How Mad Men Helped Me Understand the Anger in My Mother's Feminism


In 1960, the year in which the first season of Mad Men takes place, my mother was living a few subway stops uptown from Sterling Cooper. She was a junior at Barnard College, about the same age as Peggy Olson. She married my father four years later—just as she was becoming a devoted member of what she would call “the movement.” A capital-F feminist, she went back to her maiden name and started priding herself on her lack of domesticity. She developed a tense relationship with her mother-in-law, who pursed her lips at my mother’s dismal ironing skills and worried that her beloved only son had married a woman who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take care of him.

I was the youngest of four children. My mother had me when she was 43 years old, and I grew up hearing the word feminism before I knew what it meant; in our house, the subject of breasts couldn’t come up without my mother reminding me that, when she was a New Hampshire state representative in the nineteen-seventies, she had been the first woman to breastfeed on the floor of the legislature. When hair started growing on my legs, my mother warned me that if I started shaving then it would be “a burden for the rest of your life.” She begrudgingly let me get my ears pierced when I was 12, but told me, “This is a barbaric tradition that you will grow to regret, as I have.”

She and I were always close. We have the same face, we take pleasure in the same things. I followed her to Barnard. And, yet, her feminism—her battles, her struggles, her victories—always felt remote and exhausted. I rolled my eyes at her when she talked about training my father to do the dishes and when she complained about how little he was around to raise my older siblings. The father I knew was the breadwinner who managed to squeeze in carpools, help with homework, and sometimes cook dinner. There was an edge to my mother’s feminism, an aggression, that made me uncomfortable. Today, I shave my legs. I don’t regret my pierced ears. And, while I’m consumed with questions about how I will someday juggle a job with kids and still be able to fit in a workout, I’ll never feel the type of anger my mother did.

I’ve been a fan of Mad Men since the beginning, and every time I watch it, I think about my mother. Like so many other women my age, it’s the female characters I’m drawn to. Their storylines keep me watching even when—especially when—their experiences are maddening. And it’s a defining part of Mad Men that their experiences are exactly that. The first line that Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, wrote for the pilot was Don Draper snapping at Rachel Minkoff, the department store client: “I’m not going to let a woman speak to me like that.”

We see the complexity of the times in all the ways the leading ladies respond to their circumstances: Betty Draper trying to keep the old ways alive, Peggy Olsen competing with men at the game they’ve defined, and Joan Holloway, who leverages her femininity to create her own domain. In the opening show of the final season, Joan and Peggy are sitting in a board room, having risen to positions of great responsibility. But, even there, they are forced to sit through a barrage of infuriating jokes about breasts and legs from the executives at McCann. The culture hasn’t moved nearly as far as they have.

Over the years, I’ve wondered: how true is it? I called my mother to talk to her about the show recently. She didn’t like it, she told me. It harkened back to an unpleasant and familiar time. It was then that I realized, this was what my mother came from. No wonder she was so angry. I was born 25 years later, by then, my mother and the women who joined her at the feminist retreats on the weekends had already accomplished much of the bitterly hard work to change the parameters for women. I was born into a time that felt so different precisely because of all that their mode of chest-beating feminism had achieved. I was lucky, I realized, that my mother’s breed of feminism felt so remote.

Today, though the issues are different, they’re no less urgent. Women still struggle to achieve a proportionate level of participation on corporate and institutional boards, in Congress, and, of course, in the Oval Office. We have yet to ensure family-friendly workplaces or reproductive rights, and the same class and race divisions that marked mid-century feminism still persist today. But my mother’s generation—the Peggy Olsen generation—made achieving these goals seem possible. By the time I was born, my grandmother, who had once mourned my mother’s ironing, had come to appreciate her daughter-in-law on her own terms. When my mother was out of earshot, my grandmother would lean over and tell me, “You should be very proud of your mother.”

I’ll be watching the Mad Men finale tonight to see for how they tie up the stories of Joan, Betty and Peggy—these women who, over the last eight years, have marked and retread part of a larger trajectory, one for which I’m very grateful.

A few days ago, I told my mother I was writing this. Then she said, “But, Sarabeth, don’t forget your last paragraph. There is still so much more to fight for.” She is right.

Mad Men image via AMC/image of Sarabeth’s mother via the author

Sarabeth Berman lives in Washington, D.C., and is a Vice President at Teach For All.

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