The Lives of Women in the Days of Mad Men

With the Republicans’ war on women, the struggles of the women on Mad Men seem particularly relevant. Just in case that doesn’t explain the hype, our Managing Editor, Bianca Crespo, explains the fascination.

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The year is 1965. The clinking of ice cubes mingles with a commercial laugh. A match is lit. Smoke slithers through moist red lips. Papers are shuffled. Pens are clicked. Ties are tightened. Heels clack against the white linoleum floor. Joan Harris, a voluptuous young woman with ginger hair, turns the corner. The ruby bow of her clinched-in dress flops over her hourglass figure, accentuating her bulging hips and tiny waist.  She sashays through the cold, professional cubicles, each secretary watching her every move.

Peggy Olsen slips out of her office door, Heinz’s potential ad poster tucked beneath her thin ivory arm. She wears a slimming black number, a thick white line splitting the attire in half. The ladies greet and pass a door marked DON DRAPER. It opens to reveal a man in a grey suit adorned by a pocket square. A cigarette sits casually between his fingers. The smoke rises above his slicked-back ebony hair. He smiles at the secretary opposite him. She appears unamused.

In the early days of AMC’s Mad Men, we were introduced to Sterling Cooper, the booming advertising agency located on Madison Avenue. The ladies’ powder room was ubiquitously dubbed The Crying Room. It housed the tears of many fragile secretaries who could no longer take the cruelty of the merciless, chimney womanizers known as Mad Men.

The secretaries have always been fair game for any businessman in the office, despite the light tap tap of a wedding ring against a martini glass. However, as the fifth season of Mad Men kicked off last Sunday, it is without a doubt that a notable change in gender roles is slowly, but surely beginning to emerge from the mid-60s. Peggy Olsen, secretary turned copywriter, has become more confident in her position at the agency, especially during presentations. Her actions are less restrained, more fluid and vigorous. She even carelessly popped in a stick of gum as she discussed Draper’s birthday with his secretary, Megan. Women are expressing their emotions more openly in the workplace. Even more so, they are expressing those feelings amongst themselves.

The Crying Room has vanished. Why? These women are rising, transforming with the evolution of the decade, just as these Mad Men are still pursuing the balance of their scandalous double lives. This is one of the reasons why many are mad about the show: the growth of gender through professional, emotional, physical, and mental means. Women especially love to see the progress that their mothers and grandmothers made in the mist of the 1960s.

A scene in this season’s premiere embodies that mentality: Joan Harris, the head of secretarial affairs, is nursing her child at home while her nanny scrutinizes her priorities. Joan wants to return to work, but the nanny disagrees with her intention, using Joan’s husband (who is working in the medical unit in Vietnam) as her poison: “He’s not going to allow you to work.” Joan stands back and bursts, “ALLOW me?” The feministic aspect of this scene is a stark contrast to the shifty eyes of Roger Sterling at the agency now entitled, quite shortly, Sterling Cooper Draper Price.

 “Why don’t you find a fancy hat or mask?” he asks his secretary. “In case someone important comes in.” The secretary smiles coldly, but continues to go about her business. In comparison to the first season, it is rare to find a woman being insulted so blatantly, on many occasions.

Women have found new means of professional and personal achievement. Just as season five commenced, we witnessed a mob of protestors marching on the street below the office, blasting slogans that dripped with aims for civil rights. A water bomb was tossed onto the crowd by a couple of young businessmen. Cries erupted as the men chuckled at their prank.

As the end of the premiere loomed closer, a group of young, eager African-American women entered the glass doors of Sterling Cooper Draper Price, resumes held in their shaking fingers. One by one they handed their documents to the partners of the agency, exiting the lobby in glee. This scene embraces that fascinating ascent of women in the 1960s. Roger Sterling hits the nail on the head with his acknowledgment of this sudden boom from his womanizing point-of-view: “They’re all great girls. At least, until they want something.” 

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