Preferred Citation: Todd, Ellen Wiley. The "New Woman" Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.


Chapter Seven The Question of Difference: Isabel Bishop's Deferential Office Girls

1. See, for example, "Isabel Bishop Finds Critics Receptive," Art Digest 13 (February 1, 1939), p. 21; "New York Criticism: A Miller Pupil's Shackles Loosen," Art Digest 10 (March 1, 1936), p. 16; and Bernard Myers, ed., " Sleeping Child , by Isabel Bishop,'' Scribner's American Painters Series, no. 9, Scribner's 122 (November 1937), p. 32; and "New Paintings Shown by Isabel Bishop," New York World-Telegram , January 21, 1939, p. 16.

2. One notable exception to this type is the 1937 painting Young Woman (Fig. 7.10), a three-quarter-length portrait of a self-assured, business-like woman standing against a column with a hazy urban backdrop behind her. She assumes a relaxed contrapposto pose, her coat and purse over one arm, her gloves in the other hand.

3. See, for example, Grace L. Coyle, "Women in the Clerical Occupations," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science: Women in the Modern World 143 (May 1929),p. 184; Orlie Pell, "Two Million in Offices," Woman's Press 33 (June 1939), p. 256; and U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau Bulletin no. 120, The Employment of Women in Offices , by Ethel Erickson, 1934, pp. 3, 7. For important historical overviews see Lorine Pruette, ed., Women Workers through the Depression: A Study of White Collar Employment Made by the American Woman's Association (New York: Macmillan, 1934); Margery Davies, "Woman's Place Is at the Typewriter: The Feminization of the Clerical Labor Force," Radical America 8 (July-August 1974), pp. 1-28, and her Woman's Place Is at the Typewriter: Office Work and Office Workers, 1870-1930 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982); and Lois Scharf, To Work and to Wed: Female Employment, Feminism, and the Great Depression , Contributions to Women's Studies no. 15 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980).

4. See, for example, Loire Brophy, If Women Must Work (New York: Appleton-Century, 2936); Hazel Rawson Cades, Jobs for Girls (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1928); Dorothy Dayton, "Personality Plus—or Minus," Independent Woman 15 (November 1936), pp. 343, 362; Frances Maule, She Strives to Conquer: Business Behavior, Opportunities, and Job Requirements for Women (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1937); Elizabeth Gregg MacGibbon, Manners in Business (New York: Macmillan, 1936); and Ruth Wanger, What Girls Can Do (New York: Henry Holt, 1926).

5. Griselda Pollock, "Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity," in Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and the Histories of Art (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 56.

6. The fifty-story Metropolitan Life Insurance Company at Twenty-third Street also employed seven thousand women in a total staff of nine thousand. New York in Pictures , vol. 2 (New York: Sun Printing and Publishing Association, 1928), p. 7. Information on the tasks for each institution is in U.S. Department of Labor, The Employment of Women in Offices , p. 5.

7. Bishop recalled that many of her models were from the block of buildings, which included the Bank of Manhattan Building, the Decker Building, The Union Building, and the Hartford Building, ranging from 31 to 41 Union Square West, between Sixteenth and Seventeenth streets, just adjacent to Bishop's studio (see Fig. 3.1 and Maps 1, 2). Interview with the artist, December 16, 1982.

8. In the work force in general, between 1890 and 1920 the percentage of native-born white women grew while the proportion of working women who were foreign-born declined. Among clerical workers the percentage remained high—80 percent by 1940. Scharf, To Work and to Wed , pp. 11-12. According to a report on women's occupational progress, for the years 1910 to 1920 the increase among women in the clerical occupations was "seven and a half times as great as the increase among women in manufacturing and mechanical

pursuits, and almost three times as great as that among women in professional service." U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, The Occupational Progress of Women , p. 17, as quoted in Coyle, "Women in the Clerical Occupations," p. 180.

9. Between 1900 and 1920 the participation in the work force of women aged 16 to 24 increased from 39 to 50 percent while the proportion of working women aged 25 to 44 rose from 3.3 to 7.3 percent. Scharf, To Work and to Wed , pp. 13, 41.

10. Over half of all women surveyed were under twenty-five. For hiring policies, see MacGibbon, Manners in Business , p. 26; U.S. Department of Labor, The Employment of Women in Offices , pp. 14, 27.

11. U.S. Department of Labor, The Employment of Women in Offices , p. 30.

12. Married women made up 35.3 percent of all the women in trade, 35 percent of those in domestic service, and 32.4 percent of those in manufacturing and mechanical industries. In the 1934 New York survey of 24,025 clerical workers, only 10.1 percent reported that they were married. U.S. Department of Labor, The Employment of Women in Offices , pp. 12-13, 29.

13. Coyle, "Women in the Clerical Occupations," p. 183.

14. Coyle, p. 183; and U.S. Department of Labor, The Employment of Women in Offices , p. 13.

15. The Employment of Women in Offices , pp. 5-8; and Wanger, What Girls Can Do , p. 112.

16. U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau, The Employment of Women in Offices , pp. 5-7; and Wanger, What Girls Can Do , p. 113.

17. Unpublished interviews with Isabel Bishop conducted in September 1957 by Louis M. Starr of the Oral History Research Office, Columbia University, New York. Quoted in Helen Yglesias, Isabel Bishop (New York: Rizzoli, 1989), p. 66.

18. See John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1972); and Rosemary Betterton, ed., Looking On: Images of Femininity in the Visual Arts and Media (London and New York: Pandora Press, 1987), introduction, pp. 10-14.

19. Emily Genauer, "Miss Bishop Rates High as Painter," New York World-Telegram , February 15, 1936, p. 15; Edward Alden Jewell, as quoted in Art Digest 13 (February 1, 1939), p. 21; James W. Lane, "Bishop," Art News 41 (June 1942), p. 42, and Lane, "Canvases by Isabel Bishop, Painter of Subtle Tonalities," Art News 37 (January 21, 1939), p. 12; and Forbes Watson, ''Isabel Bishop," Magazine of Art 32 (January 1939), p. 52.

20. Bishop's technique was complicated, and she took many months to complete a single painting. She worked either in oil or tempera, building up meticulously crafted layers of paint. The pencil strokes, which she added toward the end of the process, often to a surface still wet, suggest where a contour might appear without really defining it. As a result, the pencil strokes seem to hover above the surface, implying motion.

21. In most New York offices women worked a thirty-nine-hour week, seven hours a day with four hours on Saturday mornings, except during the summer. In large offices there were good benefit packages that included two weeks of paid vacation, one week of paid sick leave, some group insurance, and small bonuses, either for Christmas or with continued service. Some offices made provision for additional education, and in banks there were often lunchrooms where employees could have inexpensive midday meals. U.S. Department of Labor, The Employment of Women in Offices , pp. 29-33.

Clerical wages seem to have been considerably better than those of domestic, industrial, and sales workers. In the early 1930s a beginning file clerk in a large institution seems to have made about a dollar a week more (or around $17) than a beginning saleswoman in a major department store, and a secretary two to five dollars a week more than an upper-level

saleswoman (or around $42.50). According to Lorine Pruette, in Women Workers through the Depression (pp. 66-74), saleswomen were always at the low end of the white-collar pay scale. My own estimate is based on an evaluation of several median wage charts in The Employment of Women in Offices (pp. 20-23), modified by reports of somewhat lower salary ranges in "Women in Business II," Fortune 12 (August 1935), p. 85.

22. Wanger, What Girls Can Do , p. 111.

23. Coyle, "Women in the Clerical Occupations," p. 181.

24. U.S. Department of Labor, The Employment of Women in Offices , p. 1.

25. Bishop believed a painter had to maintain an awareness of the painted surface even while creating the illusion of forms existing or moving in space. She argued that representational painters had two basic historical "forms" of painting by which they could simultaneously maintain an awareness of surface and of depth. Renaissance artists like Raphael retained planar integrity by arranging forms parallel to the surface, even though those forms were so solidly demarcated from the surrounding space that they could be removed from it, leaving the setting undisturbed. Other artists, like Rubens, Watteau, and Renoir, destroyed the compositional integrity of the picture plane by animating their figures and by creating diagonal recessions into the picture plane. But they reinforced the plane again by minimizing contour and by creating such a strong painterly continuity between figure and ground that figures could no longer be detached from their settings.

In her own work, Bishop chose the second method. In "Concerning Edges," Magazine of Art 32 (January 1939), pp. 57-58, she explained her theories. She summarized some of the problems she and like-minded representational painters faced:

And if the painter wants to make the thing painted on look different from what it is, he has to keep several balls in the air at once—that is, he has to create several sets of suggestions—one set always keeping you aware of what the thing painted on is like, while other suggestions are persuading you of depth, movement, weight, and what not. Jean Helion has defined painting as ". . . combining opposed purposes so that they develop instead of annihilate each other."

26. Sheldon Reich, Isabel Bishop , introduction by Martin H. Bush (Tucson: University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1974), p. 24.

27. In "Isabel Bishop, the Grand Manner, and the Working Girl," Art in America 63 (September 1975), p. 63, the art critic Lawrence Alloway identified this technique as a metaphor.

28. Reich, IsabelBishop , p. 23.

29. Reich, Isabel Bishop , p. 24.

30. Cindy Nemser, "A Conversation with Isabel Bishop," Feminist Art Journal 5 (Spring 1976), p. 15.

31. "Isabel Bishop," Current Biography Yearbook (New York: Wilson, 1977), p. 63; and Karl Lunde, Isabel Bishop (New York: Abrams, 1975), p. 169.

32. "American Painting Bought by the Metropolitan," New York Herald-Tribune , February 20, 1936, p. 15.

33. Nemser, "A Conversation with Isabel Bishop," p. 15; and interview with the artist, December 16, 1982.

34. William Engle, "Portrait of Two Girls Bought by Metropolitan Reunites Two Ex-Waitresses Who Posed for It," New York World-Telegram , February 27, 1936, p. 3.

35. William Engle, "Portrait of Two Girls."

36. Interview with the artist, December 16, 1982. Quotations from Cindy Nemser, "A Conversation with Isabel Bishop," p. 18; and Reich, Isabel Bishop , pp. 14, 25.

37. Alloway, "Isabel Bishop, the Grand Manner, and the Working Girl," p. 63. Alloway also argued that Bishop's fully articulated theories about mobility were a way for her to assuage her conscience for her remarks about the social limitations of these figures, a judgment that may have been unfair given Bishop's values and her position in particular social and political discourses in the 1930s.

38. Positive attributes of clerical conditions, like the ones I have cited, served as preliminary comments to the studies of the rapid disappearance of occupational advantages once attributed to office work. Economic, technological, and institutional change had made them largely fictional by the 1930s.

39. Grace Hutchins, Women Who Work (New York: International Publishers, 1934), p. 84. Hutchins, a writer with a Marxist perspective, quoted a 1926 National Industrial Conference Board report that showed 39 percent of all clerks received less than twenty dollars per week. Her study is an excellent foil for Lorine Pruette's study of white-collar workers on large salaries. Every woman in Pruette's sample, however, is forty-five or older. That these women earned so little after twenty to twenty-five years of working experience is the astonishing statistic.

40. "Women in Business II," p. 55.

41. In New York, where employers generally paid the highest wages, secretaries, who in 1931 had earned $30-$60 per week, received $25-$35 in 1935; stenographers dropped from $20-$40 per week to $15-$25; typists, who earned $18-$30 in 1935, received $16-$18 after three years' experience. "Women in Business II," p. 55; Grace Hutchins quotes a different, still lower, scale and looks to some of the lower clerical occupations. In 1929, clerks earned $10-$22 per week; in 1931 their wages dropped to $8-$18 per week.

42. Hutchins, Women Who Work , p. 84; "Women in Business II," p. 50; and Elizabeth Gregg MacGibbon, "Exit—the Private Secretary," Occupations 15 (January 1937), p. 300.

43. A bookkeeper might absorb the jobs of a saleswoman, stenographer, and general clerical worker and work six days, eleven to fourteen hours each, for half her former wage. She dared not complain for fear of losing her job. Hutchins, Women Who Work , p. 84. According to a New York Emergency Relief Committee report from 1932, stenographers were hardest hit by unemployment, followed by seamstresses and general clerical workers. Once stenographers had lost their jobs, they were often out of work longer than women in other occupations, and many were forced to move down the occupational scale and take domestic positions. Furthermore, 50 percent of clerical workers, like saleswomen, reported substantially decreased earnings. Pruette, Women Workers through the Depression , pp. 64-74; and Scharf, To Work and to Wed , pp. 160-162.

44. MacGibbon, Manners in Business , p. 165. Eunice Fuller Barnard, in "Girl Graduate, 1936," Independent Woman 15 (July 1936), assessed prospects for graduates:

The main trouble seems to be that even today's college graduate, and more extensively and tragically the high school graduate, has had too little informed guidance as to which occupation offers her a really promising field. She has had access to no accurate charts to show her long-time occupational trends. She has had as a rule no adviser with the requisite combination of patience, insight and scientific data to aid her in discovering her own best capabilities. With all her haunting worry about landing a job, with all the experience of her predecessors as a warning, the girl graduate still too often follows sheeplike, in the crowded paths of certain standardized occupations, such as office work and teaching. (p. 203)

45. Barnard, p. 203.

46. Caroline Ware, "The 1939 Job of the White Collar Girl," Woman's Press 33 (June 1939), pp. 254-255; and Coyle, "Women in the Clerical Occupations," p. 184.

47. MacGibbon, "Exit—the Private Secretary," p. 296, reported that in one enormous New York office, seventy-seven private secretaries, each of whom had served an executive, were replaced by twenty-two workers. One private secretary served the corporation president, while seven stenographers and fourteen voice-machine transcribers turned out the rest of the work. See also, Coyle, "Women in the Clerical Occupations," pp. 185-186; and Ware, ''The 1939 Job," pp. 254-255.

48. The male figure here is Walter Broe, an unemployed man who modeled for all the artists. When I questioned Soyer about the conjunction of male unemployment with female labor, he said that given the opportunity to redo the work, he would eliminate the man, who added too strong a "storytelling" element.

49. For a discussion of how the cartoon or crayon drawing came to be used and understood as a medium of social protest in earlier radical publications see Rebecca Zurier, Art for the Masses: A Radical Magazine and Its Graphics, 1911-1917 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988). pp. 126-132.

50. Rembrandt was by no means Bishop's only old master model, and she also painted the female nude. As I suggested in looking at her early mural-like paintings, she was inspired by Renaissance art. She also admired Rubens's drawing style and his ability to convey movement in his art. Many of her "favorite" works were also models for Miller and Marsh, but she used her models to different ends.

51. Lawrence Alloway, "Isabel Bishop, the Grand Manner, and the Working Girl," p. 64.

52. In "Danaë: Virtuous, Voluptuous, Venal Woman," Art Bulletin 60 (March 1978), pp. 43-55, Madlyn Millner Kahr described Rembrandt's humanizing depiction of women, particularly nudes, as a new image of woman.

53. Scharf, To Work and to Wed , pp. 100-101.

54. MacGibbon, Manners in Business , pp. 12, 28. Some of these job advice manuals were scientific in their approach, with many categories of investigation; others were impressionistic; and still others took the form of letters between mothers and daughters, providing highly personalized advice. As the number of working women increased, advice literature helped to establish better lines of communication between high school guidance counselors, professional employment counselors, and businesses.

55. Cades, Jobs for Girls , p. 16.

56. MacGibbon, Manners in Business , pp. 16-17. MacGibbon also reported that heads of women's colleges said that those women with the best scholastic averages were usually the last hired for office positions because they spent so much time at their studies that they failed to take care of themselves.

57. In "Women in Business II" it was estimated that more than a fifth of an office girl's salary was spent on clothing. The most expensive items were silk stockings, at the rate of a pair a week (p. 85). See also MacGibbon, Manners in Business , p. 29; and Maule, She Strives to Conquer , p. 125.

58. Interview with the artist, December 16, 1982. "New York Types at the Midtown Galleries, New York," Art Digest 10 (February 15, 1936), p. 19. Another critic identified Head No . 2 as a shopgirl. "Colorado Springs Buys," Art Digest 16 (March 15, 1942), p. 15; and "Museumized: Noon Hour by I. Bishop Bought by Springfield," Art Digest 13 (May 1, 1939), p. 5.

59. Maule, She Strives to Conquer , p. 6; and MacGibbon, Manners in Business , p. vii.

60. Cades, Jobs for Girls , p. 16; Dayton, "Personality Plus—or Minus," p. 343. Dayton

wrote that personality was about 75 percent of getting a job, brains and technical training, less than 25 percent. Her article discusses the increasing reliance on experts to help a girl change her voice and improve her personality, first by testing, then through a series of classes.

61. Brophy, If Women Must Work , pp. 35-41.

62. Scharf, To Work and to Wed , p. 97.

63. Maule, She Strives to Conquer , p. 6; MacGibbon, Manners in Business , pp. 66-72; and "Women in Business II," p. 55.

64. "Women in Business II," p. 55. As the historian Lois Scharf described this new woman, she was "nothing less than the office mate of the harried male executive [who] dutifully fulfilled the emotional and business needs of her boss. In direct imitation of marriage, in which the wife derives her social status from her husband, the private secretary achieved her exalted position through the man to whom her services were indispensable" ( To Work and to Wed , p. 98). See also Eugenia Wallace, ''Office Work and the Ladder of Success," Independent Woman 6 (October 1927), pp. 16-18.

65. "Women in Business II," p. 86.

66. For an extended discussion of this painting, see Ellen Wiley Todd, "Will [S]he Stoop to Conquer? Preliminaries Toward a Reading of Edward Hopper's Office at Night " in Norman Bryson et al., eds., Visual Theory: Method and Interpretation in Art History and the Visual Arts (New York: HarperCollins, 1990); Victor Burgin, Between (Oxford: Basil Blackwell in association with the Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1986), p. 184; Gail Levin, "Edward Hopper's Office at Night," Arts Magazine (January 1978), pp. 134-137; and Linda Nochlin, "Edward Hopper and the Imagery of Alienation," Art Journal 41 (Summer 1981), pp. 136-141.

67. "Women in Business II," p. 55. The persistent belief that these jobs were temporary was buttressed by the departure of four out of five women who entered clerical occupations when they married.

68. MacGibbon, Manners in Business , pp. 61, 116-127.

69. MacGibbon, Manners in Business , p. 127.

70. Margaret Culkin Banning, Letters to Susan (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1936), pp. 92, 94. To support her argument, Susan's mother offered the case study of a married woman who owned her own bookstore. Her husband had to go to his club every afternoon to wait for her while she finished her "unimportant" work. They lived in an apartment and ate many of their meals in restaurants so that she did not have to cook, a practice Susan's mother deplored as an avoidance of wifely responsibility. She concluded, "Martha won't give up her bookshop though dozens of girls could step into her place. She should be building him up. And bearing a child would do more for Martha than any number of sales slips." The feminist argument that women continued to work and needed to work after marriage for personal satisfaction was completely at odds with the demands, responsibilities, and obligations of traditional marriage.

71. Banning, Letters to Susan , p. 7.

72. Wanger, What Girls Can Do , p. 4.

73. Unlike her nineteenth-century predecessors Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, who would never have thought of entering the cafes, nightclubs, and brothels that emblematized modern life for their fellow Impressionists, Isabel Bishop accompanied Marsh to the burlesque and to striptease joints on occasion. But as a proper upper-middle-class female viewer and producer of representations of women, she could not "properly" or "publicly" (through paintings) enter those spaces or envision female sexuality in that way for herself or her female viewers.

74. By the 1930s there were a few small local unions that combined bookkeepers, ste-

nographers, accountants, and occasionally saleswomen. In May 1934 the legislative body of the Y.W.C.A., along with representatives of business and professional clubs, adopted resolutions identifying the welfare of office workers with that of other workers and proposing study and educational groups to help office workers prepare for unionization. Neither the movement nor the organization was widespread in the 1930s. Marion H. Barbour, "The Business Girl Looks at Her Job," Woman's Press 30 (January 1936), pp. 18-19; Clyde Beals, Pearl Wiesen, Albion A. Hartwell, and Theresa Wolfson, "Should White Collar Workers Organize?" Independent Woman 15 (November 1936): pp. 340-342; and Ware, "The 1939 Job," p. 255.

75. "Women in Business II," p. 85.

76. Interview with the artist, December 16, 1982.

77. Henry McBride, "Some Others Who Arouse Interest," New York Sun , February 15, 1936, p. 28; Bernard Myers, " Sleeping Child by Isabel Bishop," p. 32.


Preferred Citation: Todd, Ellen Wiley. The "New Woman" Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.