Women & type

Should women be barred from the printing trades? (Just asking.) I am so old that I can remember the irritation of a dear old guy (happily married) who burbled with resentment whenever he saw a member of the fairer sex at or near a printing press, or typographical machinery. But this was, like so many things now, half a century ago, and the machinery with which he was familiar, was exclusively hot type. It was not only hot, in the sense of molten, but being heavy metal, could kill you even when it was cold. Too, it often moved very quickly. In his opinion, very freely given, it was “not a woman’s domain.”

This was in England, where that domain was preserved into the 1980s, even 1990s, by the unions in deference to Karl Marx, and King Lud. (One thinks of Lud-gate Hill, and Fleet Street.) Women were legally admitted to most trades, by this time; they were only excluded in practice. But with an invasion not of Amazons, but of photo-typesetting, Xerox tech, and soon enough, digital production on computer screens, the women flooded in. It was like the Three Gorges Dam on a bad day. Fortunately for my elderly anti-feminist friend, he’d had a stroke and died. Otherwise he would have had to witness it all.

Whereas I, so much younger, grew further into adulthood taking women in printing offices for granted (whenever possible). They were generally more capable than the men, though also more subject to the vapours. Prejudiced, like any normal human being, I found that I preferred dealing with women, because I could not understand their ego problems. Whereas men, I understood perfectly well, and it would put me off them.

For the sake of a smidgen of historical accuracy, I shouldn’t say that women had never been in the printing trades. Several got inside, over the centuries.

One of my heroines is Beatrice Warde (1900–1969), who, although denied an apprenticeship where she came from (New York, I think) rose to “chief sales girl” in London for the Monotype Corporation. (Perhaps we would say, “sales director,” now.) An accomplished calligrapher, and adept of type, she single-handedly changed the tastes of British and many international book publishers, reviving and adapting many classic pre-industrial fonts (with the help of Stanley Morrison and the London Monotype team), and making the publishers buy them. She was also a very beautiful woman, as well as frightfully articulate by voice, pen, and brush. I theorize this could have been to her advantage. For men, so it seemed, were desperate to please her.

Still, she was habitually a minority of one, and as I understand, preferred it that way. (One thinks of Margaret Thatcher telling some journalist that she’d “never have a woman in my Cabinet.” She loved trolling journalists.)

My point, if there is one (this is an Idlepost, after all), is that the changes had nothing to do with “the demands of women”; or if anything, more at the end when they were unnecessary than at the beginning when they would have been ignored. The same with race, colour, creed, &c. For I am mischievously suggesting that this soi-disant “progress” may be true in other fields, too. Sudden, unrelated innovations in technology, circumstance, or rules for something else, transform the labour market; and this, even without anyone intending, let alone wanting any change.

Incredible change happens, but we can’t learn why. This is because we’re trapped in our own lazy, narrow, irrelevant, and obnoxiously political, “narratives.”


Let us not get too excited. On second thought, let’s just go for it. Had I not sworn off the phrase, “batshit insane,” I might be tempted to apply it to our world at present. Exempli gratia, this is hardly the first epidemic in history, although its inhabitants act as if it were. Nor, for that matter, is it the first time that the world has gone mad, in unrelated ways. It is perhaps because no one ever learns from history, that its worst features so frequently recur; but no one learns anything from epidemics, either.

Yet, whether in this century, or the next, things may return to normal.

Examples of the madness are exceptionally plentiful, at the moment. We need talented female art directors to produce coffee-table books on this subject, on acid-free paper. I know one in rural Ontario who is doing this, so I am quite hopeful. Future generations may be uselessly warned.