A short while ago, I discovered that the first five seasons of the Perry Mason TV show, popular in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, were available on Amazon Prime. This was one of my favorite shows when I was young, and remains a favorite. Like most television series, each episode followed a set formula.
We’re usually introduced to the client in some relatively innocent context. There’s a scene where the person finds themself in some circumstance that leads them to consult Perry Mason on a legal matter, which Perry promises to take care of with no hint that the result can be anything but positive.
Not too long afterwards, this client becomes the primary suspect in a murder. (You’d think they’d learn not to consult Perry Mason, knowing that the next thing that would happen was they’d be encountering a dead body, but no one puts this together any more than they do the fact that a visit to Cabot Cover is generally lethal.) Naturally, they call Perry Mason, if he hasn’t already arrived at the crime scene.
Not too long afterwards, Mason tells his secretary to get in touch with Paul Drake, head of the Drake Detective Agency, who is assigned to get information on the victim. Sometimes Mason also accompanies Drake on his investigations. Sometimes he splits the investigations with Drake.
Often his secretary, Della Street, accompanies him. She’s always involved with his cases, sitting with her trusty stenographer’s pad and a pencil at his side, taking notes. Amusingly, by today’s standards, she always makes his phone calls for him, often from the telephone on his desk, as if he doesn’t know how to manage the instrument. Her apartment also proves to be a convenient place to stash women suspects or witnesses when Mason doesn’t want Lieutenant Tragg to be able to find them easily.
The impression we have of women in the fifties lies along what we saw in sitcoms like Father Knows Best, the Donna Reed Show, and the Honeymooners. A woman’s role was to be a housewife, keeping the home clean and organized in high heels and nylon stockings. While she offers opinions on situations concerning the children or social functions, she wouldn’t dream of doing the same in regard to her husband’s occupation.
But Della Street is different.
I didn’t consciously notice this when I watched the episodes initially, but Perry often asks her opinion of a prospective or current client, particularly if the client is a woman. Or she’ll remind him of some information after flipping through her steno pad to verify what she remembers. I also noticed her questioning his opinion in one of the episodes I’ve recently watched, and after a brief consideration, he concedes she’s probably right.
She also anticipates his needs fairly regularly. As they discuss a case and come to a point where they need more information, she frequently interjects, “Call Paul?”
Perry Mason also includes her in social functions, something that would probably cause raised eyebrows today. He’ll have dinner with her (and Paul Drake) often. Sometimes this is a dinner with a client. Della is treated as an equal, a partner, not a secretary.
After a hiatus of almost twenty years, Perry and Della returned for a series of TV movies. In the first one, Della is the one accused of murder, and pleads with Perry, who is now a judge, to defend her. She also gets to show her softer side.
William Hopper, who played Paul Drake, had passed away during the intervening years. This left not only Mason, but the producers with a problem. Della to the rescue! She tells Perry that Paul’s son is now a private detective and they should hire him. When Perry demurs, saying he’s not experienced enough, Della tells him the son is broke and needs the work. Perry, for the sake of his old friend, agrees to hire Paul Drake, Jr.
In today’s “woke” environment, there are those who would have you believe that men have always repressed women in the workplace. While I won’t argue that this never happened, there is another side to the story. That side is admirably represented through Della Street.