September 02, 2002

My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraph Office, 1846-1950, Thomas C. Jepsen

The beginning of the story is that telegraphy was so new and strange that women worked in it, independently, when women could work outside the house at little else. The end of the story is that telegraphy was old tech eventually, and by then women had been resigned to repetitive jobs and smaller wages, though not without a good fight.

Jepsen is wonderfully thorough in detail in discussions of women telegraphers and: women's wages generally; the Civil War; colnizing the West; culture-shock moralizing in all directions; the centralization of the new industry; deskilling telegraphic jobs; international comparisons; and reflections in popular culture. More, probably, but I remember those. The writing is slightly cut-and-paste repetitive, a though it had been several magazine articles.

The list of high- and low-culture 'telegraph' works is great. Strauss wrote a "Telegramme" waltz! (Opus 318.) W.D. Griffith made The Lonedale Operator and The Girl and her Trust. The Hazards of Helen filmed 119 episodes between 1914 an 1917; Fritz Lang made Western Union; actually, that sounds awful, although Jeppson says it "partially redeems itself through its depiction of authentic telegraph equipment". This seems unimportant now, when there's a more-or-less-officially-fantasy genre for every grade of wish-fulfillment violence, technical aptitude, sexuality, and gender. Imagining it after reading a Charlotte Yonge novel is hard, though. Women's fiction in the nineteenth century mostly offered a choice between suffering in moral silence until the Virtuous Man rescued you, or suffering in moral silence until you died of it and someone felt remorse. Sometimes a woman went Bad, which is to say sexual, not larcenous, and later died, possibly of remorse, but the idea of leaving town on the next train for a job has to have been a big old breath of fresh air. (Am I wrong? Send me counterexamples.)

So wrote clew in Technology.

And thus wrote others:
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