Susie S. Porter is an Associate Professor of History and Gender Studies at University of Utah and a co-editor of a document reader in Mexican history and of two collections of essays. Her current research is on telephone operators, who were one of the most combative groups of workers in 1920s Mexico City. Porter teaches community organizing through the Westside Leadership Institute (Spanish-language class); and, she serves as a country conditions expert in asylum cases. She is the author of From Angel to Office Worker: Middle-Class Identity and Female Consciousness in Mexico, 1890–1950. For more information on her work, please visit her faculty page.
When I was young, my mother worked at home and worked part-time in a medical office typing dictation. Before I turned thirteen she was a single mother and worked as a secretary to the president of a newspaper agency. I was in awe of the little notes written in shorthand that she tucked away in her purse along with train tickets, lipstick, and cinnamon gum. I never learned to type as fast as she does, and my spelling and grammar skills do not compare. Over the course of my life, my class status and identity have changed, in part affected by when my mother was married, and how she, as a woman, moved through school and the work force. While I knew that my mother struggled to make ends meet for us, her closeness to power and prestige within the office where she worked gave me a sense of access to a class status beyond the circumstances of my day-to-day life. That my mother’s, and my, class status and identity were contingent on such circumstances made me think about how women relate to class differently than men.
I think a lot about work. I have worked as a bartender, waitress, house cleaner, cashier, baby sitter, secretary, and stuffing jelly doughnuts at a bakery. While there was much to love in all of these jobs, as one coworker told me, these are difficult jobs “to grow old in.” Of course, many people do grow old in such jobs. Based on that advice, I kept getting more education until I obtained a PhD and a faculty position at a university. I have now worked as a professor and an administrator, in various combinations, for some twenty-three years. The majority of us spend most of our life at work. Surely that experience shapes how we see the world and how we decide to act in it.
Two questions drive my research: 1) how do experiences of work sit at the heart of individual and societal change; and 2) how and when do people claim class identities and to what end?
From Angel to Office Worker: Middle-Class Identity and Female Consciousness in Mexico, 1890–1950 (Nebraska, 2018) celebrates the ways women who worked as secretaries organized to effect change at work and in society at large. Drawing on their experiences at work, these women wrote beautiful literature and biting feminist critiques; attended boring organizational meetings and thrilling street protests; and, they proclaimed the dignity of working mothers. While the Mexican feminist movement has been depicted as a middle-class concern with limited reach, the book urges us to see the overlapping solidarities of working and middle-class women. Indeed, at the heart of the Mexican women’s movement was a labor movement led by secretaries and office workers whose demands included respect for seniority, equal pay for equal work, and resources to support working mothers, both married and unmarried. Office workers also developed a critique of gender inequality and sexual exploitation both within and outside the workplace.