on a male office worker, the titular bookkeeper. Through the portrayal of an unsuccessful marriage between the protagonist, Stella Bixby, and her husband, Percy, the story dramatizes the clash of competing ideals for women’s personal and work lives. Stella’s husband loves his desk, the books he keeps, and the regularity of his job (51). Despite his affection for these things, he risks them in wanting to marry Stella, a woman with tastes beyond his means whose exceptional beauty means she “could scarcely be expected to do poorly” in marriage (52). Favorable marriage prospects aside, Stella Brown already makes “good money” as a “capable New York stenographer” (52, 54). “[L]ike all girls,” Stella has no desire to marry anyone whose projected income will not exceed her own, and, as the narrator explains, “[she] was the sort of girl who had to be well dressed” (54). The narrative revolves around Percy’s choices—principally, his twofold deception, first in misrepresenting his salary to Stella and second in embezzling the money he needs to win her hand. As such, Cather reveals little of Stella’s motivations; nonetheless, she imbues Stella with a great deal of agency. Stella is in many ways the most New Woman–like character to appear in any of Cather’s office fiction.

Stella’s independence is evident, for example, in her decision to marry Percy rather than his more affluent rival, Charley Greengay, who has better business prospects: “She knew that Charley would go further in the world. Indeed, she had often coolly told herself that Percy would never go very far” (54). Here Stella’s matrimonial decision-making process demonstrates self-confidence. Her accurate predictions confirm Stella’s shrewd ability to assess men’s marketplace value. Her decision to marry Percy despite his lesser earning capacity indicates an internal tension between the calculating businesswoman in Stella and the impractical romantic. On the other hand, she is described as cold, materialistic, and emotionally remote, indicating Cather’s ambivalence toward her strong New Woman heroine: “She would have been a little too remote and languid even for the fastidious Percy had it not been for her hard, practical mouth,” states the narrator (54). Cather reinforces this characterization of Stella by following it with a similar assessment: “Her employers, who at first might be struck by her indifference, understood that anybody with that sort of mouth would get through the work” (54). In fusing Stella’s shrewd indifference with one of her physical attributes, Cather positions Stella as unsympathetic even as she emphasizes how others objectify her. Similarly, when Stella and Percy encounter his employer, Mr. Remsen, and his wife in a theater lobby, Mrs. Remsen observes, “She’s very pretty of her kind . . . but rather chilling” (55). Mr. Remsen’s opinion of Stella matches his wife’s, so when seeing his bookkeeper at the office bent over his desk, Mr. Remsen frequently “remembered Mrs. Bixby, with her cold pale eyes and long lashes, and her expression that was something between indifference and discontent” (55–56). Cather uses these accounts of Stella’s personality to call attention to the very qualities—perceived by others as calculating and unladylike—that make Stella successful in the working world. Cather creates a character who is ambiguous and compromised; her desire for finery and calculating views of what men are willing to pay for her favors compete with her softer side, “something left that belonged to another kind of woman” (54).

On the other hand, Cather imbues Stella with positive qualities as well. For instance, she exhibits traits of a born businesswoman who is confidently aware of her own capabilities and value in the modern urban landscape. Stella wants her own income and resists becoming the domestic helpmate Percy wants her to be. When Stella marries, she already intends to restart her career if Percy does not get a raise by the end of their first year together, and later, when he tells her his true salary and that he embezzled from his employer five years earlier, Stella resolves to get a job. In a gesture of support, she declares that her income will expedite Percy’s restoration of the seven hundred dollars he still owes, but the idea affronts Percy’s manhood: “I won’t have you grinding in any office. That’s flat,” he protests (58). Ironically, it is Stella’s desire to work rather than Percy’s dishonesty that elicits his feelings of emasculation and failure. Once Stella knows her husband’s actual salary and the reason he has never spent a day away from the office in all the years of their marriage, she responds clear-mindedly without self-pity, regret, or resentment: “You ought n’t to have married a business woman; you need somebody domestic. There’s nothing in this sort of life for either of us” (59). We can see in her stance the idea that female ambition and business sense are incompatible with a woman’s traditional role as a wife. This conflict is driven home when Stella declares Percy’s old-fashioned ways to be as tiresome as his meager earning power. I contend that by rebelling, Stella also undermines Percy’s traditional patriarchal need for an appropriately dependent trophy wife. Percy feels the pressure of this cultural expectation strongly enough that he is willing to marry a woman whose expensive tastes are more than he can afford, while, simultaneously, he is unable to accept her capacity and willingness to help satisfy those expensive tastes with her own income. Moreover, Stella’s attraction to qualities “in Percy that were not good business assets” (54) demonstrates a romantic side of her that is not cold and calculating. In other words, even if she is emotionally aloof and has expensive tastes, Stella still marries Percy primarily because of a romantic inclination, not because she calculates to gain financially and materially by the union.

Cather’s story concludes six months after the pivotal scene of Percy’s ultimatum; the couple is separated and Stella works for a ready-to-wear firm headed by Charley Greengay. In Stella, Cather creates a woman who, like many women workers of her day, leaves her job when she marries, reminding readers that marriage regulates most women’s movement between the public and private spheres. But when Stella returns to work against her husband’s wishes, effectively ending the marriage, Stella creates a new space for herself outside the moral codes of domesticity versus work. She and Charley would seem to be equals—he, too, is a person “who is out for things that come high and who is going to get them” (52). With Stella and Charley as characters, Cather draws a contrast between a new, less gender-defined business attitude and its attendant threat to traditional marital roles and the patriarchal attitudes Percy embodies.

Cather disputes the traditional rules of gender in the workplace. Consider, for example, that when Percy is at last honest with Mr. Remsen about his embezzlement, Percy’s relief is tangible. He happily returns to his professional routine, free of a bored wife and her elegant tastes. It is unlikely that Percy will ever again take a personal or professional risk of the sort necessary to marry an ambitious woman like Stella. As a working man, Percy lacks the qualities of a determined risk taker that define Charley’s success as the true “man of business.” As one 1914 women’s employment manual, Vocations for the Trained Woman, described, “the man engaged in business or a profession needs to be relieved of detail [by women office workers] in order that he may give his time and energy to matters of larger moment and broader reach” (Martin and Post 111). In other words, Percy is more like a woman office worker than a “man of business.” Indeed, he is just like an expert female stenographer in Cather’s final “Office Wives” story, “Her Boss”: he shows “a strong feeling for office organization” (104). Percy relishes the routine of bookkeeping. His role in the office is as obligatory and marginal as that of the stenographers and copyists whose work enables successful magazines and law firms. The essential difference, of course, between Percy’s professional situation and that of women employed in correspondingly subsidiary jobs is his professional resilience. Privileged by his gender, Percy retains his position even after his embezzlement comes to light. Cather’s subsequent “Office Wives” stories evidence her recognition of women’s vulnerability in offices where they are evaluated more stringently than the men who outrank them. By first depicting how Percy professionally bounces back from his act of workplace fraud and then following his story with later stories portraying women’s vulnerable positioning in the office, Cather underscores the hypocrisy of a gendered moral double standard.

Similarly, Cather’s characterization of Charley as the urbane new American businessman early in “The Bookkeeper’s Wife” enables her to draw Stella as a variation on the new businessman—the New Businesswoman. Stella’s sporty tastes, cool calculations, and assertiveness are traits more often associated with masculine success in modern American business. Indeed, Stella exhibits the sort of occupational courage and “grit” that the Pittsburgh Press profile of Cather deems “as valuable in a business woman as in a business man” (Barbour 3). Cather only limits Stella’s achievement by assigning her to a job with so little room for advancement, and even this tactic highlights the absurdity of restricting women’s full access to modern professions. To do this, Cather uses the seemingly competing aspects of Stella’s personality—the businesswoman and the woman who marries (and relinquishes her job) for love—to call attention to Stella’s feminine subjectivity, whether she is at work in her (male) employer’s office or her husband’s home. In both settings, Stella’s agency is limited by her gender. Beauty and business sense are key to Stella’s success, and yet neither can sustain her marriage. Nor does Cather imply that Stella’s career—successful though it may be when she returns to the office—is unlikely to progress beyond stenography into a position truly equal that of a businessman like Charley Greengay.

Finally, in outlining how Stella moves back and forth across professional and domestic spaces—the office and home—Cather dramatizes a modern workingwoman’s predicament. Whether Stella fulfills her husband’s desire for a beautiful but inexpensive domestic helpmate or funds her extravagant tastes by going to work in Charley Greengay’s office, she must choose between the domains of two men. The story’s inherent conflict between old and new gender roles is finally resolved through a separation. Stella and Percy end their marital partnership when it becomes clear that each “partner” deeply values work—and for parallel reasons. For Percy, bookkeeping is simultaneously a source of pleasure and the means by which he can afford (or not) the domestic life he desires, and yet he fails to comprehend that Stella views her own career in much the same way. Through her work she can satisfy her stylish tastes and fondness for excitement; she gains reentry into the lifestyle she cultivated before assuming the ill-fitting role of Percy’s wife. Percy is firmly grounded in the past, and Stella is pushing toward the future. In this way Cather juxtaposes old and new ways of thinking about gender and work, just as she does in all of her office fiction. Like the other two office stories Cather published in the following years, “The Bookkeeper’s Wife” ambivalently responds to the problems it outlines. Cather slyly conveys through Percy’s closing words in the story that the conditions of his marriage and its breakup are not unique: “I’m very comfortable. I live in a boarding-house and have my own furniture. There are several fellows there who are fixed the same way. Their wives went back into business, and they drifted apart” (59). Cather’s ironic touch appears in Percy’s reference to multiple men who prefer a boardinghouse (where, presumably, women who are paid for their work handle the domestic duties) to sharing a home with a happily employed wife.

In 1918, the next of Cather’s office stories, “Ardessa,” was published in the Century. The story features the staff of a muckraking magazine, The Outcry, the rising reputation of which parallels the early trajectory of McClure’s. In addition, the character of the young new editor, Marcus O’Mally—a western transplant to the American East with an Irish surname and origins—resembles S. S. McClure. Despite these commonalities with Cather’s professional experience at McClure’s, the story is not a roman à clef. Cather situates her story in the magazine industry’s great transitional period, when growing advertising revenues drove down subscription costs and enabled wider access and distribution to readers. Consequently, members of The Outcry’s office staff labor with mixed results in the undefined spaces between art and commerce. At greatest disadvantage in this new environment is Ardessa Devine, the editor’s senior stenographer. Her employment at the publication predates O’Mally’s arrival and his subsequent reinvention of the magazine that was previously edited by “a conservative, scholarly gentleman of the old school” (107). Over the course of the story Ardessa undertakes little clerical work, especially when O’Mally is out of the office. However, since the editor is a relatively recent western transplant, he relies upon Ardessa’s institutional knowledge of the magazine to provide him “a background” on matters such as “editorial traditions of the eighties and nineties . . . antiquated as they now were” (107). She also helps him network with essential literary and business contacts, acting as “the card catalogue of his ever-changing personal relations” (107).

In this way, Ardessa’s office comes to serve as gateway to the editor’s desk, and under O’Mally she acts as an office hostess graciously mollifying the passé writers who linger, hoping to once again see their work in The Outcry. Though her familiarity with the magazine’s history and the attentions of “people with whom O’Mally was quite through” (108) may seek to make Ardessa resemble an assistant editor more than a senior stenographer, vanity, rather than interest in the magazine, motivates her interactions with “ardent young writers and reformers” (108). When not hosting hopeful authors, Ardessa spends her time critiquing the office boy or young stenographers in her charge or working at the “ladylike tasks” of reading and embroidering (107). And although Ardessa is neither young nor pretty, when she is cloistered in her private office she imagines herself “a graceful contrast to the crude girls in the advertising and circulation departments across the hall” (107). She conspicuously fashions herself as “insinuatingly feminine” in response to the “cold candor of the new business woman” (105). Deluded by a sense of privilege acquired under her former boss, the previous editor, Ardessa is blind to her reputation for indolence in an office populated by “competent girls, trained in the exacting methods of modern business,” who acutely feel pressure to exhibit speed and efficiency (107).

Cather draws a direct contrast to Ardessa in young Becky Tietelbaum, who is fresh out of a commercial high school with dreams of lucrative stenography work. In addition to chastising Becky’s gum-chewing habit and inappropriate office attire, Ardessa foists her own work on the younger employee. When Becky covers for Ardessa, her proficiency starkly contrasts with Ardessa’s inefficiency. O’Mally observes to his business manager that after working with Ardessa, working with Becky is “like riding a good modern bicycle after pumping along on an old hard tire” (114). With this stunning analogy, Cather highlights O’Mally’s objectification of his female employees, who are only tools for their (male) boss’s use. Additionally, O’Mally’s metaphor suggests that Ardessa’s ladylike qualities are outmoded (like an old-style nineteenth-century bicycle), even detrimental, in the fast-paced twentieth-century offices of The Outcry. Ardessa may write more elegant letters responding to authors’ queries than Becky can, but this skill is increasingly superfluous at a modern sensational magazine driven by a revolving door of celebrity authors.

Eventually, Ardessa’s approach proves too antiquated for O’Mally’s taste, and her condescending attitude in the office brings her little sympathy. Near the story’s conclusion, O’Mally endeavors to cure Ardessa of her complacency by transferring her into the business department across the “Rubicon” (112) from his editorial office.[8] In spite of Ardessa’s faults, however, the story is not a ringing endorsement of the women who do succeed at the office, Becky and the business stenographer Rena Kalski. For instance, even though Becky is realistically motivated by the financial needs of her struggling parents and nine siblings, the exaggerated pace of her increasingly skilled work performance seems untenable in the long term. Further, Cather marks Becky’s and Rena’s otherness in the office through ethnic coding. For example, the third-person narrator uses Jewish stereotypes to describe Becky: she is “a thin, tense-faced Hebrew girl of eighteen or nineteen . . . gaunt as a plucked spring chicken . . . [in] her cheap, gaudy clothes” (109). Ardessa’s reflections on the young woman’s early days at The Outcry indicate her otherness as an immigrant “ignorant as a young savage” who knew little English and “fairly wore the dictionary out” (110). Drawing on similar anti-Semitic stereotypes, the narrator highlights Rena’s materialism, as exemplified by her first appearance in the story polishing her diamond rings in the washroom during her lunch break. Rena, who at one point “serpentined” from a room, is also referred to as a “young Hebrew” (112).

Yet despite Cather’s use of these stock stereotypes, Becky and Rena are nuanced characters to whom she assigns both positive and negative traits. Becky’s impressive work ethic, for example, parallels Rena’s success as “the right bower of the business manager” (112). Rena’s aptitude has earned her a place in the bookkeeper’s office for half of her workdays—presumably a promotion for the stenographer. Both women also exhibit admirable qualities specific to their membership in The Outcry office community. Becky is grateful rather than gloating in response to praise for her accomplishments, while Rena is conciliatory toward Ardessa after her unceremonious transfer to the business office. O’Mally and the business manager, Henderson, expect Rena to be unfriendly to Ardessa, but instead she demonstrates a collegiality visible nowhere else in the office. Henderson’s surprise at Rena’s munificence is apparent: “What interested and amused him was that Rena Kalski, whom he had always thought as cold-blooded as an adding-machine, seemed to be making a hair-mattress of herself to break Ardessa’s fall” (116). Becky and Rena’s friendship with one another and, particularly in Rena’s case, compassion toward an unsympathetic co-worker make them the most admirable characters in the story. Despite the stock Jewish stereotypes Cather deploys, she also creates in Becky and Rena two sympathetic women clerical workers who navigate the patriarchal minefield of the office with their humanity intact.

It is instructive here to turn to Francesca Sawaya’s astute reading of this story. By exploiting “anti-Semitic descriptions of mercenary Jews to describe the modernized business offices” (89), Sawaya argues, Cather precludes Becky and Rena from signifying acceptable approaches to professionalism—especially professional journalism—just as Ardessa’s femininity and privilege describe the editorial offices (and preclude her from being a viable model for the New Woman). Sawaya argues that because none of these female characters employed at a magazine known for its new journalism can embody Cather’s ideal, the third-person narrator offers a “normatively white and male” journalistic objectivity to avoid “gendered or racialized interestedness” and thus “compromised commercialism” (91). Sawaya links Ardessa’s workplace behavior to an “obsolescent femininity” (90) indicative of traditional separate spheres and the Victorian gender boundaries they imply. Ardessa’s private office resembles a home where she serves as hostess, and “Her femininity is inextricable from her obsolete, personalized, elitist work habits” (90). The magazine’s division of labor between business (public sphere) and editorial (private sphere) work is an imagined one, and the characters that move between them are visible reminders that all employees—whether tethered to the business or editorial side—are dependent on advertising revenue.

As fruitful as Sawaya’s interpretation is to understanding the story’s setting at a magazine of the sort Cather knew so well, the disembodied (and thus ungendered) narrator fails to resolve issues the story raises regarding models of women’s work. The fact remains that Ardessa, Becky, and Rena (and every other woman character in the story, named or unnamed) have negligible influence on The Outcry’s new brand of journalism because they are clerical workers, working-class women who could work in any kind of office, not college-educated editors or writers with professional expertise tied to the magazine industry. For Cather’s working-class women in “Ardessa,” The Outcry office is a public workspace, and they cannot fully escape the gendered expectations of others—namely, male managers and editors who control professional access, promotion, transfer, and so forth. This is the attitude toward female labor plainly visible, for example, when O’Mally calls Ardessa—his former stenographer—“the bartered bride” (116); and, in the larger context of Cather’s other office fiction, the message resonates in her proposed book title: “Office Wives.” Ultimately, “Ardessa,” the one story of the three set in an office space like the one Cather worked in at McClure’s, resists suggesting to its contemporary readers that there is meaningful professional work for women in office spaces—including those connected to publishing—in spite of the author’s own distinguished editorial work at a premier American magazine. Instead, the story illustrates how some women trained in vocational schools for clerical work, like Becky and Rena, can thrive by staying within the gendered bounds of the clerical side of the office space and acting as tools that ensure the productivity of the male managers and editors. Cather subtly refers to this system to emphasize its ubiquity, as when Henderson casually notes Rena at her desk, “where [her] lightning eye was skimming over the printing-house bills that he was supposed to verify himself” (114). Such a detail reinforces Rena’s suitability for attending to the tasks on her manager’s desk and, combined with her increasing bookkeeping responsibilities, suggests that a full realization of her potential to move into a professional position is inhibited by her employer’s expectations for her sex. By juxtaposing the career paths of both an upwardly mobile stenographer and a discerning assistant to the business manager with the idle and outdated workplace femininity that costs Ardessa her job, Cather exposes the ways that office work could both empower and exploit women.

Becky and Rena may represent Cather’s conscious revision of the popular New Woman story to more accurately reflect the female staff she saw every day during her many years in the office. By rewriting a popular fictional genre without a Cather-esque female editor—an unequivocal New Woman heroine—Cather “[wrote] herself out of a place at the magazine office” (Garvey 188).

In the 1919 story “Her Boss,” Cather also mines her editorial work experience, but she locates her female clerical workers in a law office and diverges in her representation of them.[9] “Her Boss” illustrates how a combination of economic need, increasing demand for clerical staff, and cultural trends toward women’s independence conflicts with the American business culture’s need to regulate women’s work through a gendered moral code. Annie Wooley, a young law office stenographer, has an easy and unassuming nature that makes her ill-prepared to navigate the moral perils of her office. Annie’s story actually begins with her boss, prosperous lawyer Paul Wanning, who has been recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. The indifference of Wanning’s family and law partners provokes him to compose a solace-seeking letter to an old college friend in the West. So dependent on stenographers that he feels unable to write down his own narrative using a pen and well aware that his own “expert legal stenographer,” Miss Doane, is loath to stay after hours to take his personal dictation, Wanning asks a new office stenographer, “little Annie Wooley,” to stay late and take down his letter, as she “had always been good-natured” on the “several times” he had already detained her to take his private letters in exchange for “a dollar to get her dinner” (101).

On this particular occasion, Wanning waxes nostalgic on his life, eventually observing that “Little Annie” has been “carried away by his eloquence, . . . fairly panting to make dots and dashes fast enough, and . . . sopping her eyes with an unpresentable, end-of-the-day handkerchief” (101). He clearly perceives Annie in a way that is self-serving, but the scene is nonetheless telling in its depiction of Annie as a generous and even empathetic listener moved by Wanning’s storytelling. The invigorating experience of narrating his life for an interested audience—Annie—spurs Wanning to embark on the project of writing his autobiography. Annie’s kindhearted and unguarded disposition may make her ideally suited for taking down Wanning’s autobiography, but such a disposition will not advance her professionally. Cather signals early in the narrative that Wanning’s own legal secretary would deem taking the autobiographical dictation of her boss a breach of proper professional conduct: Miss Doane is “scrupulous in professional etiquette, and Wanning felt that their relations, though pleasant, were scarcely cordial” (101). Here Cather implies that “a strong feeling for office organization” rather than the practice of workplace cordiality has earned Miss Doane both her seniority and “furs of the newest cut” (104, 101).

Lacking Miss Doane’s appreciation for strict professional boundaries, Annie consents to work as Wanning’s personal secretary and “sort of companion” during the summer months (105). Even though Annie is uninterested in earning money for either present enjoyment or future security, in payment for her assistance Wanning gives her an immediate pay raise and promises “a little present” in his will (105). The extra income from the raise enables Annie’s exhausted sister to quit her job for a period. Like Becky in “Ardessa,” Annie is in her late teens, but unlike Becky, Annie lacks ambition to advance in the workplace. Her carefree approach to money and work is reinforced through other characters’ impressions of her. For example, Wanning infantilizes Annie by referring to her condescendingly as “Little Annie,” and throughout the story he emphasizes her childlike enjoyment of the moment without regard to future consequences. Cather defines Annie’s character by tracing her relationship with money and work, including her difficult background as one of four children to reach adulthood out of the eight her parents had. “Girls like Annie,” the narrator explains, “know that the future is a very uncertain thing, and they feel no responsibility about it” (105). Having this mind-set, it never occurs to Annie that working alone after hours with her boss could have negative consequences for her future.

When Wanning dies, his law partners and son simply assume Annie’s relationship with him had been inappropriate and thus feel free to ignore Wanning’s codicil requesting a payment to Annie of one thousand dollars. They punish her for her perceived immorality by blocking her inheritance and dismissing her from her job. Annie’s inexperience with office protocols is most apparent when one of Wanning’s law partners, Mr. McQuiston, fires her. “[Y]ou should have known what a girl in your station can do and what she cannot do,” McQuiston declares (107). Although McQuiston assumes that Annie knows exactly how she has transgressed the moral boundaries of her entry-level secretarial job, she cannot identify her mistake and struggles to defend herself against the reprimand. Explaining her arrangement with Wanning, Annie underscores her solicitous naïveté: “Of course he was sick, poor man! . . . I wouldn’t have given up my half-holidays for anybody if they hadn’t been sick, no matter what they paid me” (104). Though Annie is the kind of person who “had the gift of thinking well of everything, and wishing well” (104), Cather shows how the law office converts such a positive human quality into a liability for the female clerical worker. Conveniently, they place all culpability on her, not on the dead man they believe to have been her partner in immorality, and by so doing they enrich themselves while impoverishing her.

For working-class women like Annie or Becky, the office is a desirable employment option; it can offer both a measure of personal independence and a way to contribute to their families’ incomes. Cather’s depiction of a handful of women employed at the lower rungs of the clerical ladder, however, exposes the underside of early-twentieth-century women’s office work. Both “Ardessa” and “Her Boss” demonstrate how easily secretarial workers like Ardessa or Annie, whose personal attributes or abilities become more inconvenient than useful to her employer, can lose their positions after committing real or perceived infractions. In this way, Cather’s office stories shrewdly expose the inhumane and exploitative conditions of the modern American office for the very women workers who enabled its growing influence on the broader culture.

Cather’s professionalism developed in editorial offices and gave her financial independence, training in her craft, and a wide network of contacts. Her cynicism about women’s secretarial labor is hardly surprising, given her divided feelings about her own work as a magazine editor. Four years before her first office story appeared in print in 1916, Cather had already left her “incessant, important, responsible work” as McClure’s managing editor (Jewett 247). From this distance, she glanced back at offices she knew well, culling only the most useful material to channel into stories about characters quite unlike herself, a process perhaps less akin to “writing what you know” and more akin to “coming to know through what you write.” Ultimately, then, Cather’s three surviving office stories do more than fictionalize the daily realities of her editorial work. They serve as testing ground for a number of models of women’s office work, and Cather’s fictional clerical workers, I believe, represent the true workingwoman in ways that the more overtly feminist New Woman heroine did not. Though Cather downplayed her editorial work and sought to represent her art as gender neutral, the women she actually writes into office settings are, like Becky, Rena, and Stella, marked by both their desire to excel at work and their hindrance by traditional roles. They cannot choose to conduct their clerical careers outside of the business prescriptions for their gender. And, in Stella’s case, the movement from one gendered role (the wife) to another (employed wife) irreconcilably breaches her marital relationship. Despite ambivalent feelings about women’srights activists, Cather contributes a feminist critique of America’s patriarchal office culture by showing how its concurrent ideals of modern impersonal efficiency and old-fashioned domestic morality particularly victimize women.


 1. Barbour’s article explains that Cather took over the paper as editor and business manager (earning salaries for both positions) over the course of three months. In his preface to Barbour’s article in Willa Cather in Person, Bohlke suggests that inaccuracies and embellishments reflect “Cather’s talent for fiction.” He explains, “There is no other record of her father’s foreclosure or of her three months of newspaper work. Her active work on the Nebraska State Journal and the Lincoln Courier was considerably less involved than is implied” (1). (Go back.)
 2. As biographer James Woodress explains, the Century’s editor, Douglas Doty, only published one of the two stories included with Cather’s original “Office Wives” series proposal. Accepting “Ardessa,” he rejected “Her Boss” (then titled “Little Annie”) because it “was too sad to run in wartime” (286). Cather’s agent, Paul Reynolds, then sent Doty the draft of another story, “Explosives,” which was never published and for which no manuscript survives (286). (Go back.)
 3. The phrase “office bohemia” is drawn from a December 1908 letter from Sarah Orne Jewett to Cather, in which Jewett encourages Cather to leave her editing career in order to concentrate on her own writing. (Go back.)
 4. One possible explanation for the relative neglect of the “Office Wives” stories in comparison to those included in The Troll Garden (1905), Youth and the Bright Medusa(1920), and Obscure Destinies(1932) is that they remained uncollected during Cather’s lifetime. To date, the handful of critics to study one or more of Cather’s office stories have been interested primarily in their relationship to her creative and professional development while at McClure’s. (Go back.)
 5. See Honey for a detailed overview of popular stories of the New Woman appearing in mass-market magazines from 1915 to 1930. (Go back.)
 6. For a historical overview of the New Woman, see Schneider and Schneider 16–19. Despite the dominant image of the white, middleclass New Woman in American mass-circulation magazines, diverse women writers explored the New Woman theme in their fiction, including writers of the Harlem Renaissance era such as Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston. Rich’s recent critical study of nonwhite women writers’ engagement with the New Woman ideal focuses on S. Alice Callahan, Mourning Dove, Pauline Hopkins, Sui Sin Far, María Cristina Mena, and Anzia Yezierska. (Go back.)
 7. The marital status of women is significant in discussions of female labor in the Progressive Era. For example, in her study of economic and census data from the period, Goldin notes that in terms of U.S. women’s labor market history, “the half-century from about 1870 to 1920 was the era of single women” (81). By 1930, however, even as single women made up 82 percent of the clerical workforce, the number of married women in the field had doubled (Brown 96). (Go back.)
 8. The Rubicon is the Italian river over which Julius Caesar led his army when invading ancient Rome. Caesar’s military action was a point of no return, ensuring civil war. Cather’s figuring of the hall between The Outcry’s editorial and business departments as the Rubicon both implies that Ardessa cannot return to her former position outside the editor’s office and underscores the irreversibility of the publishing industry’s new advertising-dependent business model. (Go back.)
 9. See Thacker for a reading of this story in relation to Cather’s relationship with S. S. McClure and her collaboration with him on his autobiography. (Go back.)


Barbour, Jeanette. “A Woman Editor.” Pittsburg Press 28 Mar. 1897. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Ed. L. Brent Bohlke. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986. 2–3.
Bohlke, L. Brent. “1897: Pittsburgh.” Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Ed. L. Brent Bohlke. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986. 1–2.
Brown, Dorothy M. American Women in the 1920s: Setting a Course. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Cather, Willa. “Ardessa.” Century May 1918: 105–16. Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. U of Nebraska–Lincoln. http://cather.
———. “The Bookkeeper’s Wife.” Century May 1916: 51–59. Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. U of Nebraska–Lincoln. http://
———. “Her Boss.” Smart Set Oct. 1919: 95–108. Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. U of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Garvey, Ellen Gruber. “‘Important, Responsible Work’: Willa Cather’s Office Stories and Her Necessary Editorial Career.” Studies in American Fiction 36.2 (2008): 177–96.
Goldin, Claudia. “The Work and Wages of Single Women, 1870–1920.” The Journal of Economic History 40.1 (1980): 81–88.
Honey, Maureen. Introduction. Breaking the Ties That Bind: Popular Stories of the New Woman, 1915–1930. Ed. Maureen Honey. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1992. 3–36.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. “To Miss Willa Siebert Cather.” 13 Dec. 1908. Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett. Ed. Annie Fields. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911. 3: 247–50.
Martin, Eleanor, and Margaret A. Post. Vocations for the Trained Woman . New York: Longmans, Green, 1914.
Rich, Charlotte J. Transcending the New Woman: Multiethnic Narratives in the Progressive Era. Colombia: U of Missouri P, 2008.
Sawaya, Francesca. Modern Women, Modern Work: Domesticity, Professionalism, and American Writing, 1890–1950. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2004.
Schneider, Dorothy, and Carl J. Schneider. American Women in the Progressive Era, 1900–1920. New York: Facts on File, 1993.
Thacker, Robert. “‘It’s Through Myself That I Knew and Felt Her’: S.S. McClure’s My Autobiography and the Development of Willa Cather’s Autobiographical Realism.” American Literary Realism 33 (2001): 123–42.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.