Bob Dylan’s song, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” defined the 60’s and the Cultural Revolution taking place. These times were especially momentous for women in their roles in the workplace and as wives. Enter the world of Mad Men – and we are in the culture that fueled the fires for Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique. The Women’s Revolution finally laid bare what Friedan called “the problem with no name.” A culture dominated by male definitions of women’s happiness: being a wife, a mother, and especially being what men want women to be. The women of Mad Men – Joan, Peggy, and Betty, particularly – depict various aspects of the problems the 1960s began to name for women; their frustrations thinly veiled by the kind of “desirable” personas their bosses and husbands expect. Only Megan seems on the other side.
Who are these Mad Men women? Let’s take a look at their evolution over 6 Seasons from 2007 – 2013. What will we see next? That’s the big question.
JOAN HARRIS (Christina Hendricks)
Joan Holloway Harris is an unsuspecting feminist. She embodies what the early ’60s barely anticipate: she says what she thinks; expresses her sexuality without guilt, and does what she needs to do in spite of cultural forces against her. Over the six seasons, she becomes the strongest and most self-assured woman at Sterling, Cooper, and Partners. Don’t get me wrong, though, Joan has her problems.
As Mad Men begins in 1960, we find Joan in charge of the secretarial pool at Sterling Cooper. A bright and determined woman caught on the cusp of cultural change, she believes that the way to get ahead in a man’s world is to use her sexuality. And, she’s gorgeous, with red hair, luscious lips, and a voluptuous body. Joan is Roger Sterling’s mistress. There’s love between them, but he’s married; she has her place, and she’s not about to get more. Joan caters to Roger, but becomes less willing when she sees Shirley McLain in “The Apartment.”
More Than A Secretary or Wife
Joan wants to get married. She finds a young doctor, but marriage isn’t the whole story for Joan. She does have the desire to be more than a secretary and a wife. When she’s asked to read scripts for Harry Crane, she shows talent, even suggesting, intuitively, that he approach “As The World Turns” instead of “Love of Life.” But, as the world of women turns in the early 60’s, Roger undermines her and puts her in her supposed place, telling her that the job needs to be filled by a man.
Not only that – there’s trouble in Joan’s relationship with Greg. Yet, trapped in the conflicting world of what women believe is possible for them, she marries him anyway and leaves Sterling Cooper to be a full-time wife. But when Greg is not named surgical resident and is, instead, told he will never be a surgeon due to his incompetence, he makes it clear Joan must keep working. She’s already resigned and out of pride refuses to return to Sterling Cooper. When Greg enlists in Army without consulting Joan, she knows the end is near. Unhappy, she sleeps with Roger again. Becoming pregnant, she pretends the baby is Greg’s – even though she and Roger know differently.
Fighting Off A Mother’s “Prescriptions”
As the agency goes through the ins and outs of various mergers, Joan returns and is promoted to Director of Agency Operations, goes on maternity leave, and struggles with her mother’s prescription that rather than returning to work she should go “where her husband leads.” These are the mothers of Mad Men women. Yet, while she loves her son, Joan desperately misses the sense of identity her job gave her. She finally gets fed up with Greg’s self-centered refusal to take her needs into account and kicks him out. Her resolve isn’t weakened by his threat never to come back: “We don’t need you,” she tells him. She’s had enough and she’s strong enough not to fool herself any longer.
Joan does succumb once again to being used sexually, this time to Pete Campbell’s manipulation and the promise of partnership. In Season 6 of Mad Men, she gets back at him by leaving him out of the Avon account and showing that she is a talented account executive/partner in her own right. Joan ends the season more stable and content than the other women. She is no longer at the mercy of men defining who she is. Now that Joan no longer needs to seduce men to feel she is someone – will she find a good relationship with a man in Season 7? Will she and Roger become a family? We will see.
PEGGY OLSON (Elisabeth Moss)
Peggy Olson arrives at Sterling Cooper right out of the well-respected Miss Deaver’s secretarial school. Beginning as Don Draper’s new secretary, she’s young and unsure of herself. Confused about a woman’s place at the agency, she follows Joan’s advice about what the men expect of her, gets birth control, sleeps with Pete, and is hurt that he, newly married, is clear it is all “to be forgotten.” Peggy may be naïve, but that’s not all she is. She’s not content to be just a secretary.
The Belle Jolie lipstick focus group involves the whole secretarial and switchboard pool of women at Sterling Cooper. Peggy is different. She has ideas. Just like her “Basket of Kisses” pitch, she doesn’t want to be one of 100 colors in a box. She wants to stand out. Don recognizes her for the first time. But, she is beginning to see how women are discriminated against in the office. Belle Jolie buys her idea, but success in a man’s world is not an easy road. She represents the struggles of talented and ambitious women of her time.
Smart But Naive & Accidental Pregnancy
As smart as Peggy is, she’s equally naïve about the ways of the world and sexuality. When she suddenly gains weight, it doesn’t enter her mind that she’s pregnant – rushing to the doctor a number of months later when she develops severe stomach pains. She can’t accept that she’s delivered a baby and won’t even touch him, immediately giving him up for adoption. Don helps her; the only one who truly knows why she’s away for several months.
Peggy’s indebted to Don for several things, including his teaching her to “forget” and move on, something he believes he’s good at. And, she’s officially the first woman copywriter at Sterling Cooper. Yet, Peggy increasingly feels the inequities towards women at Sterling Cooper. She becomes increasingly unhappy. Don takes credit for her work and expects her to stay in the office, even when she has birthday plans.
We are now on the cusp of the cultural revolution of the ’60s in Mad Men. And Peggy becomes interested in Abe – an activist and a hippie. But, even Abe fails to recognize the discrimination against women in the workplace that Peggy is suffering. Peggy has a great desire for success. Yet, being a woman at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce holds her back. Feeling increasingly unappreciated, she meets with Ted Chaough, Don’s rival, and he offers her a job as copy chief. She takes it – and moves to Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough. Don finally admits he’s proud of her. Peggy is pleased with her success.
Compromising Her Needs In Mad Men’s World
Season 6 in Mad Men proves to be a tumultuous season for Peggy. Abe breaks up with her after she accidentally stabs him – on edge with the constant terror of living in the unsafe part of town he insists upon. She too is a woman who’s compromised her needs for a man. Sterling, Cooper, and Partners merged with Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough. Peggy is declared copy chief. But, who’s her boss? She wasn’t consulted at all. Then, when she finds Ted in love with her, she sleeps with him, wanting to believe she’s doesn’t really need his love. In the end, she’s hurt that he can make the choice not to leave his wife. Peggy wants choices, too. But, the women of Peggy’s time get so few.
As Don Draper deteriorates and is forced to take a leave and Ted goes off to California to remove himself from the temptations of his love for Peggy, she finds herself in Don Draper’s chair: the place she thought she’s always wanted to be. But, as she’s gone through her own evolution over these years and observed her two mentors, Don and Ted, Peggy’s changed. She knows she’s become less like Don. As we enter Season 7, will Don regain his position? Or will Peggy continue to blossom? If she does, who will Peggy Olson become? And, will she find a suitable man to love?
BETTY DRAPER (January Jones)
Betty is the quintessential woman of the era we enter in Mad Men – a woman trapped in the ideology that a woman’s place is in the home, subservient to her husband’s needs. She tries to believe her marriage to Don is happy, but she has a lot of feelings she pushes aside and doesn’t know what to do with. Meeting Helen Bishop, a new neighbor divorced because of her husband’s infidelity, brings up fears that Betty tries to keep out of her mind. When she drives past Helen in the neighborhood, she has a conversion anxiety reaction, her hands go numb, and she loses control. Would she like to strike out at Don in anger? Is she angry that she knows what she wishes not to know?
Betty goes to therapy and wants to – but against Don’s wishes. Her psychiatrist/analyst, Dr. Arnold Wayne, points out Betty’s anger at her mother, and rightfully so. Her mother taught her that looks and weight are most important for a woman (to get and keep a man), but called her a “whore” for wanting a career in modeling. Her psychiatrist, though, is a traditional man who allies himself with Don and breaks Betty’s confidentiality, a terrible betrayal. Now she really has no one to understand and help with her feelings.
Trapped In A ’50’s Woman’s “Rules”
We see more of what restricts Betty in a dream during the birth of her 3rd child (after separations and reunions with Don, but still not happy). Betty dreams that an African American man warns her of the consequences of speaking up and of her mother telling her to be happy with what she has (not at all interested in her unhappiness). This is the state of women. Like blacks, they are supposed to keep silent about their plight and “be happy” as second-class, oppressed people. Will she speak up about her unhappiness with a husband who stays remote and uninvolved?
She does – and this is some progress. We see Betty make Don leave, take him back, and finally, tell him she doesn’t love him anymore after she discovers the key to his private drawer and how much he’s hidden. Meeting Henry Francis settles her resolve to divorce Don. She immediately marries Henry who promises to make her happy. Her mother’s taught her she’s nothing without a man. But, is she really over Don?
Leaving Don But Lost & Searching Still
After her bout with weight gain, a thin and gorgeous Betty gets lost on the way to Bobby’s summer camp, runs into Don, seduces him, and they make love. She says she’s happy in her new life, so why? Is she putting her first marriage and love for Don to rest? Or, is she appeasing her jealousy and competitiveness with Megan and proving to herself that he still wants her? Betty is a woman much more lost than Joan, Peggy, or Megan.
Yet, Betty searches, too. Remember the episode she frantically looks for Sandy, Sally’s friend, and violin protégé, in Greenwich Village? This is her unconscious search for a lost, neglected, un-mothered self that needs care. She sadly and unintentionally perpetuates this lack of good mothering on her own children, especially Sally. And, she’s afraid to get help after her unfortunate experience with Dr. Arnold Wayne. Will Betty ever find herself? Did her weight gain and fear of cancer make her a kinder mother and more appreciative wife? It seems so. Will Season 7 show a change? Will she develop more confidence in her own right? Or will she remain stuck in the pain and restrictive expectations for women of her past?
MEGAN DRAPER (Jessica Pare)
Megan is a foreshadowing of our more “modern woman” – a woman who doesn’t have conflict about being a wife and having a career. Yet, she doesn’t see the problems in her marriage (she’s naïve and undeveloped in that regard). And because Don can’t really accept that she is anything but under his control, her marriage very likely will not last. Or will it? Is change for Don in the air?
Megan enters the scene in Season 4 of Mad Men when Don needs someone to watch his kids on a trip to California. He asks Megan, his new young secretary who is very sensitive to Sally, to accompany them. Megan is kind about mistakes where Betty is not. Knocking over a milkshake is “no big deal”, it happens. Watching Megan’s warmth with his children, a kind of motherliness he’s never experienced himself, Don falls in love with this part of Megan and proposes. This quality is not all of Megan, though. And, increasingly, their marriage is not what either expected.
Marrying A Man Incapable of Love
Megan begins to learn that Don isn’t capable of love, at least for a woman who is her own person and separate from him. Nor can he allow anyone close in a way that risks loss. By the end of Season 6 of Mad Men, Megan is too many times disappointed in Don’s distance and lack of support for her career or her needs.
The last straw comes when he changes his mind about moving to California without consulting her – losing her hope for being in the best place for her career as an actress and a fresh start for their marriage. She finally gets fed up, tells them she’s through and yells at him: “Go ahead … you want to be alone with your liquor and your ex-wife and your screwed up kids?” Will she hold to her decision to move to California on her own? Will she take Don back if he wants her? Or, if he does, will she demand change? We will see, in Season 7.
Betty Friedan’s outspoken courage – and the voices of women who echoed and followed hers (as we see in Peggy, Joan, and Megan especially) – assigned women permission to define, on their own; who they are and what they want. Are they there yet? Yes and No. How far have Joan, Peggy, Betty, and Megan come? Season 7, what will you tell us? Let’s bring it on!