Relationships

“It Is a Miracle That Employers Don’t Murder More Secretaries”

The 1945 book What Men Don’t Like About Women makes for a jaw-dropping read in 2018.

A woman laughing while talking on the phone and an angry man talking on the phone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

A few years ago, I saw the unbelievable table of contents of a 1945 book, What Men Don’t Like About Women, floating around Twitter, courtesy of Sophie Gadd. I ordered a copy of the book via interlibrary loan recently and realized that I should have read it sooner. Its naked animosity, cloaked as humor, is quite instructive to the reader struggling to understand American misogyny in 2018.

The book’s pages are full of hypocrisy, unreasonable expectations, mockery, and seething anger. The author, Thomas D. Horton, was not famous, but three of this book’s chapters first appeared as “humorous” essays in Esquire magazine; the sentiments expressed here, one could argue, were at least somewhat mainstream in the 1930s and 1940s. The observations in the book, Horton rather unbelievably claims in the conclusion, are meant to be “heartfelt and given only in the spirit of mutual helpfulness”—so that women could know why their men didn’t love them as much as they hoped they would.

Philosopher Kate Manne has argued that misogyny is not simply the hatred of women but rather the belief that women are giving creatures and that women who are not always giving—to men, to children, or to their communities—are unnatural and should be brought back into line. Horton’s chapters are packed with anecdotal examples of selfish women who expect far too much from men. It’s a horror show of male petulance, with a dark undertone of threat.

Table of contents for the chapter "Women as Bosses."

It feels like no accident that Horton began his book with a section called “Women as Bosses.” Almost every other section (save one on “Women in the Office”) analyzes the male-female romantic dynamic. That female “bosses” are given the honor of launching Horton’s rant is perhaps an indicator of how greatly some men were threatened by women wielding authority over them in the workplace during the social upheavals of the Depression and World War II.

These “women bosses” of Horton’s imagination were sexually predatory (“A woman in a position to buy merchandise can almost force a salesman she likes to go to bed with her before she gives him an order”), mean to both male and female underlings, and, above all, unnatural. To Horton, women in charge were trying far too hard to be men. “Women bosses often assume men’s postures when addressing business men in the offices,” Horton writes. “They sit on an arm of a chair, they stretch out their legs, they rest one leg on the thigh of another, they flip their cigarette ashes on the floor, etc. Their aim is to impress the men that they are hard, efficient—no fluff, no monkeyshines.” Horton isn’t taken in, and he promises other men aren’t, either.

What should a boss-woman do, then, to please a Horton? Basically—step down. “To be a boss, it would seem, a woman must remove from her life most of the attributes that the poets find so alluring: charm, graciousness, tact, decency, consideration, affection, repose,” Horton writes. “Naturally, she cannot remove these attributes without raising havoc with her own being. She does hateful things and hates herself for doing them.” This blanket diagnosis of successful women’s poor psychological health is a prime midcentury example of the persistent American idea that striving women must be deeply physically and spiritually broken.

Table of contents for the chapter "Women in the Office."

Next, Horton segues to his favorite topic: women’s failures in the realm of romance. Everyone knows (well, everyone knew, in these pre-texting days) that women talk way, way too much on the phone. “For a woman to hold you on the telephone for a half hour, saying nothing, is an old story,” Horton complains. “But what is most annoying about this is their habit of saying good-by in fifteen different ways: ‘Bye-bye, honey-bunch; Toodle-de-do, sweet; I give you a teeny-weeny bye-bye kiss, lovely one; Bye, honey, now will you think of me?’ ” Even given these trials, Horton would not prefer that you write him a letter: “Women’s stationery is a mess of monograms, perfume, deckle-edges, hard cards, criss-cross lines, dreadful color combinations, and annoying size of envelopes. It takes a man four or five times longer to open a women’s letter than a man’s.” (In details like these, you can see how Horton is trying for a funny tone, but the vitriol always shows through.)

As I mentioned, Esquire, established in 1933, was the first home for three of the chapters in this book. In an essay about Esquire and the creation of a new male-specific mass consumer culture in the 1930s, Kenon Breazeale writes that the magazine frequently ran takedowns like Horton’s, excoriating women’s taste in arenas like stationery, clothing, food, and interior décor. The pieces Breazeale cites are, like Horton’s, absolutely brutal toward women, painting them as prone to inauthenticity, possessing a love of needless decoration and fads and frippery; women were, Breazeale writes, “merely a foil against which a superior male taste could be posited.” Esquire argued that men should do more buying and consuming for themselves—a worldview beneficial to the health of men’s magazines like Esquire. Horton’s chapters on food, reading, and clothing make much more sense if you see them as part of this cultural argument against women’s taste, and in favor of men’s purchasing power.

On to women in the office (a separate beast from “women bosses”), who are a true trial. “It is a miracle that employers do not murder more secretaries,” Horton marvels. The secretary gives too much unwanted medical advice, offers her own opinion on business matters, talks, talks, talks, and above all, seduces men, bringing romance into a place that should by rights be devoid of it (unless, of course, the man decides to make a move). “Nine out of every ten secretaries and stenographers are too much women in the office. They overpower and over-perfume themselves, and color their finger-nails too harsh a color,” complains Horton, who adds that such secretaries and stenographers wait in elevators for men to leave at night, hoping to cadge free dinners. But even worse, “women in an office think nothing of keeping their sanitary napkins, Mum, Zonite, and safety pins in the upper drawer of their desks or in the office community medicine cabinet. Have they no sense of decency?”

This book is jaw-dropping as a record of misogyny and intriguing as a document of social history. Were safety pins truly so upsetting, because of their association with sanitary pads? Or did Horton lose his mind in the course of this sentence? (And was Mum an analgesic, perhaps for painful menstruation? The word doesn’t have great SEO, so I’m not sure; historians of medicine may know.)

Table of contents for such chapters as "Women as Flirts, Barflies, and Prostitutes" and "Women as Dinner Companions."

The “prostitute” is the only class of woman Horton seems to like. “A cynic might make out a very good case for the idea that the only place for women in business is whoring; in that field they are better than men.” He subscribed to the theory that sex workers had hearts of gold, telling a story of one who saw men in a bread line and provided her services for free out of sympathy at their plight.

Back to the ordinary objectionable woman, who orders fancy desserts for no reason, except to inflate the check when a man is paying. “There is not a round dozen women alive that will not order crepe suzette, zabaglione, or baked Alaska if any of these is on the menu. Even Bronx women will do it, women who really like ordinary fruit compote or sour cream with vegetables,” Horton complains.

After the dessert is gone, the woman disappoints Horton by having nothing good to say about the play the couple goes to see. “Who in recorded history ever heard a woman say anything intelligent about a theatrical performance?” he asks. “If anyone has, the probabilities are that the woman in the case stole her remarks from a man or a press release. Women’s reactions to drama are two, and only two: they either cry or laugh. They almost never think.

“In the entire history of the world no woman has been a good literary critic,” Horton says—another “joke”?—“even in the privacy of her home.” Here, we seem to be getting to the crux of things. Horton, an author, appears not to be earning much in the way of female attention for his efforts. Women like big names, he writes: “Whatever Hemingway writes during the next ten years, however feeble it may be, will find plenty of women admirers. On the other hand, if you give a woman a book by an unknown and praise it highly, the chances are a thousand to one that she will find excuses for not reading it, or having, by some miracle, read it, she will sniff at it.” The women Horton knows much prefer the gossip of plot-driven books about relationships to the meat of intellectual discussion, and he strongly suspects them of eyeing a jacket photo and judging a book by the author’s mustache.

Table of contents for such chapters as "Women as Photograph Dispensers" and "Women in Bed—and the Morning After."

Sections on women’s habits of “borrowing” money from men and never paying it back or on women as constant beggars of gifts are less interesting than this one on “women as photograph dispensers.” Why do women insist that men look at pictures of them as babies? “The children’s photographs,” Horton tips his male readers, “are to give you an idea what beautiful babies they can produce, on the superstition that the beauty of a child a woman will bear is determined by her own looks as a child.”

But most telling of all is the section on “Women and Their Dreams.” Women are hopelessly materialistic and status-oriented; they dream only about the prosaic, about “oil burners, refrigerators, lawns, fountains in the garden, town cars, charge accounts in fifty expensive stores, a box in the horseshoe of the Metropolitan Opera House.”

There are women, Horton writes, who could inspire their sisters to greater heights of social contribution and meaning. But, apparently due to some fundamental shortcoming in the female psyche, they don’t. “How many women have dreamt of themselves as Madame Curie, Florence Nightingale, Emma Goldman, Rosa Luxemburg, Ann Rutledge, Joan of Arc, Emily Bronte, Katherine Mansfield, Abigail Adams, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, or even Frances Perkins? How many?”

Perhaps they would have, if men like Horton didn’t write books with sections about how horrifying and disgusting female authors and bosses are. This double bind—aspire but don’t aspire, be smart but not too smart, have sense but not too much sense—is the point. The midcentury woman who would please Horton, and his approving readers, must somehow obliterate herself altogether. Esquire, or other mainstream media outlets, obviously wouldn’t publish this kind of writing today—or at least the misogyny would be a lot more camouflaged. But explicit misogyny cloaked as comedy like this can still be found threaded throughout the culture, whether it’s in the manosphere or recycled in the form of shrill or dim female characters in Hollywood scripts. In 2018, it still feels like 1945 wasn’t so very long ago.