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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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5 Mad Women and the Marriage Gradient: The Risks and Rewards of Highly Competent Women



Mad Women and the Marriage Gradient

The Risks and Rewards of Highly Competent Women*

Erika Engstrom

Mad Men’s season four episode “The Beautiful Girls” (Episode 409) ends with a scene of three of the show’s women characters getting into an elevator after a long day of work at Sterling Cooper. These three women—Joan Harris, the agency’s office manager/head secretary; Peggy Olson, the agency’s second-incommand of creative; and Dr. Faye Miller, a psychologist and market research consultant—are portrayed in the program as highly competent, capable professionals, each representing a different aspect of the operation of the agency. All three had separate storylines that incorporated their professional and personal lives, and the challenges they encountered as working women in the U.S. during the early 1960s. Although holding different responsibilities and having disparate private lives, one can view their stories as a composite portrayal of the white-collar working woman not only representative of a bygone era, but as relevant to this moment some five decades later.

In this chapter, I employ the rhetorical criticism tool of the representative anecdote to examine how the overall narrative of Mad Men offers more than the surface “story” of the 1960s advertising industry, or even middle- to upper-class American society and the white-collar world. In particular, I aim to demonstrate that it also becomes the story of gendered relationships, particularly marriage, within a wider society, a story that reveals the challenges for working women...

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