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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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8 Race, Religion, and Rights: Otherness Gone Mad



Race, Religion, and Rights

Otherness Gone Mad

Tracy Lucht

Inevitable yet often unnamed, the looming political radicalism of the late 1960s acts as something like a silent partner in the Mad Men narrative, relying on viewers’ historical knowledge of the social tension outside Sterling Cooper to underscore the contrived nature of the world within it. Just as the series spans the period between the emergence of liberal and radical white feminist discourses, it also bridges key moments in the civil rights movement, from the boycotts, voter registration drives, and sweeping oratory of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the assassinations of civil rights leaders and activists; rioting in Watts and other cities; and the emergence of a black power movement. Historical hindsight lends dramatic tension to the Mad Men narrative, allowing the writers to focus their energies on character development. As series creator Matthew Weiner said: “I think there is a resonance to the kind of glory of that period, and the foreboding of what happened, that seems accentuated by the time that’s passed in between. It didn’t seem to be on anybody’s mind then as it is now” (Tobias, 2008).

Because race-based activism and racist violence are so central to the history of the ’60s, Mad Men’s portrayal of civil rights and African Americans has been a subject of discussion and debate from its first season. Many critics have cited a dearth of well-developed black characters and...

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