Female Influence: Lessons from Mad Men's Women.

by Meredith O’Brien


As I’ve been watching the third season of Mad Men and seeing the early 1960s dramatized by fictional characters like Don and Betty Draper, I’ve been thinking a lot about members of my family and what influences made them – specifically the women – who they are today.


My parents were in their teens in 1963 when the current Mad Men season is set. My grandparents would’ve been roughly around Roger Sterling’s age, forties-ish. My grandmothers both worked. My mom’s mom was the manager of my grandfather’s auto body shop, while my dad’s mom intermittently held jobs with mother’s hours, like working at a dentist’s office and a bank when she wasn’t doing volunteer work at the schools or church. When it came to their home lives, it was like they were pulled right out of Mad Men. My grandmothers were expected to attend to all the cooking, cleaning and child care duties. They were to serve their men their evening drinks, their dinners and their desserts and wash up afterwards; this was supposed to be their great pleasure, duties for which they were supposed to be grateful.


The women in my family keep coming to mind when I’m watching Mad Men because by analyzing the TV drama week after week, I’ve developed a deeper understanding of the world in which they lived and how that climate shaped their views, in more than just a textbook, History Channel documentary kind of way. For example, it used to enrage me when I was but a young feminist, that my grandmothers thought it was their job to serve their husbands, even when they too worked outside of the home. In the post-feminist world, this practice persisted and it made me crazy. The world and society, as well as their own mothers, had told them long ago that was what a good wife did, and they internalized that message. To the female members of the Greatest Generation, if you didn’t think that way, there was something wrong with you.


On Mad Men, Betty Draper cooks for her husband Don, as does every other wife on the show, even though Betty particularly despises it. Child-rearing is done almost exclusively by the women – or their paid child care help -- although the men are occasionally brought in for disciplinary purposes. When a twentysomething professional woman on Mad Men, Peggy Olson, wanted to ignore all that, get her own place in Manhattan and live a life different than her mother’s in Brooklyn, her mother took it as an insult to her upbringing and family, chastising her and saying she was going to get raped living alone there.


Your commentary, this show, and the recent story of Leslie Morgen Steiner's mother's life really bring the progress my generation enjoys into stark relief. I wish more media was focussed on helping us see that although we are still often very unfairly treated, and the work of motherhood still greatly outweighs fatherhood in most families, our options are incredibly better than in the past. I was very frustrated with Maureen Dowd of NYT whose columns often strike me as poorly thought out or researched or both, and whose tone is often anti-feminist. Shame on her, as without the feminist movement, I doubt she'd have her job.