Women of 'Mad Men' make a strong impression amid their fight for change

#MadMen may focus on Don, but the struggles of Peggy, Joan, Betty and Sally highlight its feminist bent

"Mad Men" may be the story of 1960s advertising genius Don Draper, but it is also a series defined and distinguished by its women.

The landmark AMC program, whose final episodes begin airing on Sunday, illuminates a decade of remarkable social and political change through its inscrutable, hard-drinking protagonist. Since it premiered on AMC in 2007, the show has had a cultural impact that far outweighs its relatively modest audience. It has inspired countless think pieces, an industry-wide boom in scripted drama and a nationwide craze for cocktails and midcentury design.

A major, but perhaps less celebrated, part of its legacy is its unusually rich ensemble of female characters: wide-eyed secretary-turned-copy chief Peggy Olson; Joan Harris, who has risen from office manager to become an agency partner, her bombshell looks both a blessing and a curse; beautiful but emotionally stunted suburban housewife Betty Draper Francis; and Sally Draper, who has overcome considerable familial dysfunction to blossom into a headstrong teenager.

Even the women who've played less pivotal roles in the series have left an indelible impression, including Don's second wife, Megan, his many strong-willed paramours and his delightfully tactless secretary, Miss Blankenship — may she rest in peace.

Though some have bristled at its unflinching depiction of sexism and male privilege in the era before women's liberation, it is widely considered one of the most feminist shows on television. That is hardly a coincidence, said series creator Matthew Weiner recently in New York, where "Mad Men" is being honored with a number of major events and installations, including a Don Draper bench outside the Time & Life building.

"I have a powerful mother, I have two professional older sisters, I have a professional, powerful wife, and there have always been a lot of women in authority on the show," Weiner said. "My mother was what they called a women's libber. I knew who Betty Friedan was, I knew who Gloria Steinem was, I knew who Bella Abzug was, I knew who Simone de Beauvoir was, and then intellectually in college, feminism was the most prominent idea."

When Weiner was fleshing out the "Mad Men" universe years ago, two books, which he read in the course of a single week, were particularly instructive: "The Feminine Mystique" by Friedan and "Sex and the Single Girl" by Helen Gurley Brown.

"I was like, well, a lot has changed, but not a lot has changed," he recalled.

Contrary to other popular entertainment about the 1960s, "Mad Men" focuses not on activists or hippies but on members of Richard Nixon's "silent majority." Its characters, by and large, are not the type to sit in at lunch counters or burn their draft cards. Instead, they craft advertising campaigns for companies that make napalm and refuse to hire black employees.

Likewise, there is a big difference between being a feminist show and being a show about feminists. "Mad Men" has always resisted becoming the latter, reluctant to use its women as emblems of any particular movement. Peggy and Joan are unwitting trailblazers, compelled to break barriers by circumstance as much as ideology, and the era's suffocating gender expectations aren't the only — or even the main — thing keeping Betty from finding happiness.

"I always look at a character from the inside," Weiner said, "so everyone, rightly or wrongly, is a person to begin with. And then they're informed by their class, their childhood, their occupation, their gender, their race."

Still, the series left off in summer 1969, and the year ahead marks a pivotal time for second-wave feminism: Abzug will be elected to Congress, and the influential books "Sexual Politics" by Kate Millett and Germaine Greer's "The Female Eunuch" will be published.

While "Mad Men's" track record suggests it's unlikely that any of these characters will be forming consciousness-raising groups in the seven episodes that remain, "they are all starting to have a different voice than they had," Weiner said. "They're starting to be heard."

Peggy Olson

In the pilot episode of "Mad Men," Peggy Olson, a naive 20-year-old from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, by way of Miss Deaver's Secretarial School, arrives for her first day of work at Sterling Cooper, a Manhattan advertising agency, and is assigned to work for creative executive Don Draper.

She quakes in fear around the poised office manager, Joan Holloway, and is such an outer-borough bumpkin that account executive Pete Campbell wonders whether she might be Amish. Nevertheless, there are hints that Peggy may be more formidable than she appears: When Don, hungover and waking from a nap in his office, asks her to go out to entertain Pete, she politely but firmly declines. "I don't want to seem uncooperative, but do I have to?"

In the nine fictional years since that moment, Peggy has grown to become Don's protégé, his rival and for a time his de facto boss. She also bought a brownstone, gave a baby up for adoption and burned through several doomed romances. The similarities between Don and Peggy have been widely noted — both are passionate about their work and have painful secrets in their past — but unlike Don, whose very identity is a lie, Peggy has a guilelessness that also makes her an accidental feminist.

"Peggy wants to be the boss, and she has the same ambitions that Don has, and that's what makes her a pioneer," Weiner said, "that she didn't even think that she's not allowed to have it."

Or as Elisabeth Moss put it: "She just keeps bumping her head up against this glass ceiling, not even recognizing that it's there."

Weiner said he always envisioned "Mad Men" as the "parallel stories of Don Draper and Peggy Olson," though he realizes now that it was "probably unusual in some way that I thought about what Peggy wanted." It took longer for Moss, who has received five Emmy nominations for "Mad Men" and another for her work in the miniseries "Top of the Lake," to realize how integral Peggy's journey has been to the series — even though she's billed second after Jon Hamm.

"It was really only in the third or fourth season when I heard other people saying things about her place in the show," said the actress, her voice hoarse from playing the title role in a revival of Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles" that opened last month on Broadway. "I was like, 'Oh, no, no. It's Don Draper's story.' There's still a huge part of me that believes that above anything else."

While Moss may not always be comfortable leaning in, she is thrilled that Peggy, with her personal foibles and professional triumphs, has been an inspiration to contemporary women.

"There's a lot of talk right now about equal pay for women. It's a conversation that's really present, and it's those women that Peggy's an inspiration to," said "She's always had a hard time finding somebody who loves her for who she is. You talk to any girl in 2015 who has a passion for something, and they're probably going to talk about how it's hard to find a man who respects that."

Peggy also seems to have left her mark on Moss. "The Heidi Chronicles" follows the life of an accomplished but unlucky-in-love feminist art historian over three decades beginning in the 1960s. The similarities between the roles are hard to miss.

"Playing Heidi has given me knowledge there are characters like Peggy that I feel very strongly connected to," Moss said.

Joan Harris

Joan Harris (nee Holloway) is the living embodiment of the Gloria Steinem quote, "We are becoming the men we wanted to marry."

At the dawn of "Mad Men," Joan was a career girl in the Helen Gurley Brown mold, in command of her sexuality and fully aware of how to use her looks to their utmost advantage. Though she was dazzlingly proficient at her job as office manager and liberated enough to know a doctor willing to prescribe the pill to unmarried women, she had what Weiner describes as "Stone Age expectations." As she tells Peggy on her first day, "If you really make the right moves, you'll be out in the country and you won't be going to work at all."

That is, until her disastrous union with Greg, a handsome doctor who once raped her on the floor of Sterling Cooper and fled to Vietnam when he failed to receive a surgical residency. As her marriage was unraveling, Joan became pregnant after a desperate assignation with former lover Roger Sterling and decided to keep the baby.

"Getting married to Dr. Greg was a rude awakening and a real eye-opener," said Christina Hendricks. "She discovered the things she thought she wanted maybe she doesn't and the things she didn't know she wanted she actually excels at. And so her focus changes, and her idea of family changes."

Joan is a heartbreaking mix of confidence and vulnerability. Though she almost single-handedly keeps the office running, for a long time Joan, unlike Peggy, was bashful about seizing opportunities not traditionally allotted to women. Take one of the show's most quietly devastating story lines, in which television executive Harry Crane asked Joan to provide feedback on soap opera scripts. She excelled at the task and clearly enjoyed it, but once the budget became available, Harry hired a man to do the job permanently.

"That moment was a huge disappointment," Hendricks said.

But as the series progressed, Joan came to understand just how much her work meant to her. She grew increasingly impatient with the men running the agency, who allowed their egos to interfere with the bottom line, and she fought to be seen as more than just "a meaningless secretary," as she once told Peggy.

In what may be Joan's most-talked-about moment, she agreed to sleep with a sleazy Jaguar executive in exchange for a partnership at the agency — a move that secured her family's financial future and solidified her role as breadwinner. While fans are debating the merits of the decision, Hendricks understands it. "I think it was the option that she had, and it was an option that was quite common at that time. There weren't other ways to take care of her family."

Betty Draper Francis

After seven seasons, January Jones has had it with the Betty hate.

"I'm sick of defending her and the things she's not good at or the mistakes she's made," said the actress, sporting a very un-Betty-like lavender streak in her hair during a press blitz.

It's little wonder Jones is over it: Betty has been subjected to greater criticism than perhaps any other character on "Mad Men" — and that includes Don, her alcoholic, identity-stealing, chronic philanderer of an ex-husband.

"She was very flawed, complicated and emotionally immature," said Jones. "But I miss speaking for her. She made me brave."

Detractors most often cite Betty's shortcomings as a parent, and in this regard they have a point. She can be an aloof and spiteful mother, but her problems stem from insecurity rather than a lack of love for her children. Betty shines when she feels needed, like when Sally got her period for the first time.

For a long time, Betty's problem had a name: Don. But her second husband, Henry, a New York state senator, is faithful, kind and emotionally available to both her and her children — he is "everything that Don wasn't," as Jones put it.

Yet six fictional years after she flew to Reno with him, Betty lives in a fog of ennui, defined by her role as a wife and mother but yearning for more. Jones noted that when frustrated, Betty has tended to act out physically: by shooting the neighbor's pigeons, by sleeping with a stranger in a bar, by bingeing on Bugles and whipped cream, by dyeing her hair.

But in the first half of Season 7, Betty's restlessness began to manifest itself in new, possibly healthier ways. After meeting with an old friend who'd returned to work, she signed up to chaperone Bobby's field trip and dared to voice her opinion about the Vietnam War at a dinner party.

"I'm tired of everyone telling me to shut up. I'm not stupid. I speak Italian," she complained to Henry.

While it's easy to laugh at Betty's vanity, she does have a point: As a graduate of Bryn Mawr, she has more to offer than her ability to make a mean Crab Louie or look good on her husband's arm. At the height of her Season 3 despair, Betty immersed herself in "The Group," Mary McCarthy's novel about a clique of Vassar women grappling with personal and professional dissatisfaction. That book ended tragically, but that's not to say Betty's story will too.

"She is always seeking happiness," said Jones.

Sally Draper

The first time "Mad Men" viewers really catch a glimpse of Sally Draper, she is wearing a plastic dry cleaning bag over head. "If the clothes from that dry cleaning bag are on the floor of my closet, you're going to be a very sorry young lady," Betty scolds her.

It was the first of many moments of physical and emotional peril for the eldest Draper child, who has endured a staggering amount of psychological trauma in her 15 years; adolescence is hard enough without walking in on your father in bed with his mistress. Though she's developed an unfortunate smoking habit and a sullen teenage eye roll, Sally is, under the circumstances, surprisingly well adjusted.

"She has the traits and the qualities and the work ethic and the determination and the strength of a hard worker," said Kiernan Shipka, who has spent more than half her young life on "Mad Men" but wasn't allowed to watch it until recently. "She has what it takes to be someone very important, I think."

After years of ups and downs, Sally's fraught relationship with Betty — who once threatened to cut off her fingers — has reached a fragile détente. "Sally's never necessarily liked her mother, but she's always loved her mother. I think that kind of describes their relationship," Shipka said.

Sally's relationship with Don has likewise evolved in a promising direction. As traumatic as it was to catch Don in flagrante delicto, the incident prompted a new level of honesty and understanding between father and daughter. "She really sees him for who he is now," Shipka said.

Best of all, Sally can look forward to options that weren't available to Betty, Joan or even Peggy. "Sally is someone who will get to think about what she wants to be," Weiner said.

She'll just have to worry about whether she can have it all — but let's save that for the spinoff.


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