- Historic Sites
Male And Female
December 1985 | Volume 37, Issue 1
While you console yourself with a lot of feminist hyperbole about bad bosses keeping women in their place, it may be that he’s telling you something about the way you do things …
Every man I called either answered his own phone or called me back in person when I couldn’t reach him. Every woman had a secretary answer the phone or place the return call…. All the women, every damn one of them, acted out the old male stereotype about power and availability.
Passages like these seem to me useful because they withhold sympathy. But on the whole, though usually I think of myself as a splendidly sensitive fellow, the letters in “ DearestAmanda ” are too tenderhearted for my taste.
Collins is also the author of “Managers and Lovers,” an article about the perils of office romances that made quite a splash when it appeared in the Harvard Business Review several years ago. It remains to be seen if “ Dearest Amanda ” will be equally successful. Certainly it seems unlikely to create anything like the stir that Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son created at the turn of the century.
After eight years working for Philip Armour, a disastrous venture as a wholesale grocer, and a couple of years working as a newspaper reporter, George H. Lorimer eventually became editor of The Saturday Evening Post —a decrepit magazine with a distinguished heritage—in 1899, at the age of thirty-two. Under Lorimer’s direction, his biographer John Tebbel writes, “the Post became a magazine edited for the whole United States, interpreting America to Americans, with a particular accent on business.” The magazine’s circulation rose from about eighteen hundred in 1898 to one million in 1908 and stood at more than three million at Lorimer’s retirement in 1937.
The rise in circulation resulted partly from the interest inspired by the publication of Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son as a series in 1901–02. It quickly became clear that Lorimer’s businessman spoke a language that Americans wanted to hear. The book is full of lines that will please any reader who likes plain talk: “Remember … that it’s easier to look wise than to talk wisdom.” “Money talks—but not unless its owner has a loose tongue… . Poverty talks, too, but nobody wants to hear what it has to say.” “Education will broaden a narrow mind, but there’s no known cure for a big head. The best you can hope is that it will swell up and bust.”
Lorimer’s businessman is rarely content merely to chide, and when he explodes, he never frets that his outburst might bruise his son’s frail ego.
Lorimer’s book inspired a host of imitations and parodies, including Letters from a Son to His Self-Made Father, Letters from a Tailor-Made Daughter to a Home-Made Mother, Letters from a Custom-Made Son to His Ready-Made Father , and Will Rogers’s Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President . Though Collins’s publisher rejected the title that originally caught my attention, I think it fair to add her book to this list.
“ Dearest Amanda ” is a modest book full of sensible advice and written in a straightforward rather than a jazzy, savvy, or smart-alecky style. It runs against the current of many recent works in which women teach women how to make it in a man’s world, delivering their lessons with a calculating or cheerfully cynical tone. In Betty Lehan Harragan’s Games Mother Neuer Taught You , for instance, after noting what she describes as an “excessive devotion to duty” among women in the work force, the author comments tartly: “Redoing someone else’s work is not your job… . Someone else’s failure to perform is not your problem.”
On the same subject, Collins’s businesswoman writes, “My experience is that most people simply don’t look beyond their own purviews. They are content with doing what is on their desks, eating what is on their plates, and looking out the same windows day after day. … There is a measure of security to be gained from limited routines, but it means that in every organization many eyes are blind.” Collins wins the point on substance, but people who yearn to feel savvy will prefer Harragan.
Collins has something to say not only to women managers but also to their fathers and husbands and to anyone in business who supervises or is supervised by a woman. Several years ago I discouraged a woman manager who reported to me from attending a seminar on “Fundamentals of Management for Women.” Thinking myself very clever, I asked, “In what way are the fundamentals of management for women different from the fundamentals for men?” Today I might resist the temptation to be clever. The question still strikes me as a good one, but I’m no longer sure that the answer is obvious. In fact, I’m no longer sure that anything about men and women in business is obvious, except that, here as elsewhere, life would be simpler if we didn’t have to worry about human beings with their inconvenient passions, aspirations, and insecurities.