The Women Behind Mad Men

Woman looking through filesWoman looking through files, 1952. (Photo: University of North Texas Libraries)

It has been a little more than a week since the acclaimed AMC television program Mad Men ended. For more than seven seasons, the historically accurate show about a New York City advertising agency won acclaim and recognition, and inspired several books. Fans now know the fates of the characters on the show. (Spoiler Alert) Yes, executive Don Draper returned to his agency and wrote the iconic television commercial: “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”

Despite the show’s title, many commentators have noted that the central theme of Mad Men was its women. The finale on Sunday night certainly showed that. As Draper tries to “find himself” on a cross-country journey that looks much like the other road trips of self-discovery in the 1960s, he makes collect phone calls to three women: daughter Sally, ex-wife Betty, and his mentee Peggy. This is not surprising for what has been described as television’s most feminist show.

The women in Mad Men create successful careers for themselves despite the gender boundaries of the era. Housewife Betty Draper Francis will eventually succumb to lung cancer, as is revealed in the second-to-last episode, but she does get to be a successful political wife and graduate student before her demise. On the final episode, secretary-turned-copy editor Peggy made headway at work, was offered a partnership in a company (which she ultimately turned down) and found love in a colleague. It was she who appealed to Draper to “come home” to the advertising agency. Scorned former partner Joan established her own production company and rejected a man who demanded she choose between work and a relationship. These women found their way from subservience to self-sufficiency during the 1960s – a decade that saw women’s roles in society change significantly.

Mad Men helps to remind us that educated middle-class women have long worked in fields outside of teaching and nursing. They may have been limited in numbers and not necessarily in powerful positions, but they were part of the workforce. After all, the organization Business and Professional Women has been around since 1919. Women ran workplaces as secretaries and office managers. They even wrote advertising copy aimed at women consumers, just as Peggy did in Mad Men. Radio announcer Mary Margaret McBride edited the 1948 book How to be a Successful Advertising Woman.

Helen Woodward’s 1960 book The Lady Persuaders noted the importance of advertising in women’s magazines, which were especially important in the days before daytime television aimed at middle-class women. “To the uninitiated, a woman’s magazine may seem merely a powdery bit of fluff,” she wrote. “No notion could be more unreal or deceptive. For if the top layer seems fluffy; the underlying base is solid and powerful.” Even middle-class homemakers like Betty eventually found themselves back in school by the early 1970s, preparing to launch on a professional career.

But much of what makes Mad Men so appealing is that it highlights just how much hasn’t changed for American women. It is easy to be entertained by the gloves and hats of the time, as well as the overtly dated views of race, gender, and social class. They seem archaic. Yet, other things have not changed. The women of the 1970s who fought for the rights of working women – whether through practice or litigation – would likely be appalled by the lack of progress in many areas.

In Mad Men’s Maidenform episode (Season 2, Episode 6) when Peggy joins her male colleagues and the client as they celebrate at a strip club, the client pulls Peggy onto his lap. That seems like it should be laughably outdated, but it isn’t. In 2010, two women sued Goldman Sachs for gender discrimination. Included in the lawsuit were claims of employee-required celebrations that were held at the New York strip club Scores. In scenes like this, the past still seems present.

Women’s history has long been more complicated than depicted in history books. Mad Men has provided an enhanced record of working women and middle-class homemakers in the 1960s, as well as pointing out that women’s quest for full inclusion in American professional life is still not finished.

About the Author

Kimberly Wilmot Voss

Kimberly Wilmot Voss, PhD, is a tenured associate professor of journalism at the University of Central Florida, where she teaches media law and journalism history and coordinates the journalism program. She is the author of The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and a co-author of Mad Men & Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness (Peter Lang, 2014). She is the winner of the 2014 Carol DeMasters Award for Service to Food Journalism given by the Association of Food Journalism.

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