Who would’ve thought that a TV show set in 1960 would provide a glimpse of mothers’ lives that’s still relevant today? What’s the cliché . . . the more things change, the more they stay the same?
I’ve been spending an hour each week with the new AMC drama “Mad Men,” which focuses on the lives of up-and-coming advertising executives who work on Madison Avenue, and the lives of the women who love and/or work for them. Watching the “Mad Men” characters – particularly the women -- through my contemporary eyes, I started making mental notes of the multitude of things depicted in this dark TV drama that no longer apply to today’s America, not publicly at least.
For example, today’s offices and homes are not likely to be brimming with ubiquitous cigarette smoke. Pregnant women don’t tend to smoke or drink alcohol anymore, at least not in the open for fear of getting shunned, arrested or having their sanity questioned. Strangers don’t routinely slap other people’s kids across the face if a child accidentally knocks something over. Professionals of the male persuasion (Michael Scott from “The Office” notwithstanding) don’t tend to blatantly leer at the women with whom they work or make remarks to those women about their clothing, weight and bodies, at least not without the fear of being fired or facing a sexual harassment lawsuit. And, for that matter, women aren’t openly patronized at every turn by being called, “Sweetie” or “honey,” told they belong at home and informed that their “women’s” concerns are petty and childish. Anti-Semitism, racism and sexism aren’t socially acceptable today and aren’t typically expressed in professional realms.
But aside from those antiquated “Mad Men” moments that literally elicited gasps for the depth of their political incorrectness throughout the show’s run thus far, there have been plenty of other moments when the beliefs about women and work in 1960 don’t seem vastly different from some of those held today. Forty-seven years later. To determine if my suspicions were on the mark, I recently watched an AMC marathon of “Mad Men ” episodes, back-to-back. Here’s what I observed:
- The only women with paid jobs are non-mothers, a divorcee/mom of two and a married woman whose husband was told that the way to convince her to quit her job and stay at home -- as he so desired -- was to “give her a baby.”
- The aforementioned divorced mom of two, Helen Bishop, a Mount Holyoke-educated woman who worked in a jewelry store to support her family, was pitied by the at-home moms. Her fellow mothers derided her as “pathetic,” “desperate” and “sad” because her house was sometimes in disarray when she came home from work and because she made a lot of frozen food for her children, one of whom was thought by the at-home moms to be hurt by his mother’s continued employment. “She’s so selfish,” a neighbor trilled, while attacking Bishop for having the nerve to take walks around the neighborhood (*shudder*) alone.
- The main character, Don Draper, a dashing thirtysomething ad exec and father of two with a mysterious troubled past, has a Grace Kelly-like Bryn Mawr graduate as an at-home wife named Betty. Additionally, Draper has two side dishes: A work-from-home, Greenwich Village living graphic artist mistress, and a fiercely independent CEO of a major New York department store who he’s trying to add as a second mistress. In two episodes that would get the likes of Linda Hirschman  and Leslie Bennetts  shouting, “See, see, this is what we’re talking about!” when they warn moms not to give up their careers, Draper took $5,000 from his private “stash” (remember, it’s $5,000 in 1960) and gave it to his brother and later handed over his bonus check worth thousands to his Greenwich Village mistress. In the meantime, he lied to his wife about how much money they had, telling her that he didn’t have as good a year as she thought they had.
- While at-home moms are demeaned as “childlike” and depicted as caged birds, the working women don’t fare too well either, despite their independence. Draper’s new secretary Peggy Olson, a single working woman, was warned against becoming too much of a “busy little girl” at the office because working for too many hours would be bad for her complexion. This was after Olson had been urged by a number of people at the office to sex-up her outfits.
Even today, in some quarters, mothers’ employment still serves as a hot-button issue. When a woman becomes someone’s mother, her decision about her paid employment is perceived as some kind of political statement. If she decides to be an at-home mom -- like the majority of the “Mad Men” women -- contemporary feminists (Hirshman, Bennetts) say she’s betraying the sisterhood, leaving herself financially vulnerable to lout husbands (such as “Mad Men’s” Draper) and setting a poor example for her daughters. If she’s a working mom, some folks (those who adhere to socially traditional beliefs) pity her and her children by lamenting how her offspring are being raised by strangers, how she’s selfishly focusing on herself instead of her family. If she works part-time, she gets it from both sides.
Even today, “Mad Men’s” divorced mom character, Helen Bishop, would be pitied by some for having to work, for not keeping a clean house, for serving her generation’s version of fast food to her young children and for having to rely on oftentimes unreliable child care providers. On the flip side, Betty Draper would likewise be pitied and despised for “wasting” her Bryn Mawr education and becoming an at-home mom whose chief job is to raise the kids, keep the house, look pretty and put dinner on the table. The propensity of people to critique women’s life choices, sadly, have not changed that much, despite the passage of 47 years.