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The personal assistant in history
Women did not have a significant presence in the workplace before the mid-19th century. It was believed that women – especially if they were from the middle or higher classes – should not work at all. For this reason, office administration was primarily done by men.
With the invention of the typewriter in the 1860s, things slowly started to change. There were more and more women being brought into the secretarial world as it opened up high-paying stenographer and typist jobs for women as an alternative to working in the factory.
In the years that followed, fewer men wanted to work as a secretary or personal assistant because the expectation was that the position was better done by women.
The Second World War created a big void in the job market because men were generally sought for fighting at the front. It further strengthened the notion that women should take charge of the administration and the running of an office, even though they were pushed aside in other employment areas when the war was over.
Always there to assist
We can assume, despite the fact that there is little written information about it, that personal assistants have always been around. Throughout history, they have been around supporting emperors and kings, directors and ambassadors, and businessmen and businesswomen. They have become an indispensable part, and the center of, business in the modern era.
Some famous personal assistants include:
- Marcus Tullius Tiro, a slave in ancient Rome. He became assistant to his master Marcus Tullius Cicero. He was well educated though in Latin and Greek, and smart too; he invented a shorthand system for taking notes. His system was used for more than 1000 years and formed the basis of future systems of note-taking.
- Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, the personal secretary to Franklin D. Roosevelt for more than 20 years. One of his most trusted confidants and highly competent in all she did, he called her his ‘Right Hand Woman’. LeHand eventually went from assistant to hold the position of White House Chief of Staff, the only woman in American history to do so.
- Kathy McKeon, an immigrant to the US from Ireland in 1963 to escape poverty when she was only 19 years old. She grew up in a house with no electricity and where the 10 siblings had to share one toothbrush. Attracted by her shiny personality at a chance meeting, Jackie Kennedy asked her to be her personal assistant. They became good friends in the 13 years she worked with her, and she later wrote a book about her time with the Kennedy family.
- Corinne “Coco” Schwab, David Bowie’s personal assistant. She worked with him for 46 years not only as his PA, but also as his best friend and somebody who helped him get over his drug addiction in the 1970s, which basically saved his life.