What Does an Office Secretary Have in Common With the Secretary of Defense?

A short history of executive assistance.

Warren Buffett’s secretary, Debbie Bosanek and US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta.
Photgraph of Debbie Bosanek by Win McNamee/Getty Images. Photography of Leon Panetta by Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images.

President Obama used the word secretary three times in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night. Twice he was referring to Warren Buffett’s executive assistant, and once to the head of the Department of Defense. Why do we call both administrative aides and the heads of Cabinet-level departments “secretaries”?

Because they both report to executives. When the word secretarie first appeared in English in the 1387 translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, it referred to the monarch’s personal assistant. A king’s secretarie wrote letters and kept account records but had little authority—much like the modern executive secretary. Over the next century or two, noblemen across the realm started using the word to refer to their own personal assistants. (There were, however, at least eight different ways to spell secretary.) The definitional confusion began in the late 1500s, when Queen Elizabeth I vested significant power in her administrative aides. Elizabeth’s influential secretaries of state were the precursors to today’s Cabinet secretaries, who continue to carry the title even though they have no clerical duties.

While the job of secretary is quite old, the modern stereotype of an office secretary—the bespectacled young lady planted at a desk outside her boss’s door—is relatively recent. In fact, most secretaries were men until the mid- to late-19th century. As the industrial revolution developed, family-run companies gave way to large enterprises with customers and suppliers spread over vast distances. They needed new workers to manage all those files and letters. At the same time, the feminist movement made it easier for women to work outside the home. Male executives of the time felt that the repetitive, nonintellectual nature of secretarial work suited women well. The Katharine Gibbs school, founded in 1911, helped solidify the notion that executive assistance was for women by feeding young ladies into secretarial jobs and stenographic pools. There were very few male secretaries left by the 1930s.

The lack of male secretaries eventually posed a problem. Secretaries weren’t fairly compensated for their services, according to some, because employers undervalue female-dominated professions (PDF). Industry insiders began to notice that the men who trickled back into administrative work were refusing to be called “secretaries.” They were administrators, executive assistants, or office managers—people who did similar tasks but had distinctive job titles that got them more pay. Sensing that the old title was holding them back, female secretaries demanded a name change, too. In 1990, Professional Secretaries International changed its name to the International Association of Administrative Professionals.

There has been a slight reversal in recent years. Between 2009 and 2011, the percentage of administrative assistants who include “secretary” in their title nearly doubled from eight to 15. Many attribute the reversion to the television series Mad Men.

Male or female, the job duties of a secretary have remained remarkably static over the past 400 years. In his 1586 work The English Secretary, Angell Day includes among the necessary skills letter writing, keeping track of accounts, and secrecy. The word secretary is, in fact, derived from the Latin word for secret. Handling the correspondence of important people sometimes exposes secretaries to delicate information.

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Explainer thanks Susan Fenner and Ray Weikal of the International Association of Administrative Professionals and Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary and author of The F Word.