Feminism, finally

Peggy Olsen from AMC's Mad Men struts her stuff.

This week’s episode of Mad Men finally brought the moment I’ve been waiting for: when the women’s movement makes its arrival on the scene, if only in passing mention. I practically stood up and cheered when Joan sat, calm but radiating power, on Jim Hobart’s couch and challenged him with the mention of Betty Friedan, the EEOC, and the sit-ins at the Ladies’ Home Journal. It seemed that now, after years of struggling on her own, she had a team of women to back her up. Even the other female copywriters, who joked about getting all of the vagina-related accounts and mentioned feminism only to insist they weren’t women’s libbers—their women’s group, they assured, was “strictly consciousness-lowering”—reassured me that feminism was going to make its way, slowly but surely, into the gray, claustrophobic hallways of McCann Erickson.

My exaltation was shortlived, however, when I saw Joan’s quick defeat. Truthfully, I’m still puzzled by it. After all she’s been through, why was this the moment that brought her down? Was it seeing that she no longer had the unwavering backing of her original team? When Roger doesn’t believe she can do it, she gives up. I wish we had seen the full negotiation between Roger and Jim Hobart, so I could better understand why Roger was so sure that this 50% buyout was the best Joan could do. Roger is clearly on the way down—name pulled off the door and all that—but he doesn’t need to take Joan down with him.

We know Joan will be fine—she’s still rich, after all. But she’s lost the job that she loved and for which she sacrificed so much. This setback reminds us that feminism is no quick fix, even for the relatively lucky ones. And that social change at best takes the pattern of two steps forward, one step back.

Peggy’s storyline was equally bizarre. There were some great gif-able moments, no doubt—I loved the surreal image of Peggy on roller skates in the abandoned SC&P offices, and of her brazen march into McCann, with her shades and her cigarette, the suggestive Japanese artwork tucked under her arm. What gave her that burst of confidence, especially after McCann made clear they thought she was a secretary (which certainly doesn’t bode well for her position there)? Was she still drunk? Were we meant to see her bold strut has signaling that she’ll be able to make it at McCann, or as the high before the fall?

Interestingly, though Roger may have failed or undercut Joan in this episode, his strange afternoon with Peggy seems to have sparked a significant shift in her attitude and approach. She initially rejected the sexual octopus artwork, telling Roger that she needed to make men feel comfortable to be successful at work—an approach represented and promoted by Joan. That Peggy ultimately takes the artwork to her new office suggests that Roger’s retort—“Who told you that?”—has given her permission to try a different approach, and perhaps this signals that she will find greater success than Joan.

Part of the joy and the tension of Mad Men throughout its run has been that we know what’s coming and the characters don’t. I held my breath, waiting for JFK’s assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of MLK and RFK and the riots of 1968. The Vietnam war, the Pill, even the Beatles. So much has happened in the decade covered by the show. And we know what changes are yet to come—I can’t be the only one fantasizing a return of Sal and a partner living it up on Fire Island, or in some distant reunion show, getting married as old men. Or Sally as a kick-ass journalist or a brilliant women’s studies scholar. But we also know that the change will be slow, and there are so many more struggles ahead of them. The changes on the surface are so blatant as to be comic (hello, sideburns and mustaches!), but the implicit assumptions and structural power dynamics haven’t eroded as much as we might think.

The message seems to be: we’ve come a long way, baby. But we’re so not there yet. Even in the dismaying failures of this season, I read a challenge to keep on keeping on, working toward a world of greater equality and opportunity.

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How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Feminism, finally." 6 May 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 28, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/feminism-finally>.

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