Monday, September 01, 2014

labor day ode to "i.b.m. girls"

This Labor Day, I invite you to step into my Delorean time machine and travel with me back to 1937. Thanks to an eye-opening article in Ars Technica, I’ve recently learned this was an era where working for a corporation like IBM meant having to sing company songs that toed a delicate line between college-style fight song and war-era propaganda. You can actually listen to some of these ditties on IBM’s own website.

In reading the 50-plus-page songbook uncovered by Ars reporter Lee Hutchinson, I was particularly interested in how IBM handled the issue of women who worked for the company. At the time, females were employed at IBM, but they were fairly rare, and just about invisible in management and the more technical areas of the company. Not surprisingly, the few mentions of women in the songbook focus on their looks and how nurturing they were in their supportive roles.

The collection starts off with the patriotic “America” and the “Star-Spangled Banner,” followed by “Ever Onward,” an original song written explicitly for IBM. (Most of the other songs contain new IBM-themed lyrics but borrow melodies from popular songs of the day.) Despite it being the official company rally song, “Ever Onward” does not include women:
Our leaders we revere, and while we’re here
Let’s show the world just what we think of them!
So, let us sing, men. SING, MEN!
Once or twice, then sing again
For the ever onward I.B.M.”
Indeed, phrases like “In the glorious I.B.M. we are blest with mighty men” are littered throughout the songbook. Here’s a ditty hailing company president T.J. Watson to the tune of “Happy Days Are Here Again”:
“Happy days are here again!
Nine thousands hearts in I.B.M.,
All loyal T.J. Watson men,
Love our noble President.”
The “I.B.M. Hundred Percent Club No. 2” is even worded such that listeners might think IBM was a women-free zone (though the intended meaning was almost certainly that all employees were invested 100 percent in the company):
“O—h! It’s great to belong to the best of Clubs
In our glorious I.B.M.
We’re all one hundred per cent men in President Watson’s band.
We’re selling all our products in every clime and land.
O—h! It’s great to belong to the live-wire gang
In our world-famed I.B.M.”
To be sure, women do see a few mentions. But these hat tips reek of Mad Men-style condescension and a focus on the appearance and “sweetness” of the women in question. For starters, there’s “To Our I.B.M. Girls,” sung to the tune of “They’re Style All the While”:
“The office girls surely are always in style.
They greet you with smiles, their welcome’s worth while,
The best in the world are our girls, rank and file,
They’re style all the while—all the while.

They’ve made I.B.M. complete and worth while,
They work and they smile—so sweetly they smile;
Tall, short, thin and stout girls—they win by a mile—
With heavenly styles all the while.”
Here’s the slightly better “To Our I.B.M. Systems Service Girls,” to the tune of “Betty Co-ed”:
“To our Co-eds who spent their time at studies.
To our Co-eds from school of I.B.M.
To our Co-eds no finer group of ladies,
With faces shining bright as diadems;
Ever alert and eager in their duties,
To help our customers their problems shed,
Teaching the use and application of machines.
Yes, here’s to all our I.B.M. Co-eds.”
Finally, the songbook includes dozens of odes to individual employees — starting with corporate higher-ups, from Watson and various vice presidents, to managers and leaders of company divisions in the U.S. and around the world. The lone female IBM’er among these individual odes is Anne S. Van Vechten, the company’s secretary of women’s education:
“We admire Anne Van Vechten
She is tops as we all know
With her work in women’s education
That is helping I.B.M. to grow
Every day is working with a purpose
And we all can highly recommend
Anne Van Vechten yes we most sincerely
Our best wishes to you extend.”
On the one hand, I admire IBM’s willingness to arouse company spirit with these songs and give thanks to its employees. On the other, the songbook is a reminder of the deeply ingrained attitudes toward women in the workplace that continue to this day. Of course, our country’s laws and societal norms have evolved a great deal in the past three-quarters of a century since these lyrics were written. But female workers in the U.S. still face major obstacles including lower wages for the same jobs as their male counterparts; no guaranteed maternity leave; unchecked sexual harassment; the erosion of rights to effective family planning; and persistent bias in terms of attitudes toward hiring and evaluation. To me, the day when women are truly treated as equals in the workplace will be a day to sing about.