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Mad Men and Working Women

Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness

Erika Engstrom, Tracy Lucht, Jane Marcellus and Kimberly Wilmot Voss

This book was featured as one of thirty-four Epic Feminist Books in Teen Vogue magazine.

This book offers interpretive and contextual tools to read the AMC television series Mad Men, providing a much-needed historical explanation and exposition regarding the status of women in an era that has been painted as pre- or non-feminist. In chapters aimed at helping readers understand women’s lives in the 1960s, Mad Men is used as a springboard to explore and discover alternative ways of seeing women. Offering more than a discussion of the show itself, the book offers historical insight for thinking about serious issues that «modern» working women continue to face today: balancing their work and personal lives, competing with other women, and controlling their own bodies and reproductive choices. Rather than critiquing the show for portraying women as victims, the book shows subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways that feminism functioned in an era when women were supposedly caught between the «waves» of the women’s movement but when, the authors argue, they functioned nonetheless as empowered individuals.
By doing so, it provides historical context and analysis that complicates traditional interpretations by (1) exploring historical constructions of women’s work; (2) unpacking feminist and non-feminist discourses surrounding that work; (3) identifying modes of resistance; and (4) revisiting forgotten work coded as feminine.
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4 Sisterhood in the ’60s: Joan, Peggy, and a Feminist Awakening



Sisterhood in the ’60s

Joan, Peggy, and a Feminist Awakening

Tracy Lucht

The period between World War II and the women’s liberation movement was marked by palpable tension over social changes and gender ideology—an aspect of the postwar era well-known to historians but usually overlooked in the mass media. Television shows such as Leave It to Beaver (1957–1963), Father Knows Best (1954–1960), and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952–1966) imagined a time that never existed, presenting the nation’s women as domestic and suburban, happily embracing their roles as homemakers and submitting to their husband’s authority (Coontz, 2000). This idyllic media memory, bequeathed to subsequent generations by reruns of these popular shows, has encouraged a tendency to view the feminist activism of the late 1960s and 1970s as a paradigmatic shift rather than a predictable development. But as historians and cultural critics have noted, social movements do not give birth to themselves (Douglas, 1995; Gitlin, 1987; Evans, 1980). This acknowledgment runs through Mad Men, giving the narrative a sophisticated complexity as it unpacks the antecedents of second-wave feminism.

As the 1960s dawned, American women were entering the workforce in large numbers, economic expectations were growing among the middle class, and activists were beginning to document the contrast between America’s individualistic ideals and its gendered inequities (Meyerowitz, 1994). Against this backdrop, two discourses emerged to advocate women’s empowerment and give voice to the vocational experiences of...

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