Mad Men & Feminist Mythology

“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”
Virginia Woolf

I really wish I had been aware of this series earlier.  I watched it again last Sunday and these characters interest me no end.  For one thing, I have a feeling that this show is going to be unpacking my generation’s feminism.  Or the beginnings of that.  Also, it really gives you a look at what “white women” dealt with in the workplace in the early 60’s.  This same workplace existed when I entered it in the 1980’s.  I knew these women.

It’s very easy to project into this one:

The first job I had in a corporation during and post-college looked just like this office.  The cubicle hadn’t been invented yet, and offices were big open spaces with IBM Selectric typewriters just like that.  I worked for a newspaper.  It wasn’t my first job.  I had worked in fashion for big department stores and then transferred to the University where I was going to finish off my BA.

Some of the women in the newsroom were very similar to the actress in the tight outfit.  Or in the advertising department.

Women in the 1980’s were going to make strides.  They were climbing the corporate ladder, a rung at a time.

The men that ran the place were like the Don Draper character.  It was all about men in charge at that time.  I remember asking for a part time job from one of them.  They were kind, and offered me the job of answering the phone at night.  Like a switchboard operator.  “We don’t like to lose you,” they said.  “But, maybe this will be a good job for you while you are going to school.”

It was.  I ended up staying at that corporation 20 years.  In the early years that I worked there women’s jobs were basically “secretarial” in nature.  The second job I had was as a proofreader.  Still part time, but my salary doubled overnight to something like ten dollars an hour.  That was 1984.  There were women in the office (a few) who used their sexuality to get to the top.  We watched, and they were gossiped about — nearly night and day by their female co-workers.  They got the promotions too.  But, the bulk of us just wanted to work.

What feminists in my generation wanted to prove was that we were equal to men.

I’m looking at the political landscape in America in 2010 and contemplating what happened to that concept of “sisterhood” for women that I learned about in the late 70’s in High School.  In watching the show Mad Men, I can figure out the constructs.  This show is set a scant 20 years before the tail end Baby Boom generation came onscene.

Was there ever a sisterhood?

I’m not sure.  Women live in a state of competition in 2010.

Opportunities for women in my generation were hard won.  I came from the group of “feminist” women who would have been like the character at the typewriter.  If you watch the clip above you can see how she feels about what is happening with the men and the office lunch.  She is supposed to be the dessert.  Even in my era, that concept of being “dessert” existed.  Women who were sleeping their way up the corporate ladder gained power by being the dessert, until they got their own offices.

By the mid to late nineties, the corporate culture had changed at that newspaper.  Women from my generation were advancing because of talent.

What is most interesting to me was the character of Draper’s daughter in the last episode.  She could have been me.  That independent.  That little girl who took the train in by herself to see her dad represents my generation of “girls.”

She has these women surrounding her, as archetypes of the feminine in Draper’s office.

The feminism of the 1980’s was very independent.  It was about not being “dependent” on men.  It was about being equal!  This equality had to do with “choosing” one’s life.  When reading about Hillary Clinton’s life and what she said about marriage in the Wikipedia

She still harbored doubts about marriage, concerned that her separate identity would be lost and that her accomplishments would be viewed in the light of someone else’s.[61]

This issue of having a career in one’s own right was very important to my generation as well.

I had those same doubts, myself.  It was as if I got married, any chance of freedom for myself was going to be taken away.  I didn’t want to lose my separate identity as a woman.  Getting married did change me.  My generation wanted women to have choices for themselves, and they did not want to report to husbands and males to be granted “permission” on things.  Women in my generation wanted to be known for their “works.”

Virginia Woolf’s book “A Room of one’s own” is about this subject.  It’s a classic feminist text.  You can read a copy of it here in the web.

I think that is what my generation of feminists did  want.   That “room” of their own was not something we were willing to sacrifice?

“Works” were going to define us.  Being a wife, or being a mother was not going to be enough.  We went off to find ourselves in the workplace where patriairchy reigned supreme.  It’s how we all dealt with that patriarchy in the workplace that mattered.  You can read a male perspective here, on this show.

The other day I found this performance piece of art from 1975.  As I looked at it, I remembered all those women who taught home economics in Junior High and High School.  My generation felt like this piece I think.  There was no way we were going to be happy with a role like the below.

It just wasn’t going to be enough.  I think that is what Hillary was afraid of too.  Maybe she was afraid that marriage would redefine her.

I graduated High School the year this video was made.  Having that “Room of one’s own” is still a quest of mine.  And I can’t stand housework either.  I’d rather write novels and paint.  I’d rather have lovers.  Heterosexual women in my generation live by the patriarchy’s rules, even now — regardless of what they want to believe.  It may be getting worse.  By degrees.  Let’s not let that happen.

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