Tucson Progressive

Pamela Powers, a progressive voice for Arizona

Sexism in America: Peggy Olson, Hillary Clinton, Mom & Me

Peggy Olson in the secretarial pool.

Peggy Olson in the secretarial pool.

Beyond the booze, the babes, the cool, retro clothes, and the slick mid-century modern Madison Avenue backdrop,  AMC’s Mad Men is a story about office work and sexism at the dawn of the feminist era– before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), before Roe v Wade, before Ms Magazine, and before the Equal Rights Amendment’s (ERA) revival.

Mad Men’s Peggy Olson is the quintessential poster girl for working women and office survival. As Mad Men begins, Peggy is the Plain

Mad Men

Peggy Olson punches the Madison Avenue glass ceiling in Mad Men.

Jane secretarial school graduate who is assigned to be the secretary for handsome cad, sex addict, and creative genius Don Draper. As the episodes unfold, Peggy breaks out of the secretarial pool– with Draper’s help– to become a copywriter. Even in her success, Peggy isn’t given the respect she deserves. Initially, she shares a tiny office with the copier, suffers through Draper’s  unrealistic demands that rob her personal life, and works primarily on women’s products– stockings, bras, make-up, and cleaning products. She presents at pitch meetings when they need someone to give “Mom’s opinion.” Fighting sexism and entrenched behaviors, roles, and ideas in the ad agency office, Peggy claws her way up the career ladder and against-all-odds becomes a sought-after creative genius in her own right toward the end of the series.

Mad Men presents a more honest view of the 1950s-60s than the moralistic TV shows of the period– like Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, or Lassie.

Mad Men

The primary characters of Mad Men.

Life was clean and idyllic in those old black and white TV shows. In prime time, no one was a alcoholic or a drug addict. No one worked in a gritty factory. No one had an unwanted pregnancy or an abortion. No one protested the war, marched for civil rights, disagreed with the government, dodged the draft, got arrested, smoked pot, took LSD, or had steamy out-of-wedlock sex. Mad Men has all of that and more because Mad Men tackles social issues that are generally ignored by the media– particularly inequality and discrimination against women, minorities, and the disabled in the workplace.

Peggy Olson and Mom

secretaries 1940s

My Mom (far right on the end) and the secretarial pool from American Radiator (~1949).

Mad Men begins in during the Eisenhower era, and by the final season, it’s 1968. Richard Nixon has just been elected president. (Real 1960s news clips are interspersed throughout the show and add to the sense of time, place, and history.) The ad agency has changed shape and personnel several times over the seasons. At the beginning of the final season, Peggy has lost her mentors, Don and Ted, and is struggling with a new boss with old fashioned ideas. He’s not the creative genius Draper was, and he’s definitely not interested in encouraging Peggy. Repeatedly, we see staff meetings where Peggy’s ideas are the most creative, but the boss passes them over for mediocre ideas proposed by men who are her junior. “Accutron… it’s not just a time piece. It’s a conversation.” vs. “Accutron! It’s accurate!” (The Accutron watch was not mechanical, therefore a more accurate, early techie accessory.)

When the CLIO Awards come up, Peggy is sure that her campaign will win an award for the agency and perhaps, then, her work will be valued. Instead, Ginsberg– one of the guys– wins the award for a project that Peggy had passed off to him. Peggy is dumbfounded when she doesn’t win an award– until her curmudgeonly sexist boss says he didn’t submit her campaign to the CLIOs. “See, Peggy, it’s not so bad,” Ginsberg says. “You didn’t lose. You weren’t even considered.”

Thelma Springer

Thelma Springer (~1949)

This reminds me so much of my Mom’s story. She was valedictorian of her high school class. She was smart, well-read, and hyper-organized. She was a tenacious grammarian, a good writer, and an accurate  speed demon on an electric typewriter. She joined the Navy during World War II “to get out of office work”, but the Navy stuck her in an office in Norfolk. She worked for the Lorain Journal for a while in the 1950s but never became a writer (despite her skills). Mom toiled in the pink collar ghetto for 40 years and never rose above the ranks of administrative assistant. Her proverbial complaint was that her employer hired young, college-educated men from the Thunderbird School of Global Management to be her boss, and then she had to train them to be her boss. Such a waste of talent. Like Peggy, the Navy and Mom’s corporate employers never considered her for any other type of work, beyond secretarial. Her advice to me when I was in high school? “Learn to type because you’ll never be anything more than a secretary.”

When she retired in the early 1980s, desktop computers were just entering the workplace. Mom worked in Human Resources and managed benefits for everyone in the factory. Since there were a few hundred employees– some union and some not– with multiple plans, her record-keeping had to be detailed and accurate. Consequently, her paper files and her Rolodexes were extensive. Seeing these massive Rolodexes on her desk not long before her retirement, I said, “Mom, you know, as soon as you walk out the door, they’re going to hire someone to type all of your Rolodex cards into a computer.” Looking like Peggy in the second picture at the top of this article, Mom said, “I’m done caring about this place.” (BTW, don’t ask me why a corporation headquartered in Amherst, Ohio would recruit from the Thunderbird School in Phoenix, but they did.)

At one point in Mad Men, Peggy fights hard for one her ad campaign ideas, and her new boss says that he’s “immune to her charms”– implying that she slept her way to the top (which she didn’t). There is a scene where Peggy and Joan (office sexpot turned executive through her own true grit) have a meeting with three young bucks from the parent ad agency. The women are trying to convince the men that Topaz Stockings (a grocery store brand) should be carried by Macy’s (a client the men are handling). During the meeting, the men don’t take the women seriously. They snicker childishly, make sexist jokes about Joan’s bosom, and refuse to focus. “You should be selling bras — not stockings. HaHaHa.” In the elevator after the meeting, Peggy turns on Joan, judges the way she dresses, and blames Joan’s sex appeal for the course of the meeting. (Women judging each other, blaming each other, and turning on each other in the workplace– how many of us have experienced that in the workplace?)

Peggy Olson and Hillary Clinton

After one particularly infuriating meeting with her boss, Peggy’s pent-up anger and frustration hit the breaking point. After a dressing-down, she calmly walks out, slams the door to her office, and drops to her knees in tears. She has given up her weekends, her lovers, her baby, and her personal life and devoted all of her energy to climbing the corporate ladder– and still her talents and ideas get no respect from the men who dominate the workplace.

As I watched strong, talented Peggy sob uncontrollably, I had an epiphany. Peggy Olson not only represents the 1960s pink collar ghetto office workers like my Mom; Peggy’s struggle against sexism, gender bias, and discrimination is a metaphor for Hillary Clinton’s struggle against pervasive structural and historical sexism today. Think about it…

Around Peggy, men drink too much, fuck their secretaries, cheat on their wives, throw temper tantrums, shout at each other, and fire people on a whim. Through it all Peggy and the other women are expected to be hard-working, obedient, respectful, and quiet– even when directly and publicly insulted. (Sound familiar? “Hillary talks too loud; her laugh is a cackle.” Never mind her ideas, intelligence, experience and dedication; those are all discounted over trivial complaints. When blow-hard Donald Trump and Grump Grandpa Bernie Sanders shout and wag their fingers at us, they’re viewed as strong leaders who will “make America great again” and “take bold steps to save the middle class”. Double standard? Of course.)

On the debate stage, Clinton’s intelligence and experience shine; ideology aside, she’s arguably the smartest person in the room with most well-thought-out, creative ideas. What is she dinged on? Being “too prepared”. On foreign policy, in particular, no one can touch her. By contrast, on social media, if anyone dares to stand up for Clinton or say anything positive about her ideas or record, the Bernie Bros and the Tea Partiers, alike, regurgitate sexist slurs and memes until they successfully shut down the conversation with their bullying and name-calling. (I have personally been on the receiving end of multiple Bernie Bro attacks– so don’t tell the Bernie Bros phenomenon is a Clinton plot. I’ve seen the memes.) No one cares that Clinton has more experience than anyone else running for president; her qualifications and ideas are ignored, discounted or just “not considered”– as with Peggy and Mom.

Has Hillary Clinton ever slammed the door after a grossly unfair and frustrating day, dropped to her knees, and cried in anger and frustration? I don’t know. Given the decades of lies and hatred that have been unfairly thrown at this intelligent, caring, capable and experienced woman, I wouldn’t blame her if she did. Somehow, I think Hillary Clinton is enough of a badass that she is still saying, Bring it on, boys!

The overt sexism aimed at Clinton and multiple well-respected backers (Gloria Steinem, Madeline Albreit, and Dolores Huerta) could backfire and solidify her base of… ahem… women of a certain age (like me) who have personally  experienced sexism, wage discrimination, verbal harassment, and sexual harassment. In the workplace and the classrooms, we have been coached not to ask questions or appear too aggressive, while we watched our ideas stolen, discounted or not even considered because of our gender. We see our struggle… Peggy’s struggle… Mom’s struggle… playing out on the national stage in Hillary Clinton’s struggle as she tries to win an office for which women have never been considered.

As Craig said in a post earlier this week on Blog for Arizona, we all have our hot button issues. For me, it’s women’s equality. Women are under attack statewide and nationwide. The attacks against Clinton are just symptomatic of the attacks against women as a group. Vaginal ultrasound. Pregnancy before intercourse. Fetal personhood. Absurd over-regulation of women’s health clinics, resulting in mass closures. Cuts in Food Stamps, public education, unemployment, childcare subsidies and other social safety net programs. An entire political party voting against equal pay. Anti-abortion bills that result in premature death! No other group is suffering from a systematic governmental assault on multiple levels. Their goal is further suppression of women’s rights, women’s voices, women’s education, and women’s votes. Women will never have equality without the Equal Rights Amendment, paycheck fairness, equal representation in government, and control over our own bodies. American women need a Warrior Woman to fight for the 51%. Hillary Clinton will fight for women and families, and that is why she has my vote.

It’s time for women to break the thickest glass ceiling in the world– the US Presidency. #ImWithHer #MadamPresident

Happy International Women’s Day.

2 comments on “Sexism in America: Peggy Olson, Hillary Clinton, Mom & Me

  1. Marcelo_Mata
    March 15, 2016


    I hope this finds the author and readers well.

    I’d like to start off by saying that women have been getting the short end of the stick (and that is an understatement) for all of modern american history up til now. I know that is the consensus among intellectuals.

    But is not fair to say that when considering presidential candidates, if achieving equality is the goal, then we must take gender and sex out of the equation?

    Let me state also that our society has systemic issues and I agree we must pass more legislation to ensure equal pay for women. And that’s just for starters. Our society today still has to address many issues where women are not treated as equals.

    Still, how is voting for a male to be president because he is a male any different from voting for a female to be president because she is a female?

    I assume the point you (the author) are trying to make the point that we should vote for Clinton BASED on her sex and the oppression her sex has endured during modern american history.

    I based that assumption on your acute awareness of american history. And thus I assume you are also aware of what has been happening to american families since the 70’s. And also that you are aware of Secretary Clinton’s political career.

    However if my assumptions are wrong about your awareness of what has been happening to the american family since the 70’s, then Sen. Elizabeth Warren gives a lengthy description here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akVL7QY0S8A

    In an effort of transparency I want to say, I am feeling the bern.

    For the sole reasons that he wants to address that issues middle class families have been dealing with for decades. Not to mention he’s about as progressive (a.k.a liberal) on social issues (women’s right’s included) as our political leaders get.

    If you vote Clinton because shes a ‘hawk’ and a moderate on economic issues then that is your choice. But voting Clinton because she is a woman is judgement made on the basis of sex.


  2. Pamela Powers Hannley
    April 5, 2016

    You completely missed the point of my article and spouted the common Sanders social media response. I am not voting for Clinton “just because she is a woman”.

    I am voting for Clinton because I believe she will bring progress for women and families. The current male-dominated government has not prioritized people; it has prioritized profits and big business.

    Women in the US are oppressed. No other group has been bombarded with literally HUNDREDS of bills to take away their rights. Sanders talks about the middle class but ignores institutional racism and institutional sexism. Sanders does not have a record of fighting for women and families; Clinton does.

    Women will not have equality as long as we don’t have control over our bodies, equal pay for equal work, an equal voice in government, and the Equal Rights Amendment.

    200+ years of a male-dominated government have not given us equality. There is no evidence that another male president will.

    In a few years, the ERA will have been under consideration for 100 years. Sanders is completely silent on this important amendment. #IMWithHer.


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The Tucson Progressive: Pamela J. Powers

I stand on the side of Love. I believe in kindness to all creatures on Earth and the inherent self-worth of all individuals–not just people who agree with me or look like me.

Widespread economic and social injustice prompted me to become a candidate for the Arizona House, representing Legislative District 9 in the 2016 election.

My platform focused on economic reforms to grow Arizona’s economy, establish a state-based public bank, fix our infrastructure, fully fund public education, grow local small businesses and community banks, and put people back to work at good-paying jobs.

In the Arizona House, I was a strong voice for fiscal responsibility a moratorium on corporate tax breaks until the schools were fully funded, increased cash assistance to the poor, expansion of maternal healthcare benefits, equal rights, choice, unions, education at all levels and protecting our water supply.

After three terms, I retired from the Arizona Legislature in January 2023 but will continue to blog and produce my podcast “A View from the Left Side.”

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