Give the girl a break

The white-collar revolution gave genteel, educated women the chance to work. But far from leading to

In 1881, an irritated user of the newfangled telephone wrote a letter of complaint to the Times: "No sooner am I switched on to a number and commenced my conversation than a voice in a high tremble joins in and shouts, 'Have you finished?'" This was not, I'm glad to say, an early embarrassment for the working woman, but the result of using young boys to do the tedious work of connecting calls at the exchange. They were disobedient and generally unsuitable for the job, and someone soon had the ingenious idea of employing middle-class women instead. Women were grateful, obedient, better educated, easily controlled, more dignified and - best of all - cheap.

Visiting the enlightening exhibition "Office Politics: women and the workplace" at the Women's Library, and browsing through letters, photographs, advertisements and all sorts of office memorabilia from the past hundred years, I felt very grateful for my liberation.

At the end of the 19th century, the blue-collar revolution turned white-collar - or, rather, "white-blouse". The new prosperity meant that number crunchers and paper munchers were needed in their thousands. Who better to fill these menial roles than women? Genteel-ish, educated women. "Female operators drawn from a superior class will, as a rule, write better than the male clerks, and spell more correctly!" noted a civil servant in 1912.

The Prudential building society was an early and enthusiastic employer of women. The female workforce had a separate street entrance, separate staircase and separate workspace. They were advised in a patronising manner not to "promenade" in the corridors, but they were given their own library with a piano, as well as a roof garden from which to take the air at the top of that celebrated red-brick building on Holborn in central London. A staff magazine provides breathlessly grateful accounts from the women: the roof garden (once planted) "will assume quite a fairy-like aspect", says one, and the library is "a climax to everything else, as if we had not enough good things already".

These accounts give a sense of what an important advance white-collar employment was for women when it first began. Previously, women who needed to work, and who were not in domestic service or factories, were forced into freelance existences. They taught or sewed, acted or ran boarding houses, opened hat shops and tearooms, wrote (if they were lucky), or resorted to older professions than these. Now they could be reasonably secure employees with annual salaries in relatively civilised environments.

These women were often of the class "unkindly known as superfluous", noted the novelist Dorothy L Sayers. They were yet to be married or they were spinsters, and it was generally felt that they worked because they were obliged to. Married women were not deemed suitable employees. Women were forced to resign office jobs upon marriage, and this tradition was upheld well into the 1950s. At Barclays Bank, it survived until 1961.

By the end of the 1960s, the thinking was still the same, but it was now acknowledged that a woman might work through choice rather than necessity. A Prudential recruitment leaflet purports to illustrate two mutually exclusive ways a woman's life might go. In one picture, a woman has a ring on her finger; in the other, she has a phone in her hand.

Women in offices naturally created a fertile testing ground for sexual politics. On the one hand, it was the women, not the men, who were operating the new technology and who had the power that technical skill brings - in fact, the arrival of women in the office coincided with that of the typewriter and early secretaries were even called "typewriters". On the other hand, typewriting was equated with piano playing in order to characterise it as a feminine (and ultimately trivial) pursuit.

The bondage of woman and typewriter is still with us to some extent - my parents exhorted me not to learn to type in case it should lead down a slippery slope - although such ties are loosening at last, thanks to the computer. When computers first appeared, their likeness to typewriters caused the manufacturers to assume that men wouldn't use them. These days, most of the communications women used to type out laboriously as letters are dealt with in quick personal e-mails. And men have had to learn to type.

Women's slow rise to equality - or something like it - can also be traced through the internal geography of the office and its furniture: from the complete segregation of the early days at the Prudential to today's hot desking. At first, women's offices had a factory-like atmosphere. Women were to know their place. The "Do More Chair" with no armrests was soon introduced, followed by the swivel chair, which was "a further help in reducing unnecessary movement".

Space-wise, rigid boundaries gradually disintegrated. Men came to rely very much on their secretaries, and not just for typing. The feminine presence became a part of office life, and the men began to spend more hours of the day with their secretaries than with their wives. A 1960s advert for the new dictation machines covertly acknowledges men's desire to spend time with their secretaries. "Give the girl a break", it says, leaving unclear whether this refers to the machine's time-saving properties or a break from the boss's sexual advances.

In the 1960s, open-plan offices were introduced, though not without some controversy. An Observer article from 1968 notes that one male boss "had to turn his desk sideways to avoid seeing the miniskirts". And a Soho secretary reported having "modesty boards" put up along the sides of the desk, since "some of the men couldn't stop staring at your legs". By the 1970s, an advert showed a secretary leaning over a man's desk and grabbing him by the tie. By the 1980s, shoulder pads were in Vogue, stern suits were fashionable and women made their first appearance in the boardroom.

It had been a long, hard road. In 1894, Janet E Courtney became the first woman to work for the Bank of England. She had been educated in Philosophy, German and Greek at Oxford but, on entry to the bank, was disappointed to find herself laying out "bank notes in patterns like patience cards". In short, she sorted cheques. Women longed for something more. In her novels of the 1930s, Dorothy L Sayers fantasised a house full of resourceful spinsters who work as undercover detectives and lord it over inferior bosses by pretending to be "plain" and "dull", generally getting the better of them behind their backs. This was effective wish-fulfilment and describes very well the early plight of the intelligent woman in the office.

The poet and novelist Stevie Smith was a secretary for 30 years. In Novel on Yellow Paper, which she wrote on yellow paper to distinguish it from the thousands of white letters she typed for her boss Sir Neville Pearson, Smith made it clear how lucky she was to have a decent job and to be able to support herself: "There's no sugar daddy in my life and those looking for sugar dads can shut up here." But she went on to give a searing description of the stultifying ennui the work brings - broken only when the tea trolley arrives. She cast the tea girl as "an angel of grace breaking in on the orgy of boredom to which my soul is committed".

The glass cases of letters and memos on display in "Office Politics" may look dry, but they bring to life the price women have paid for financial and other liberations: hours and hours of boredom and trivia. The impression I came away with was not so much of the glorious emancipation of women as it was of their relentless exploitation.

"Office Politics: women and the workplace 1860-2004" is at the Women's Library, London E1 (020 7320 2222) until 1 May

Amy Jenkins is the creator of the hit television series This Life. Her most recent novel is Honeymoon (Flame)