Style, Sex, & Subordinates: Tales From A Real-Life Mad [Wo]Man

WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
Things have changed a lot on Mad Men since Peggy Olson, recent graduate of Miss Dever’s Secretarial School, was assigned to be Don Draper’s new “girl” in the pilot. “Are you Amish or something?” Pete Campbell asks the modestly dressed Peggy when he’s formally introduced to her for the first time, before advising her, “Well, you’re in the city now, wouldn’t be a sin for us to see your legs.” By the end of the episode, he’s gotten her into bed.
In the final shot of Peggy in season six, gone are the dowdy skirt, sweater, and ponytail. She’s framed just like the now-iconic male silhouette in Mad Men’s opening credits. The new Peggy Olson literally wears the pants at Sterling Cooper and Partners. She’s sitting in her new office — Don’s office — wearing a checkered pants suit and a notice-me red turtleneck. Again, she’s fallen into bed with a coworker, but this time, she channels her bitter disappointment into her career when he inevitably tells her he’s leaving to make things work with his wife and family.
Peggy’s story has undoubtedly made for compelling TV, but for us, it very much feels like a period piece. Heading into last night’s finale, I turned to a family member who’s not only a fan of Mad Men, she also lived it. Here’s what she had to say about Mad Men, Mad Women, and who really wore the pants at NYC ad agencies.

You worked at a huge ad agency. What exactly was your role there?
"I was called a research account executive, which means I didn’t do creative; I didn’t do media; I didn’t do account management. We were there to kind of rein in the creative people. It was an adversarial relationship at times because everything they came up with was brilliant, but we were there to put some restraints on them and prove with quantitative data that certain things they came up with were more wonderful than others. We always knew that creative was king within the agency — if they didn’t come up with terrific ads, the rest was inconsequential."

What year did you start at the agency?
"I started in 1977."

It’s now 1968 on Mad Men. Do you feel like things were very different, business-wise by the time you started?
"Even by the time I was in advertising, the business had changed and progressed past the point that they were depicting. In those days [on Mad Men], advertising wasn’t that sophisticated, so a lot of these big-time clients were less likely to question ad execs because things weren’t tried and true yet. There wasn’t as much sophistication in measurement of effectiveness. By my time, people were saying 'show me.' They wanted you to substantiate your judgment more, and that’s where my department came in with quantitative, numerical data."


Although the nature of the business had changed, had the attitude toward women in the workplaces shifted? The sexism and sexual harassment on Mad Men are insane.
"Not at all. Even though the women’s liberation movement had been going on for awhile, men often still looked at them as sex objects. It was very hard for men in business to take women seriously and look at them as business partners. Women often had to work harder than men to establish credibility, and it seemed that the more attractive they were, the harder they had to work because it was hard for the men to stop focusing on their looks.

"In advertising, male ad execs had to have very strong personalities. If a woman had those qualities, she was labeled overly strident or a bitch. That’s always the case: The same qualities that make a man successful are off-putting in a woman because they go against her 'grain,' so it was hard for women to be taken seriously in many fields."

Photo: Courtesy of Lauren Le Vine


Did male higher-ups ever flirt with you? When Peggy is new, all the men eye her like fresh meat, and Joan tells her to stop complaining and 'enjoy it while it lasts.'
"I dressed to enhance my attractiveness, but not to be provocative. Whatever vibe I gave off, it was never a 'you can try to seduce me' vibe. I wasn’t engaged yet, but I was dating my future husband, and I was much more sophisticated than Peggy. It was the '70s; nobody felt the need to give me advice — everybody was very with it. Some people exude the 'I wanna be seduced; ask me if I’ll sleep with you' vibe. I guess I never did."


What was the ratio of the staff at your agency?
"The research area had a higher proportion of women than any other department. I think research was the easiest place for a woman to gain entree into the advertising field. Female copywriters were few and far between. There was nigh a female account executive when I was there. To move into account executive work, you had to have certain qualities that many women had not yet developed in those days, like the ability to persuade and convince people to your point of view without backing down."

Was there competition or camaraderie amongst women in the workplace? Joan and Peggy’s ambition can lead them to butt heads.
"I think the women were still insecure and often on their guard, so there was a lot of subtle competition and watching of your back. The women who were very high up seemed much more sure of themselves and of their positions, but they knew that in this field; it was very easy one day to be on top of the world, and the next day to be out — even more so because they still hadn’t secured a place. It was really a dog-eat-dog environment."

Peggy is now copy chief, having started as a secretary. Is that a route women knew to take?
"People would take low-level secretarial positions as a foot in the door in a department that they wanted to get into, like creative or account management. When I came out of school, it was the women’s feminist revolution. Most people had college degrees; yet, they would take secretarial positions because there was no other way to get a job. People were opportunistic and used whatever opportunities they could to get noticed while in these lower status positions. These were people without experience, right out of college. Once you had a little experience, of course you didn’t take a secretarial job. But as a first entry-level job, women often did that."


Peggy didn’t even have a college degree, though. Did everyone you worked with have one?
"I have a Master’s, and the man in the office next to me had a PhD, but my boss’ boss, who was incredibly smart, never went to college. She was a European immigrant who came over to be a housewife, and she soon realized she didn’t want to be tied to an ironing board. She got divorced, got her foot in the door at another major agency on the coattails of her female boss, and rose to an extremely high position. She was the one who interviewed me; she was in a very powerful job at the time."

What did you wear to work? Appearances are very important on Mad Men.
"I was very unusual because I had a mother who sewed, so she made me a tremendous wardrobe of stylish clothes, and she would also help me accessorize them. I never wore pants; only dresses, skirts, and tops. Because of my red hair, I usually wore blues and greens. Everything was opaque — nothing sheer like I see today. I always wore pantyhose and heels. I used very large rollers to make my curly hair straighter, and then I clipped it half-up, half-down. I always wore makeup — eyeshadow, eyeliner, and a lighter lipstick. I always wore jewelry; usually hoop earrings."

"I also carried a briefcase...a feminized one. I got myself a leather satchel-type thing, and I carried that for many years. I wanted to look professional, but not overly masculine."
Photo: Courtesy of Frank Ockenfels/AMC

On Mad Men, all the men seem to have affairs that everyone knows about, and they all just accept it and look the other way. Was it like that at your agency?
"Certain people had affairs, and you just didn’t talk about it. We were coming off the liberated ‘60s. I knew that a guy in the department and his wife were swingers. He went to Plato’s Retreat (a swingers’ club) all the time. My boss’ boss (female) had an affair with my male boss, her subordinate!"

Did people drink that much at work?
"There wasn’t any drinking in the office."

But were three-martini lunches still a thing?
"I can’t say I participated, but people did do that, and they drank after work."

Did people smoke in the office?
"I’m pretty sure they did. Smoking was such a part of life in those days that I didn’t even take note when people did and didn’t do it. It was so commonplace."

Did people do drugs in the office?
"I was pretty naive, and maybe it went on in the creative department. That was the age in which it might have happened."

Would anyone have tolerated behavior like Don’s, or would he have gotten fired? Would they have let it have gone on as long as it did on the show?
"Because of his brilliance and the business he has brought in, I think that a man who acted as Don does would have been tolerated up to a point. As soon as the clients became aware and disenchanted — as expressed by their dropping the agency — he would probably have been fired and advised to get help. A woman in his position would be much less likely to have dared behave that way, and she would have been fired much more quickly."


Was the dream for working women also to move to the suburbs and commute like Don does in the first few seasons?
"No, moving to the suburbs to commute was the kiss of death for my career. It made it nearly impossible to be a super mom. If you lived in the city, you had your choice of nannies and daycare options at your disposal. In the boonies, physically, the commute after an exhausting day of work made it almost impossible to continue working."

Do you think that women today have it much easier than the women on Mad Men and your generation?
"In the Mad Men era and the '70s, the women who were ahead of their time and got their feet in the door represented a very small proportion of educated women — a lot of them chose to leave the workforce to get married and have children, or pursue careers in fields that weren’t as male-dominated.

"Today, there’s less likelihood of being sexually harassed and a greater likelihood of being taken seriously. However, any job is pretty much fair game for either sex, so the competition is much more fierce."

Do you miss it?
"I have to be honest, talking about those times certainly makes me nostalgic for them. I really enjoyed my job in advertising a great deal and found the people in my department to be very down to earth — not like the ones on TV."

Photo: Courtesy of Frank Ockenfels/AMC

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