“Female Identity in Mad Men” by Lea Klepees

Posted: June 2, 2014 in Vol. 5: Spring Essays 2014

Mad-Men-WomenMen, cigarettes, scotch, suits, offices. These words describe the setting of the hit television show Mad Men (2007-current). These men are large and in charge, each with his own secretary to tend to his every need. Cigarette smoke clears and sexist remarks linger as women realize there is more they can and want to do besides answer telephone calls and set appointments. Likewise, housewives are discovering they have needs and desires aside from their husbands and children. As second wave feminism explodes onto the scene, issues such as gender roles, gender equality, sexuality and reproductive rights are brought into light. In this paper, I will examine the female lead characters in Mad Men, their gender roles, and the challenges that accompany them. My focus will be on the primary characters Betty Draper, Joan Holloway and Peggy Olsen in the first season of the show.

To understand these women, it’s necessary to tackle the term “gender role.” Another name for this term is sex-role. A sex-role is a social process and begins at birth. If you’ve ever observed babies or children, you’ll see how they are treated differently according to whether they are male or female. For example, a girl will be wearing pink and playing with a doll, while a boy will be wearing blue and playing with a truck. Our society tells us that pink and dolls are for girls, whereas blue and trucks are for boys. Furthermore, we are taught that females start families, maintain the home, and nurture while men work outside of the home and economically provide for the family. This results in us internalizing our gender and the learned behaviors and expectations associated with our biological sex (Dubeck and Dunn 15).

By the 1950s, according to Betty Friedan, ‘career woman’ had become a dirty word and ‘occupation housewife’ celebrated. The new, happy-housewife heroines were young and content to have their identities defined for them by their husband’s lives (Johnson 240). This is exactly the role taken by the women of the show Mad Men.

Mad Men, set in the 1960s, showcases great examples of women who face challenges tied to their sex-roles. Betty Draper, wife of Sterling Cooper’s creative director Don Draper, exemplifies the classic woman and the traditional sex-role of the ’60s. She is a housewife with two children, a dog, a home with a white picket fence, and a successful and handsome husband. Throughout the first season, Betty is shown preparing meals for her family, cleaning the home, and throwing dinner parties for her husband’s colleagues. This domestic sphere was the woman’s alone, whereas the workplace was the man’s domain.

Before she became Mrs. Don Draper, Betty was an upper class woman who graduated from Bryn Mawr College. Although not revealed during the first season, Betty speaks fluent Italian. She also had a short career as a model following college graduation. It was at one of these modeling shoots that she met her husband, Don Draper. Despite her education and career, Betty chooses to become a housewife because it is the traditional sex-role—all women during this time were socially taught to accept the life of wife, mother and housewife.

Although going through the motions of housewife, Betty seems increasingly unhappy with her status and life in the home. The popular website imdb.com describes Betty as “clearly bored in the suburbs and … not the most attentive or nurturing parent. She often exhibits very immature and childish behaviors of her own and is given to emotional coldness, narcissism, selfishness, and temper flares.” Throughout the season, Betty mentions her past life as a model and later is chosen to model one of Don’s client’s products. Likewise, she is also shown pouring over old modeling outfits in her closet, reminiscing about her pre-housewife life. It is obvious that she yearns for the freedom of her past life as a professional.

In “The Feminine Mystique,” Friedan states that women with a college background were not happy as housewives, and although they were equipped with the skills necessary for the work place, they were instead wasting their talents by doing mindless tasks in the home. Friedan hypothesizes that because these women were not fulfilling career goals, they encountered problems such as emotional breakdowns, alcoholism, teenage marriages, and illegitimate pregnancies (Alspach 279). Similarly, Johnson writes that housewife activities prevent women from achieving or pursuing self-actualization or self-realization (238).

Along the lines of self-realization, another feminist Jesse Bernard explains in her paper “The Future of Marriage” the idea of “the shock theory of marriage.” In her theory, Bernard suggests that women who were able to care for themselves before marriage were now placed in a role where they were dependent upon the husband for economic support and status. The woman then experiences even more shock when she realizes that men are not as strong and protective as she believed them to be (Alspach 279). Bernard, in a separate work, describes the “pathogenic mother,” the mother who spends her adulthood raising her children. She argues that raising children, a 24 hour-a-day job, is too demanding, and although women love their children, some may despise motherhood—yet they are expected to pursue the role (Alspach 279). Bernard found housewives to show symptoms of psychological stress versus working women. One reason for this is that housewives have only one source of satisfaction, their housework, whereas working women have the alternate source of satisfaction in their work (Alspach 280).

These theories by Friedan, Johnson and Bernard describe Betty quite accurately. Betty is found depending on Don for status and self-worth but is repeatedly let down. It’s also apparent in the show that she is not very affectionate toward her children and seems to be annoyed with them. She tries to pick up her modeling career but that does not work out, and later she begins and spends a good amount of time horseback riding—perhaps this is an additional source of satisfaction for her.

Aside from housewife, most of the women in Mad Men are in the work place and hold secretarial and clerical jobs. In the ’60s, Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique proposed that all women should develop life plans, plans which were about their whole lives as women, not just one part of it. They should refuse the housewife image and see housework for what it is: work to be done and got out of the way speedily and efficiently, not a career (Johnson 240). During this time, there was a resurgence of feminist activity, including the Women’s Liberation Movement, leading many women to join the workforce. This was known as second wave feminism, which Johnson describes as a linear narrative of women “breaking out” or “leaving home”—the emergence of an oppositional discourse rejecting the dominant myth of “happy housewives” (Johnson 242). Despite finally joining the public sphere, the jobs that most women held were still gendered, and they assumed positions as secretaries and clerks, which tasked them with similar duties as those found in the domestic sphere, or the home.

Completely opposite of Betty Draper, the remaining women of my analysis, Joan Holloway and Peggy Olsen, have both left traditional sex-roles and joined the masculine “dog-eat-dog” world of advertising at Sterling Cooper. Although both women are at the same company and start out the season with similar secretarial jobs, slowly their roles at work drift to opposite ends of the spectrum.

Peggy Olson starts the season as a naïve girl fresh out of secretarial school. After a short time of working as Don Draper’s secretary, she becomes involved in a campaign for a client who sells lipstick. After successfully pitching ideas for the lipstick campaign, Peggy is invited to join in on another campaign for a woman’s weight loss tool called the Rejuvenator. Soon thereafter, she is promoted to copywriter for Sterling Cooper.

Sterling Cooper was heavily sex-segregated, a term which refers to women’s and men’s concentration in different occupations, industries, jobs, and levels in workplace hierarchies (Reskin 73). In a company where women only held secretarial and clerical positions, Peggy broke through the Glass Ceiling of her time to assume a position of leadership. Nonetheless, Peggy still faced many challenges due to being a woman and the sex-roles attributed to that.

First and most obviously, Peggy was brought on to comment on campaigns aimed toward women—Belle Jolie lipstick and the Rejuvenator. The men of the office wanted a “woman’s perspective.” Indeed, Peggy was used not because the men thought she was bright but because she was a woman and therefore must know how to reach other women.

Secondly, despite her diligence and success in her work, Peggy is still not taken seriously by the other copywriters, all of whom are men. Gruber writes: “Work identities that have stereotypical images of masculinity as their basis are typically ‘doubly’ male dominated: the male tradition of an occupation creates a work culture that is an extension of male culture, and numerical dominance of the workplace by men heightens visibility of, and hostility toward, women workers who are perceived as violating male territory” (111). Peggy’s male counterparts still look at her as first a woman whose sex role is not part of the male-dominated work place. These male copywriters are often shown with looks of offense when asked to perform tasks that are traditionally sex roles of women, for example when being asked to pour drinks, which is traditionally the secretary or woman’s role.

One of the strategies Peggy uses to gain acceptance among her colleagues is to suppress her femininity—throughout the show, she is often shown as cold and short with other secretaries and women, and she dresses modestly as though she’s not concerned with her physical appearance. To fit in with the boys, restrictions on behaviors were recommended by interviewed women: don’t be attractive, or too smart, or assertive. Pretend you’re not a woman (Ragins, Townsend and Mattis 97). Women in managerial positions (or positions of leadership) are forced to develop leadership styles that are not masculine or feminine but that are acceptable to male colleagues, supervisors and subordinates. This is a daunting challenge that is not faced by their male counterparts (Ragins, Townsend and Mattis 95). In short, not only must women exceed performance expectations, they must also find the appropriate way to perform that will not threaten their male peers or make them uncomfortable (Ragins, Townsend and Mattis 98). Ragins, Townsend and Mattis interviewed multiple women in leadership roles, and one of those women commented that she had to learn “how to interact with men who had never dealt with women [as a leader] before, and how to be heard, and how to get past what you looked like, and what sex you were… I had to learn how to offer opinions in a way that could be heard because I wasn’t necessarily given the right to have an opinion” (97). Although immersed in a male-dominated occupation, Peggy continues to overcome the sex role expectations in the workplace.

Finally, I will analyze a woman who appears to be in-between a traditional sex role and an untraditional one. Joan Holloway is a beautiful woman in the office who uses traditional sex roles to her advantage. She has gained leadership in the office—but only among the other women. She has hit her glass ceiling in that she has risen to the highest level of secretary. Her beauty and voluptuous body are things she proudly flaunts and uses to her advantage. Joan is a very smart woman in that she knows she can manipulate men, all while appearing to be submissive to them. She uses this power smartly to gain status among the other women of the office. Multiple episodes showcase men of Sterling Cooper making inappropriate and sexual remarks about Joan. This is not only the behavior of lower status men in the office but also of the directors and partners of the firm. Clearly, this behavior is accepted to be normal, and no one thinks twice about the way Joan and other women in the office are treated as sexual objects.

Sexualization of the work environment is significantly influenced by organizational tolerance of sexually discriminatory or offensive behaviors. These environments may cognitively “prime” some men to perceive women as sex objects and subsequently behave in a sexist or sexually inappropriate manner (Gruber 111). While these men behave in sexist ways, Joan plays along to get what she wants. Rogers and Henson write that being on one’s best behavior and putting up with flirtatious or harassing behavior on the job to be gracious are what women believe to be the right choices in the workplace (276).

Opposite to her leadership and power in the workplace, Joan is also depicted as lonely and looking to prove that she is lovable. She’s often shown talking about a boyfriend and later a fiancé. It appears that although Joan has a successful career, she is still longing for the role of wife, mother and housewife. This shows a struggle for her between traditional and non-traditional roles. In Is “Opting Out” the New American Dream for Working Women? by Meghan Casserly, the author finds that given the chance for their partner to be the sole financial provider of the family, women would choose to stay in the home to raise children. This seems to be true of Joan who is looking desperately to settle down with a man. Joan Holloway walks the line between her career and the desire to be a wife.

Betty, Peggy and Joan all face challenges tied to their sex roles and the expectations they entail. While Betty mentally unravels from the harsh reality of her life, Peggy finds a way to overcome the traditional role of woman in the workplace. Meanwhile, Joan yearns for a traditional life as a wife. Through their personal triumphs and trials, these women show how their gender roles can both empower and imprison them.


Works Cited

Alspach, Steven. “Women’s Sex Role Attitudes and Life Satisfaction.” Sociological Focus 15.3 (Aug 1982): 279-287. SocINDEX. Web. 10 March 2014.

Casserly, Meghan. “Is ‘Opting Out’ the New American Dream for Working Women?” Forbes.com. 12 September 2012. Web. 8 April 2014.

Dubeck, Paula, and Dana Dunn. “Workplace/Women’s Place.” New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2006. Print.

Gruber, James. “The Impact of Male Work Environments and Organizational Policies on Women’s Experiences of Sexual Harassment.” Gender and Society 12.3 (Jun 1998):301-320. Print.

Imdb.com. Web. 5 May 2014.

Johnson, Lesley. “Revolutions are not made by down-trodden housewives.” Australian Feminist Studies 15.32 (2000): 237-248. SocINDEX. Web. 5 May 2014.

Reskin, Barbara. “Sex Segregation in the Workplace.” Women and Work: A Handbook. New York: Garland Publishers, 1996. Print.

Rogers, Jackie Krasas, and Kevin Henson. “Hey, Why Don’t You Wear a Shorter Skirt? Structural Vulnerability and the Organization of Sexual Harassment in Temporary Clerical Employment.” Gender and Society. 11.2 (1997):215-237. Print.


Written for Dr. Carmen Nolte-Odhiambo’s ENG 200: Composition II


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