But Can She Type?

Ides of March 1999

I feel this issue ought to be about the Ides of March, or at least the number nine (number nine. . . number nine), but I’m afraid it’s not. It’s about typing.

When I was about, oh, say nine years old, I came across a poster in my grandmother’s house. In it, an old woman sat looking up at you with an expression on her face I still can’t place, and underneath was the caption, “But can she type?” I got the feeling that this was supposed to be a joke, so I applied to my grandmother for explanation. She informed me that the woman in the picture was Golda Meir, who had been the Prime Minister of Israel, and that yes, in fact, this poster was hilarious. I didn’t get it, so I just put it down to another one of those weird grown-up tics, like taking half an hour to finish a drink or engaging in long conversations with boring people after church.

Ten or twelve years later, I’ve grown up enough to realize that social chatter is necessary and not always boring and that one does not really want to gulp cocktails, but that poster still baffles me. Of course, I can see various possiblities for why someone might consider it funny. It could be pre-feminist “funny,” like ha ha, what good is a woman if she can’t type?, rather like the bit in The Bell Jar when Sylvia Plath’s–excuse me, Esther Greenwood’s–mother tells her that she’d better learn shorthand, because nobody wanted a plain English major. But an English major who knew shorthand was something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter.

It could be feminist era “funny,”–still what good is she if she can’t type, but this time like the punchline of the feminist lightbulb joke–“That’s not funny!” Or it could be post-feminist “funny,” as in, Look how far we’ve come and still the only question is, “Can she type?”, in which case it’s really not funny at all but quite sad.

The really sad thing is that Sylvia Plath’s mother was right–a plain old English major, or Classics major, or what have you, isn’t much good for anything. But throw in shorthand–or these days, computer skills, and suddenly they’re a much nicer commodity to plug into the machine.

I often say that I was a Classics major for the food, and as I made this little joke the other day, my friend remarked that one certainly didn’t go into Women’s Studies for that reason, and we had a laugh about Women’s Studies profs who probably think knowing how to cook is equivalent to laying down your life for the patriarchy. (I have no idea of the veracity of that; I never took a Women’s Studies course, as I object to them for my own reasons, which have very little to do with whether the cookies come from the oven or the store). That’s nonsense, of course: everyone should know how to cook. Food is a necessity of life, and you ought to be able to prepare it. But I can understand the problems it poses too, because I don’t think anyone ought to spend her life cooking, or typing, or cleaning, for others unless that’s what she really wants to do. I always cheer on Esther Greenwood/Sylvia Plath as she continues, “The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters,” and decides that if she never learns shorthand, then she’ll never have to be a secretary. At the same time, though, I get irritated every time I see someone pecking out letters with two fingers. I’m proud of my typing ability (due entirely, I imagine, to the large amount of time I spent in college sending instant BroadCast messages to friends), to the point that I frequently put down “Typing, 63 wpm” on my resume. But it kind of sickens me at the same time.

Later this month I’m going to have the rather stunning experience of getting paid to write something, which seems quite odd after four years of shelling out thirty grand in order to have the privilege of writing papers about John Smith and William Bradford, or women in Greek drama. It brings a whole new level of understanding to the Ani Difranco couplet, “I want you to pay me for my beauty [or talent, in this case], I think it’s only right/’Cause I have been paying for it all of my life.” On the whole, though, I still agree with my father (and whomever he got the line from) that the only man who has freedom of the press is he who owns his own press, and that’s part of the reason that I started The New Rambler. But to publish yourself, you need to know how to type, and run a computer, and do some stuff with the Internet. . . and that, in the end, is how I justify those skills. Learn them for the Man if you must, to make a living–but use them for yourself. Golda Meir would be proud.