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.
In addition to the messages pounded into early Baby Boomers’ heads about women attending to their responsibilities in the home (before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique challenged that dictate and some women started rebelling), there were other life “rules” with which they had to come to terms. Take Mad Men’s Sally Draper, the grade school-aged daughter of Don and Betty (who’d be in her fifties if she were a real person). In a recent episode, Sally and a male friend were sitting -- fully clothed -- in a bathtub, pretending it was a car. The boy was “driving,” of course (almost all of the senior citizen males I have known, even some I still know, continued to drive, even if their driving skills had diminished, because it’d be unmanly to let the wife drive). Sally asked the boy if she looked pretty, then kissed him on his cheek. When her mother Betty heard about this, she sat Sally down and advised the girl, “I don’t you running around just kissing boys . . . You don’t kiss boys. Boys kiss you.”
Meanwhile, the impact of that kind of advice was being felt in an entirely different way during the same Mad Men episode. In an upper-class Manhattan apartment building, an ad exec, whose wife was out of town, did a favor for the neighbor’s au pair, and then demanded payment in the form of sex one night when her employers weren’t home. “I’d like to kiss you,” he said to the frightened young woman who was literally cornered and wide-eyed with panic. Even more repugnant was the fact that after she informed her employers about the incident, her male boss went to his neighbor’s apartment to tell him to take advantage of someone else’s nanny saying, “Be smart, stay out the building.”
This is the atmosphere in which many early Baby Boomer women were raised. Girls and women were to be kissed, called on the phone and asked out by boys/men at the male’s discretion, not the other way around. Wives weren’t supposed to interfere with their husband’s careers and be anything other than supportive. Seeing all of this dramatized, helped me genuinely understand some of my female relatives’ responses to my life’s choices, like my refusal to drop my surname after marriage (which still causes issues), asking my husband to work two afternoons from home so he could watch our children while I taught classes at a university and, in my teens, my insistence that I could so call boys on the phone if I felt like speaking with them.
But the so-called “rules” of womanhood, circa the early 1960s, were ingrained in generations of women. Many Betty Drapers told many Sallys that they were to be kissed not do the kissing, even if they want to kiss a man, even if it meant being powerless. This was the way things were done. Seeing someone operate by different rules, like Peggy, was threatening to the status quo, as were the feminists of the 1970s who ditched the girdles, followed by the feminists of the 1980s who told Gen X women that we could and should do everything – the home, the work, the kids, the great body, great clothes – simultaneously, a legacy with which we’re still coping.
As the Mad Men continues to unfold in its third season and its storyline coincides with the beginning of the women’s movement and the publication of The Feminine Mystique, I’m looking forward to receiving more enlightenment that’ll help me get into the minds of the generations of women who came before me.