Swinging Sixties Secretaries & Sexual Harassment: The 1967 Movie Musical That First Confronted It

A Secretary is Not a Toy.

Sometimes a catchy tune can say it better than editorials or protest rallies.

Weinstein and one of the successful actresses who has claimed he sexually harassed her, Gweneth Paltrow.

Among the most revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment towards women who worked for him or auditioned for a role in one of his films, is that accusations of his behavior reach back into the 1980s. With a patriarchal hierarchy supported by cultural norms and sometimes even legal permission, sexual harassment of women in the workplace and every other arena of existence has been ongoing since, seemingly, the beginning of civilization by men of every race, creed, age, profession, educational and economic status.

Not until the Sixties was sexism legally and socially addressed. It was a time when it was legal to pay women less than men for doing the same job and prevent them on gender alone from deserved work promotions.

Husbands weren’t often charged for beating wives. It was custom that women in families with one car needed permission from the “man of the house” to drive it.

The 1967 Miss America contest in Atlantic City when the first well-organized and publicized protest against the entrenched culture of sexism was held.

The famous 1968 Miss America contest in Atlantic City was marked by protestors dropping their bras in a burning trash pail, carrying pickets making clear that sexism was not just accepted as being normal but wrong, and unfurling a banner declaring a new era of “Women’s Lib.”

The event is popularly seen as the start of national movement to secure the fullest legal equality for women, if not change societal attitudes.

The early Sixties  often termed as “the Jet Age, with  men in suit-and-tie and women in gloves, crew cuts and bouffants is seen as sharing more with the Fifties than the later Sixties of both sexes in bell-bottom jeans and long hair.

True, the Kennedy assassination became a traumatic demarcation of the nation’s heart and soul, but other seeds had already been planted only to explode later in the decade. In reality, everything is contiguous.

The Pill changed everything.

The irony is that, in the very first year of the Sixties it would be such a tiny bit of packed medicinal powder that would set in motion such enormous change.

In 1960, an birth control pill soon known just as “the Pill,” was approved for use by the federal government.  If one questions whether there was a need for it, consider this startling fact: within ten years over eighty percent of not just single but married women would be using some form of birth control and taking responsibility for their destiny of potential motherhood.

Members of the Commission on the Status of Women with JFK in the Oval Office the day he signed equal social security legislation.

In 1961, President Kennedy named a Commission on the Status of Women, the first federal effort to finally address the issues of women’s second-class treatment and offering some resolutions.

Two years later, came equitable social security benefits and the first equal pay legislation.

As a capitalist society reveling in its golden age of consumerism, all roads in early 1960s America led to money: better education to get better jobs to get more money.

Data shows that every demographic of women in the 1960s was in the workforce, even mothers of children under 6 years old. Most, however, were neither self-employed or owned their own businesses, but had to find employment in an established venue. Whether one was a college-educated chemist or grammar school teacher, her value in the workplace rarely aligned with her status simply because of what she was born with between her legs.

LBJ signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson is best remembered as a landmark change giving legal impetus to racial equality, but it also sought to protect women. Under the act was Title VII and under that was Section 703, stipulating that:

“It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer… to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin…”

Legislation alone, however, does not change a society. Attitudes must shift along a parallel timeline. And nothing does that more entertainingly than does Popular Culture. Even when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, Beethoven sought to capture Europe’s reaction to this.

Lesley Gore’s hit was taken up one of the earliest feminist anthems

The same year LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, Lesley Gore’s song “You Don’t Own Me” became a national hit, the lyrics being a young woman’s declaration to a sexist boyfriend  “…don’t tell me what to do, Don’t tell me what to say…don’t put me on display…Don’t try to change me in any way…let me be myself…To live my life the way I want, to say and do whatever I please…”

In movie theaters, even children watching the Disney hit Mary Poppins were exposed to a feminist subtext.

Glynnis John sang “Sister Suffragettes” in the popular movie Mary Poppins,

The topic of gender equality was only subtly introduced, made unthreatening by being presented as an issue of the distant past, as a British suffragist demands the right to vote: “From Kensington to Billingsgate, one hears the restless cries! From every corner of the land: “Womankind, arise!” Political equality and equal rights with men!”

In many ways, the greatest resistance wasn’t the federal government but societal cultural.

The Swinging Secretary of the Sixties persona was perpetuated in advertising.

Just as the Rosie the Riveter persona of the Forties, and Happy Housewife of the Fifties had thrived as the idealized woman, once the Pill was part of American life, the archetype of a hard-working and unmarried female typist-stenographer devotedly loyal to her male boss morphed more colorfully into the Swinging Secretary of the Sixties.

With the Pill , a young and single woman earning a salary that let her rent her own apartment and buy the latest mini-skirt could now be sexually permissive.

Freedom from a husband or parents controlling her life, however, also meant she could not risk losing her job – and that often meant, doing exactly what the boss said.

The popularity of the mini-skirt in the latter Sixties further solidified the popular impression of the unmarried female office worker as sexually overt.

Which could include unwanted patting on the buttocks, touching on the breasts, and kissing on the lips.

If she spoke to others or threatened to embarrass the boss, she could be fired. The only potential exchange of power would require women to blackmail the boss.

Not until 1973 was it this given a name: “workplace sexual harassment.”

Being especially vulnerable to exploitation where a culture of male dominance thrived without challenge, the Swinging Secretary of the Sixties was a mainstay of the era’s burgeoning men’s magazine industry.

In publications such as Playboy, Swinger, Caper, GeeWhiz and Cavalier, secretaries were reduced to a small brain and big boobs, and literally turned into a cartoon, as seen in these examples:

1966, Playboy magazine.

1969, Caper magazine.

date and publication unknown.

date and publication unknown.

date and publication unknown.

Within corporate offices, the problem was kept in the shadow of the water cooler, a bit of gossip whispered among the dictation pool, fodder for back-slapping guffaws among rising execs, if even acknowledged.

In Sixties corporate culture, the white male was king, and women were there to serve.

Any hope of national laws forbidding it was about as likely as sending a man to the moon.

There was a challenger on the cultural front, however.

Two months before President Kennedy authorized his Commission on the Status of Women, the musical comedy How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying opened on Broadway.

The book which inspired the play and movie.

Based on the 1952 book by Shepard Mead, the show was a satire on the conformity and hypocrisy of the white male world’s corporate culture, starring Robert Morse and 1930s crooner Rudy Vallee.

Apart from Tony Awards, it’s significance is suggested by the show winning the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The 1961 Broadway musical’s poster.

A Sixties secretary from the show.

Vallee and Morse in the original cast production.

The story concerns ambitious young window washer J. Pierrepont Finch (who manipulates his way up the old-boy network corporate ladder to become a global wicket company {the Worldwide Widget Company) board chairman.

It turns every old-school cliche on its head by unmercifully eviscerating the “company man” who put his mind on auto-pilot in order to “move up” the chain.

More subtly, it showed a confident all-female secretarial pool that played the game but knew the score, a united militia in the war of the sexes.

It was all encrypted with deft subversion, what the New York Herald Tribune called the “crafty, conniving, sneaky, cynical, irreverent, impertinent, sly, malicious” lyrics by Frank Loesser.

The secretaries: “A pad is to write in, and not spend the night in….”

United Artists made the musical into a 1967 film, a Pop Art feast riddled with clues to the times.

Pants were still the sole workplace prerogative of men, so no secretaries in “slacks.”

Among the females was a sole African-American typist, the males were a solid white wall.

How to Succeed‘s greatest gem is a time piece addressing a timeless problem, a mellifluously choreographed musical number integrating junior execs in grey flannel suits and the typing pool in colored outfits.

Men in grey, women in color.

The number is called “A Secretary is Not A Toy,” and its lyrics are the first known pop culture indictment of workplace sexual harassment, referencing the Worldwide Widget Company’s dismissal of an executive for violating “a company rule”:

“It happened to Charlie McCoy, boy: They fired him like a shot, the day the fellow forgot, a secretary is not a toy.”

Repeated in each refrain as a mantra for the men, each stanza explicitly states that women in the office are “…not a toy to fondle and dandle and playfully handle in search of some puerile joy…

Men and women, integrated…

Yet within the admonishment comes further satire when it makes clear that while not toys, women are still  an automated era’s inanimate tools of industry, the men repeating from memory their formal, technical definition: “…a highly specialized key component of operational unity, a fine and sensitive mechanism to serve the office community.

Sexual acts are only covertly suggested: “…not a pet nor an erector set…Her pad is to write in, and not spend the night in. If that’s what you plan to enjoy. No!! The secretary ya got is definitely not employed to do a gavotte, Or you know what!

The sequence begins at 2:20:

The entire film, however, offers satirical commentary on the imperfect balance necessary to walking the tightrope of sex in the workplace.

Pop culture of the era had no boundary in declaring the secretary a man’s wife at the office.

Adding to the prescience of what would later emerge as the correct way of handling a workplace romance is another musical sequence underlying the cautiously evolving romance between “secretary” Rosemary, and “clerk” Finch.

As shown in the first sequence of the number “It’s Been a Long Day,” it’s only the presumptuous musings of a matchmaking secretary with the tomboy nickname of “Smitty” that bridges the gap of getting them together.

Finch hesitates to even ask Rosemary out for dinner, concerned about violating corporate protocol dictating the fraternizing between men and women of the office and risk losing his job: “But what of my career?!” Only in the imagination of Smitty does Rosemary blurt out to herself, “I wish that he were more of a flirt,” with Finch responding, “I guess a little flirting won’t hurt!

Finch, Smitty and Rosemary.

There’s a line suggesting gender role reversal about the impropriety of physical touching when Rosemary ponders,”What if I take his arm?” and she ultimately makes the first move, inviting Finch to dinner by blurting out, “Ya hungry?

The second sequence of “It’s Been a Long Day,” however, suggests the darker potential that is risked by crossing the line into what was euphemistically called “monkey business,” in this case an over-sexualized mistress Hedy LaRue who flips the power switch to manipulate her lover, a married man and the company’s president, Jaspar Bigly into placing her in a position above her competency.

Unstated quite so explicitly is the fact that “J.B.” is committing adultery by cheating on his wife, an entirely different circumstance than the consensual office romance of Finch and Rosemary.

Miss LaRue and J.B.

Hedy turns the screws on him, demanding a better position in the company or else she’ll return to being a Copa showgirl. Suggesting they return to her place, “J.B.” reminds her she’ll have to endure being pinched and leered at if she goes back to her old job, to which she points out:

It’s no different here in big business…around here a girl can’t even bend down to pick up a pencil with confidence.

Knowing about his uncle Mr. Bigly’s “hanky-panky” unctuously entitled Bob Frump coaxingly blackmails him to get a promotion under the threat of revealing the love affair between the biggest boss and worst secretary.

In the clip, the first sequence “It’s Been a Long Day,” between Finch, Rosemary and Smitty begins at second 00:40; the second sequence between Hedy LaRue and Mr. Bigly begins at minute 4:00:

The most shocking moment of the film is so brief that is easily overlooked, dismissed with a chuckle or altogether forgotten.

Wanting to visually present its seriousness without being humorless, it is nonetheless the first known dramatic depiction of an actual act of overt sexual harassment in a Hollywood movie:

Audiences might have laughed along with the 1967 movie, escapist relief from the nation’s increasing focus on the rising death toll in the Vietnam War, violent anti-war protests, urban riots and the political assassinations soon enough to come.

Until sexual harassment was defined, it could not be prosecuted.

Not until 1973 could all American women serve on juries. The 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act finally let women get credit cards without a husband’s permission. The 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act prevented pregnancy as just cause for being fired.

But it took two decades before “what happened to Charlie McCoy” was affirmed by the highest court in the land.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was created as a result of the Civil Rights Act but not until 1972 did Congress pass the Equal Employment Opportunity Act empowering it with litigation authority to back up its administrative findings and widen its jurisdiction.

Not until the 1980s were the parameters of workplace sexual harassment specified.

Not until  1980, however, did the EEOC publish “Guidelines on Discrimination,” that specific legal criteria defined the act and circumstances that made employers liable to prosecution for sexual harassment.

It was another six years before the regulation was tested at the highest level; in the 1986 case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the Supreme Court affirmed that sexual harassment violated the Civil Rights Act.

It had, indeed, “been a long day” coming.

Cavalier magazine, 1963.


Categories: Diversity, Music, Pop Culture, Women's History Stories

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