Out of My Mind

The Musings of a Woman Who Thinks Too Much

Nelle Engoron

Nelle Engoron
Location
California,
Birthday
May 01
Bio
You can email me at "nengoron@gmaildotcom" & follow @NelleEngoron on Twitter. My archived radio shows on last season's Mad Men are available (for free!) at: www.blogtalkradio.com/madmentalk **My "Mad Men" commentary for Season 5 is on Salon rather than here -- go to http://www.salon.com/writer/ nelle_engoron/ to find all my Salon articles. **My book, "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4," is available on Amazon in both e-book and print versions.** I'm a writer/editor/consultant who lives in the SF Bay Area. I write about all kinds of things, but am particularly intrigued by movies, relationships, gender issues, belief systems and "Mad Men." (Scroll down left sidebar for links to a selection of my blog posts.) I'm working on a novel and a memoir, neither of which is about Mad Men!

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Editor’s Pick
AUGUST 14, 2009 10:40AM

I Was Peggy Olson

Rate: 42 Flag

 

Peggy Olson with Selectric

 

With Season 3 of Mad Men starting this Sunday, I’ve been watching Season 2 again and marveling at how rich the show is, the episodes revealing new pleasures and resonances every time you see them.  But then I’ve loved Mad Men from the first minutes of the first episode.  Watching it, I feel almost giddy at the depth and quality of every aspect, from the storylines to the razor-sharp dialogue to the perfectly-cast actors to the meticulous and detailed re-creation of a world I knew as a child.

I spent my childhood in a 1960’s East Coast suburban world just like the one you see on Mad Men:  Everyone smoked and drank quite a bit (even – no, especially – the pregnant women), no one wore seatbelts, people littered, divorced women were scandalous, most of the food that mothers cooked was barely edible, people hid a lot of their feelings behind polite behavior, women dressed up to go to the grocery store, adults felt free to slap other people’s kids if they were “out of line” and in general, children were to be seen and not heard.  (As much as the post-WWII years were supposedly all about family, it was very much an adult world, in which kids were the circling satellites, not the planet as they are today.)

Thinking the show would revolve around Don Draper, I was initially surprised that naïve secretary Peggy Olson got much focus, and I didn’t take to her right away.  She seemed not just awkward and provincial, but stiff and humorless, a fatal combination in my eyes.  Mirroring my own feelings, no one in the Sterling-Cooper office seemed to like her either, and seeing her subtly ostracized by both the men and women was painful.

But as Peggy has risen from secretary to copywriter and finally to proud owner of An Office of Her Own, I’ve grown increasingly fond of and fascinated by her. However, it was only as I watched the second season episodes again that the penny finally dropped and I smacked my head at not seeing the connection before:   In my 20’s, I was Peggy Olson, a secretary who made the leap to being a professional writer in the business world.


I never intended to be a secretary, even though I took typing and shorthand classes in high school in the 1970’s.  Most of the girls did, even though it wasn't required the way Home Ec was. Take the courses “as a fall-back,” the guidance counselors told us college-bound girls, “just in case.”  (Before computers were in common use, no one needed to know how to type unless planning to be a secretary, and so only girls, not boys, took typing in my high school.)

In 1980, I graduated from college into a recession not unlike the one we’re in now, and my liberal arts degree qualified me for nothing – certainly not the job in journalism or publishing that I'd hoped for.  I didn’t want to go back to the restaurant and maid’s work I’d done as a student, so I made an appointment at an employment agency.  As I sat filling out forms in the waiting room, a sophisticated-looking man who appeared to be in his late 20’s entered, and enquired about jobs.  When asked if he had any skills, he smiled ruefully and said, “I have a PhD in English literature,” and then left when the receptionist sadly and silently shook her head.  Thank god I only have a B.A. in English, I thought, returning to my forms.  When asked a short while later if I could type, I nearly yelped, “Yes, absolutely!”

My first job as a secretary was at the San Francisco branch of one of the world’s biggest advertising agencies.  Here the job of Copywriter was whispered among the secretaries, just as the job of Account Exec was on the lips of every young guy in the mailroom.  And that, I soon discovered, was the problem.  Every single low-level employee had a college degree and longed to be the one in a hundred who broke into the professional ranks above them.  (Legend had it that this did happen, although no one could point to any examples.)

At first I was just delighted to have a job that didn’t involve deep fat fryers or toilets.  The fact that I also got to wear nice clothes and sit in a Herman Miller cubicle in an office building in glamorous San Francisco was thrilling, and fulfilled my “That Girl”-inspired childhood dreams of being a career girl in the big city.  

Plopped in front of one of those huge IBM Selectrics with the rotating font balls, I happily typed up memos and media budgets and expense reports and whatever else the Account Execs dropped into my in-box.  But the glow quickly faded.  The work was mind-numbingly boring, and I was making so little money that I lived on peanut butter and homemade onion soup and could afford only cheap paperbacks for entertainment.  Seeing no actual promotions occurring, and after being given a big $25 a month raise at my 6-month review, I knew I had to leave to get ahead.

My opportunity came in the unlikely form of an Executive Secretary job at a major bank, working for a VP who had a tech writing group under her command.  “I don’t want a professional secretary,” she said in the interview, which made me suddenly far more interested in banking than I'd ever imagined I could be.  Instead she wanted to hire someone educated and ambitious who could move up as she had, from a clerk-typist at 18 to executive at 30.

For nearly a year, I juggled a challenging load of secretarial duties for my boss and her staff, continuing to use one of those giant IBM Selectrics and scads of correction tape and White-Out, until the day the exciting new “word processors” arrived.  

Ours were made by a new company called “NBI” (which was supposedly a play on “IBM” meaning “Nothing But Initials”) and took up most of our desks, being as large as the first microwave ovens and requiring huge 8 inch floppy disks (they had no hard drives).  These state-of-the-art wonders had tiny matte glass screens on which ghostly-white letters faintly glowed, wiggling around so much that you got headaches and eyestrain if you didn’t take regular breaks – or even if you did.  

Made by yet another company, the impact printers that sat next to them on our desks were even larger, and so noisy that a third company created “sound hoods” that encased them in a sort of Cone (really a huge box) of Silence that merely muffled the relentless hammering sound.  A fourth company sold “sheet feeders” so that paper would drop into the printers automatically rather than us having to feed it in one piece at a time.  The sheet feeders sat precariously on top of the printers, often slipping out of position and jamming.

In short, early word processing was very much a jury-rigged affair that resembled the efforts of the astronauts trying to make it home in Apollo 13.  

Each new machine that was supposed to make our lives easier only begat another piece of equipment (or two or three) that we had to wrassle with, explaining to our irritated customers that we didn’t have their documents done yet because (pick one or two) the word processor crashed, the disc was corrupted, the sheet feeder had jammed, or the printer had gone dead.  The Executive Secretary of our group head, the capo de tutti capi, utterly refused to give up her Selectric, claiming that it was faster and easier to use than all this foolish new junk.

Eventually IBM got in on the act with desktop pre-PC’s and word processing software and things slowly got better.  But verrrrry slooooowly.  Our first printer from IBM was as big as a cubicle (someone in fact had to lose theirs to it – shades of the first copier arriving at Sterling-Cooper) and printed documents at the lightning pace of two pages per minute.  

Given its great expense, only one printer was purchased for the entire office, so we secretaries spent a lot of time standing around this hulking mass, waiting for our documents to get to the top of the mysterious queue, which appeared on no one’s machine, making it impossible to know when your work would be printed or even if it would – prompting some impatient souls to repeatedly re-send documents, further monkey-wrenching the wheels of business.

So what does one do when standing around waiting next to a giant humming machine?  Well, sometimes one gets sexually harassed if one is a woman working before the late 1980’s (when some key court cases finally put teeth in anti-harassment laws by awarding plaintiffs damages).

I started working as a teenager in 1972, when there were still sex-segregated job ads, and had experienced enough sexual harassment just in my high school restaurant jobs to provide a lifetime of litigation.  When I entered the business world, things got a little less greasy, but no less sleazy.  The men may have been wearing business suits rather than polyester uniforms, but they still felt perfectly at ease making sexual jokes and propositions, commenting on your clothing and looks, groping you, groping themselves in front of you, blocking your way when you were trying to get somewhere, or worse.  

What may really astound younger women (and men) is that just like the women on Mad Men, I hated but didn’t question this behavior.  It was, I thought, just the way things were, a law of the universe like gravity, and simply the adult version of the “boys will be boys” axiom I’d grown up with. Complaining about it never even occurred to women at that time.  (At best, you’d have been told to just deal with it as a fact of working life.  At worst, you'd be told that it was your fault.)

Like Peggy and the other women on Mad Men, I practiced defensive behavior, stoically ignoring or deflecting harassing comments and actions while going about my work.  Even after I’d made my way into professional and even managerial jobs, I had to endure some men who felt the need to sexually size me up every time I appeared before them to get information or approval for a task I had to complete.  (The scene where Pete Campbell first meets Peggy and runs down her assets from head to toe is close enough to what I endured that it made me cringe in recognition.)

But, like Peggy, I did make that leap to professional status. After nearly a year of working my secretarial bottom off, my boss promoted me to tech writer, a jump of four grades that required corporate approval just short of a papal bull.  My English degree had finally paid off, as had the dedication I’d shown.  One day I was typing other people’s documents, and the next someone was typing mine.  (This was long before there were PC’s on every desk; no professionals or managers typed their own documents.)  Like Peggy, I struggled with that transition, as peers became support staff (and eventually subordinates, when two years later I was promoted to management).

I realize now that Peggy cuts close to home in many ways, which may explain why at times she makes me so uncomfortable.  Both us were raised Catholic, but estranged from the church, and struggling with reconciling our desires for pleasure with a faith that we questioned but which still tilted our internal compasses in subtle ways.  

For Peggy, the greatest sin of all might be her ambition, and her belief that she knows better than others what’s right.  The “sin of pride” that’s called in Catholicism, and it’s the gravest of all sins, because it means you think you know better than God or his representative on earth, the Church.  It’s the same sin my own mother used to accuse me of, and which (come to think of it), the man I live with does, too, at times.

And yet that’s largely what’s won me over to Peggy.  I love her growing belief in herself, and her willingness to act on it, which has led her to challenge her parish priest, ask for her own office, and reject a man she previously loved who now wants her, because she’s seen him for who he really is and thinks better of herself.  

Peggy is of course a deliberate construct of Mad Men’s creators, an archetype of the “career girls” of that era, precursors of the fuller presence women would play in business in the 70’s, 80’s and beyond.   It’s no coincidence that she begins the show as “the new girl.”  In figure, behavior and career choices for women, Joan symbolizes the dying 1950’s, while Peggy is the rising 1960’s.  

Without women like Peggy, and without the feminist movement of the late 60’s and 70’s, I wouldn’t have found a female executive to work for in the early 1980’s, and I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities.  I might have ended up a Joan, my skills and talents shunted into being queen of a pink collar ghetto, rather than becoming a writer whose words would appear, if not in glamorous ad campaigns, at least in corporate publications. As they did for Peggy, my writing skills gave me entrée into the professional world, and to every other job I’ve had for nearly 30 years.

But only because I could type.

 

 


To read my October 27th post "God and Advertising" which discusses the 2nd season Mad Men finale, the divisions and tensions within advertising agencies, Peggy, Catholicism and the sin of pride, go here.

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what an awesome, interesting essay even for someone who does not watch Mad Men.
I hope this sparks a lot of discussion, and if it doesn't get an EP, then I can't figure out what it would take.

I'll need to read this a few more times to fully absorb it, but wanted to give an early comment to keep it in the feed.
Rated for bringing back spot-on memories of life in the corporate world of the '70s and '80s. I had a Ph.D. in a scientific field and eventually left the lab for a succession of management positions, but I experienced my own version of everything you mentioned.

Great piece!
I was brought during that era as well. I was 12 in 1962, which I think is when MM takes place, more or less. I don't know why, but Peggy Olsen reminds me of Zelda Gilroy on Dobie Gillis.

Great essay!

Rated.
I agree. Awesome and interesting.
Very interesting story and I love the context of Peggy against which it is told. Brings back a lot of memories too!
Ahem, apparently, I have some pull with the editors! ;-)
Silk wonderfully written and I can related to evolution of technology in the work place. Rated.
Hey, me too! And not that it's actually gone away - the sexism - like everything else, it just goes underground.

I was a writer at a liberal small newspaper in Santa Barbara in 1981 and was being sexually harrassed by another writer whose girlfriend also worked with us. When I finally complained I was told by the editor and leading feminist to just deal with it. There I was surrounded by outspoken liberal feminists and not one thought he was doing anything wrong. Ah, at least I'm not bitter.
This is a superb post, Silkstone. You pinpoint the exact reasons and feelings of discomfort that make perfect sense now that I have read this. Her character is brilliantly conceived (and written) for the reasons you so well articulate.
You also bring back the memories of an era where the fax machine took up square footage and the transition into technology collided with and against women staking the first real claims in the corporate world. Would I want to be "young" again? Nope. I think we lived in and through some very interesting times.
In the mid-70s, I was one of only two boys in my high school typing class, with 25 girls. Being able to type has led to innumerable opportunities, including my present dual careers as a software technical writer and a fiction writer. I'm grateful for the tedium I endured that year.

These days only vice presidents and above have secretaries, a remarkably egalitarian advance. The modern version is really the departmental admin, but even those are going away. In the mid 90s, each department of the software company I worked for had an admin. In the software company I work for now, there are only three administrative staffers for 150 workers. The only problem with this is that the "entry level" jobs are being eliminated, meaning there will be fewer talented rookie workers coming in and learning a business as they're promoted. That's certainly what happened to me, because when I started at the big software company in 1993, I knew nothing about software. I was an admin.
I think getting a degree in English is smart, even for those seeking a non-literary career. I was a biology major, but I'm convinced that what I learned in English and French literature classes was better preparation for a medical career than what I learned in natural science.
Wow, I go out for the morning after posting this and return to all these great comments and the cover! And I owe it all to Jeanette. Jeanette, you are officially hired as my PR person now. (My girl will call your girl.)

It's interesting to hear the various memories this has tapped into for people, including that several men relate to it as well. I've taken a very female angle, so that's especially gratifying. But then so many of us have worked our way up from entry level jobs, and that's a road that feels familiar once you've done - -kind of like having war stories!

Mark, I think you make a really fascinating point about how the disappearance of those jobs (because of typing our own work and using PC's) is not entirely a good thing. I hadn't thought about that, but it makes absolute sense. I see my partner K's son post-college struggling to find an entry-level job in some industry he's interested in, just so he can do what I did, and he just can't get one. We've been blaming the recession, but I hadn't thought about how it's a pure lack of such jobs even existing any more.

Ariana, you paid me the ultimate compliment! Mad Men is sort of just a launching point for this piece, but I wasn't sure if people who don't watch the show would get past that and keep reading. Glad you did!

Montana, Kelly and Dorinda - thanks!

John, I see the resemblance to Zelda! Although I only dimly remember that TV show. I think it's the seriousness and ponytail.

OE, it's interesting how technology affects work life in so many ways, esp in the past 30 years or so. I felt like I might be getting a little sidetracked in this essay writing about that piece, and yet it felt like it was very important, too. Thanks for validating that.

Deborah, I too have at times been most horrified by what other women have said and done in the workplace. I worked with and for a lot of great women, and they almost all helped me in my career. But I did at time have contact with some women execs (that I didn't work for) who were lulus, and it felt all the worse because they were women.

Cartouche, thanks so much! I agree that Peggy's character is perhaps the most brilliantly conceived (and wonderfully performed by Elisabeth Moss) on the show. She's complex and enigmatic. She's still in so many ways a mystery that she almost makes the elusive Don Draper look transparent by comparison. I've really grown to be fascinated by her, and not just because she's had a dramatic storyline, or one that resembles my own life. I think it's the way her character is both written and acted.

Mark, as noted above, I found your observations about how tech changes have impacted job opportunities really spot-on and interesting. Another thing I witnessed in the 1980's was how men who had learned to type were able to capitalize on that as word processing and computers shifted the work place. Young men who never would have been "secretaries" became "word processors" which was a more technically defined job (and without all the other secretarial duties). It made the pink collar ghetto a more mixed place. I also saw male professionals and execs floundering as they were supposed to start using email etc. A lot of the middle aged and older guys really had trouble with that stuff and it did affect their careers at time. Now, of course, it's a whole different world. Being unable to type is unthinkable - it's an essential skill.

Steve, I find what you wrote really fascinating -- personally I'd love to see you write something about how the liberal arts part of your education affected your work as a doctor. I can imagine how that might be so, but I'd love to know the details from your actual experience. The practice of medicine is so closed off for most of us, and it truly seems an art that requires far more than scientific training, so I think it's a rich subject for someone like you to open up for the rest of us.

Hoop, thanks! I often wonder how the show affects people who are 20-30 years younger. My partner K and I really get thrown back into memories of our childhoods when we watch it, but if you're a generation younger, it must strike you the way WWII dramas affect me, as I try to imagine what it was like for my parents living through that era.
A wonderfully great piece to read! I learned a lot and enjoyed it very much!
Totally great essay. I love Mad Mad Men, and Peggy's character grew on me, too. Love the way you used your experience to speak to her character, and vice versa!
Great essay! Brought back many memories for me. I also typed my way to a professional career. As a budding feminist I'd sworn, from junior high school on, that I'd never take a secretarial class. But it turned out that my self-taught typing skills helped me all the way to law school.

As a legal secretary during college, I remember thinking that the self-correcting Selectric III typewriter was the greatest thing ever! To this day, we keep one in our office.

And the NBI word processors and printers with sound covers - oh, the hassles those caused! By then, I'd left the world of typing, and was completely dependent on our legal secretaries to produce documents. Many were the nights that the secretaries and I would be huddled in front of that cantankerous printer, pleading for it to get all the way through a huge document without getting jammed up and having to start over.

After the NBI was the DEC-Mate - a little more processing power, but still baffling for me to figure out. And we remained dependent on those noisy daisy wheel printers.

The DEC-mate finally gave way to the PC, and I was no longer dependent on others to do my typing - oh, joy! I so loved Word Perfect - Word Perfect 5.1 was the pinnacle of word processors! (Word, ptooey! I curse Word every day!)

Anyway, thanks for the memories! :)
Silkstone, I'm afraid your girl will have to call me directly. I am my own girl! (I guess I am somewhere between Peggy and Joan.)

The one thing that does puzzle me about Peggy (although it's probably understandable in context of the time period) is her nearly psychotic break with reality where her baby is concerned.
Oh, and regarding technology...I work for three (female) attorneys, one is my age and two are younger (one by 10 years and the other by nearly 20). The two younger ones type all of their own stuff, and just send it to me via email to put in final format. The older one still uses those microcassettes to dicate, and we have to type a draft, give it to her for correction, etc., etc., etc. I doubt she'll ever change, unless they stop making those little tapes!
Peggy is the best thing about the show, for the reasons you describe. I, too, took some time before she started to grow on me, now I see how important her story line is.

Man, I can't believe you lived it! I am slightly younger than you, and remember some awful stuff, but I think I had it easy compared to both of you. Thanks for posting this.
Terrific essay! I started in the insurance industry in 1977, when just as many women as men were entering the profession at a trainee level. It was quite different from today and much closer to the environment of the Mad Men '60s. Thank goodness it has changed, and that we all can look back on that time as antiquity and appreciate that it is no longer the status quo.
Great work, Silk. I could really empathize with your vivid picture of that pre-computer world. I lived it in real time, and it seems almost amazing how passive we were before "sexual harassment" became a term.
This is good writing. And your point dead on solid.
Great piece. Mad Men is wonderful on so many levels.

"But then I’ve loved Mad Men from the first minutes of the first episode." Absolutely! Me too.

It is so well told, and again, like you, I get new things from each episode when I view them again. The show is like a good bottle of wine. It tastes good from the first sip but each time one drinks from the glass new flavors and nuances develop.

It interests me that at first you did not care for Peggy Olson, and while later you saw yourself in Peggy Olson, it is odd (or maybe not) that subconsciously seeing yourself in a character would inspire disdain. It occurs to me that those days of subordinating yourself may be long past chronologically, but in your mind they are still fresh, and invoke a mixture of shame and anger.

The word processing computer was truly a catalyst, and the beginning of the end of servant/master roles in the office. Fetching coffee for the boss and taking dictation are largely relics. That said, the tide had already begun to turn. You graduated from college in 1980, I graduated from HS in '81. When I took six weeks of typing in the seventh grade there were just as many boys in the class as girls, and no one, no one, I knew took any secretarial courses in high school.

Home economics was not required but many (guys and girls) took it for the fresh baked cookies right before lunch! This was in Jr. High, there weren't any Home Ec classes in my high school. Just a few years before there had been.
Well written, entertaining, so true. Even though I'm a little older and never had the good fortune of a female mentor, I realte to it all. Typing is the single best thing I ever learned after reading and writing, and for the same reasons.

Silkstone, do you know that there are people, intelligent, well-educated people here at OS of all ages who insist that sexual harassment in the workplace doesn't exist because they haven't personally experienced it? And that some of them are even women?
God, what a bore. More Yuppie masturbation. (Just look at how every "event" in this robot life is defined only something you'd see on a CV.)

And of course growing up in the 1960s and 70s is the same thing as growing up in 40s and 50s.

But good to know you finally found an indentity at your age.
As someone who not only watches Mad Men, but is also COMPLETELY obsessed with it, hats off for such an in-depth analysis of what Peggy represents and the historical context her character should be placed in. Very insightful read.
Luis, Owl, David and Liz - thanks!

Grif, I can't believe you used the NBI also! I've never talked to anyone else who did. So I always wondered if our group got snookered into buying some wacky product, although I think at the time, they were considered the hot company is this very new field. I never used a Dec, but heard tales of them. You know, I never liked Word Perfect, for some reason, even though I used it before Word. And even though I hate Microsoft on general principles and miss "the one true version of Word" (aka 5.1), I still use it, albeit on a Mac (which somehow makes it more palatable.)

While not a computer, the Selectric was one cool machine, which is why it lasted so long. The one that Peggy is using in the pic at the start of this post is exactly the same one I used, 20 years later!

Jeanette, of course I am my own girl, too. I guess I'm my own Peggy. (Or maybe my own Joan, except I'm not that curvy.) That's funny about the older attorney in your office -- I've wondered what had happened to people who never learned to type.

I know a lot of people have had trouble with the Peggy pregnancy storyline. I was OK with it, including because there are cases like this (of women in denial about being pregnant) all the time in the news, and those are just the ones that make the news. I think in that era, when it was such a huge deal to get pregnant out of wedlock, and being Catholic, her reaction is that much more believable (even if incredibly uncommon, and thus a bit of a plot contrivance).

Palindrome, thanks! My story is not at all unusual, for my generation. I wrote it in part for those who are 10-30 years younger, to show that things were quite, quite different not that long ago. I wish those young women who don't think they need feminism would at the least watch this show. Either that, or maybe we could put them in a time machine and send'em back.

Lea, thanks! I'm not sure if we were passive, though. There was no point to protesting harassment, then, as there was no recourse. I think we were just resigned to it. Mad Men gets almost everything right, down to the last detail, and the one that always kills me is how the women react to the harassment, which is mostly to just take it very very stoically (Joan is the exception - she will respond with humor or even put-downs). But mostly they just go stone faced and wait for it to be over. That's exactly what I remember doing. And it's painful to watch, as it brings memories back of how it felt to do that day after day.

Ablonde, thanks for weighing in with your experience. You're absolutely right that things were changing quickly in that time period, which is why yours was significantly different than mine even though we're quite close in age. What has surprised me, watching MM, is how much had not changed from 1960 to the early 1980's! IOW, from my early childhood to early adulthood, change in the workplace, esp for women, was still fairly slow. Then it seemed to explode. And the incredible advances in technology (as I and many others here have noted) seemed to have been part of that.
Emma, thanks! And I've had the same kind of argument about harassment, although almost always from men. In the 1990's, I actually designed and taught early anti-harassment programs. I could write an entire post about the objections I heard in them!

Keturah, thanks so much. I think it's an easy show to get obsessed with, being so rich in detail and nuance, which is why you can watch the episodes repeatedly and get more out of them every time. That's rare.
this is a great story, silk, and emblematic of the writing skills that lifted you from the pink ghetto

I was one of the few guys who took typing in high school (in 1963!), it seemed like a good skill to have, I'd seen my Dad typing up work at home, and it was an easy class to fill my second semester senior year class schedule after completing all my academic requirements and already accepted to college

when I was struggling to support my family right after Bryn was born, I kept us in food and diapers with typing jobs through a temp agency, and took my first permanent job as an "administrative assistant" (read secretary) at a big ad agency, I ultimately moved up to market research analyst before throwing it all over to escape from LA back to Northern CA

I've never seen "Mad Men", but I'll probably check it out on DVD one of these days

thanks again fro a great read
That's a good point about how quickly things started to change in such a short period. I'm just about Ablonde's age, and didn't enter the full-time, permanent workforce until 1984, where I saw only the last vestiges of the really overt sexism. At the organization that employs me now, I think that class is the real problem, not sex or race.
You're on the Big Salon home page now! (My commission has just gone up considerably.)
I thoroughly enjoyed this. Thanks.

Rated.
This is a great story. Now imagine what it would have been like for someone with precisely the same credentials, aspirations, and ambitions reading the help wanted ads as you did and seeing this: "Whites only need apply."
The accuracy of "Mad Men" as aperiod piece is reflected in the fact that there are absolutely no people of color to speak of or who are of any consequence in the series. So, just like the want ads of the period the hidden message, whether intended or not, is "Whites only need watch." But there are times when it makes sense to take a peak at the program which commercializes and sensationalizes the saga of women screwing their way up the ladder to success and men who seem hell-bent on screwing their way down.
OOPS! That's "PEEK" not "PEAK". My bad:)
My parents met at work in the 1950's and they had stories of the way women were treated that sounded horrible to me, but they thought they were funny. The best (0r worst) was the filing cabinet test applied when women interviewed for the typing pool. They said women were asked to put their elbows on top of the filing cabinet and if their breasts touched the front, they were hired. I think this was a joke, but can you imagine even thinking this was funny?

I can relate to your experiences too. I was raised to be a good Catholic housewife, and the thought of being under the thumb of some guy begging for spending money like my mother did, made me recoil. I went to college determined NOT to get my MRS (did anyway), and I wanted management, not the trio that was open for women at the time: teacher, nurse, secretary. I studied health management and ended up in an entry level hospital admin position. Yes, I could type.

That period in the late 1970's and early '80's was a tough time to start working. There were so many of us baby boomers entering the job market at the same time. Women had such a hard time on every front. We got the admin jobs, the guys got the ladder positions. It sucked.

I have nieces entering the job market now, and their sex simply does not hold them back. They don't know to thank us for busting up all that crap. But I'm so pleased to know that we did!

Guess I should rent MadMen on Netflix. I'm too cheap to pay extra for expanded cable.
I watched it a couple of times, and agree with FeelGood.
Gosh, your essays are such a pleasure to read. You have such talent building up to your points with really interesting anecdotes.
My mom always told me to learn how to type because it would ALWAYS be a valuable (marketable) skill. I wish she had told me to ignore typing, because then I would have made a point of excelling at it. Don't tell me what to do!
36 hours and 35 minutes until season three! Will you be blogging about Mad Men?
DrFeelGood and RonP01, I've often wondered how it must feel for an African-American person to watch the show, when the only African-American people on it are the elevator operator and the Drapers' housekeeper.

I wonder if the show's creators went in knowing that, in order to accurately reflect the reality of the time period, they were going to necessarily sacrifice a large number of potential viewers.
I came here because I thought this was going to be about Mrs. Olson from the Folger's TV commercial. I always wondered what happened to her. Instead, I got to read about one of the best shows on TV. Sorry for the smartass humor (I can't help mself). Really great post.
You really nailed it here, both the details and the atmosphere. I experienced all of it too from the childhood scenes to the office scenarios (in San Francisco).

But I did play the typing card differently. I skipped it in high school on purpose, fearing a pink collar cul de sac. I think it helped me land a first job after college with an office and a dictaphone. But you are right, everyone was completely conflicted at the time about what women's roles should be.

Men thought they were being good sports to give you a chance, since there was still this cultural overlay that said women's brains were somehow deficient. Men with power flirted early and often, and you still had this sense that whatever you did with your head did not count as much in life as finding a mate and having his kids, no matter what your GPA had been.

It all seems so archaic and quaint now, doesn't it? Just remembering makes me hear the rustle of petticoats.
Thanks for the further comments! Some replies:

Roy, thanks for sharing your experiences. I think there were a few far-sighted men who did learn to type and capitalized on it when the tech tide turned (hey, I just coined that phrase!). My mother used to sum up my financial safety net as: "Well, you can always go back to being a secretary." Or to put it another way, I'll always have typing.

Jeanette, I agree that in many ways class (which we're not supposed to be aware of here in America!) is replacing sex and race as the big divider at work and also in communities. I think that's being played out in left vs. right politics now, too. (And yes, your increased check is in the mail.)

Lulu and Kevin, thanks!

Ohreally, ha!

Nina, yes, having a "lower level" skill can be a tricky thing. Can help or hurt. re: "Rustle of petticoats" -- yes, in many ways it does seem that archaic! And yet, it wasn't that long ago.

Dr.FeelGood and RonPo - I can see that the show may not at all appeal to non-white viewers. (It also seems of little interest to people under 40.) Frankly, almost nothing on TV these days appeals to me (Mad Men and Top Chef are the only 2 shows I watch any more). Entertainment, including TV, has becoming increasingly niche vs. the "old days" when everyone watched the same few hit shows, movies, listened to much of the same popular music etc. Racial divisions are huge in entertainment, but one of gender and generation exist, too.

It's funny because I was just thinking the other day about how often I've heard objections to the depiction of racism and sexism in art. (Which is not what you're saying but your comments bring my thoughts about it to mind.) Some people feel you should not show racism or sexism - it's too offensive, even when you are depicting (as Mad Men does) the historical reality. I find that really odd. I think that only by depicting what really happened do we have a chance of both remembering it and also making sure it doesn't happen again. I also think historical documents, including art such as movies, that enacted racism in the way they were created should be shown, for the same reasons. Otherwise, it's quite literally a 'whitewash'. So what I find offensive is TV or movies that are anachronistic in behavior, including around racism or sexism, eliding it from our consciousness so that people don't feel disturbed (or feel included). The reality is that the early 1960's was a racially segregated time, even in NYC, and the show cops to that and portrays racism as frankly as they do sexism. (ditto anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism and all the isms that were not only prevalent but openly expressed at that time.)

Which is not to say anyone should feel compelled to watch anything. We all choose what speaks to us. Most white, middle class folks I know who lived thru this era don't watch this show, either -- it's very much a niche cult show even though it won the Emmy. And I know people who did live through it who find it too painful to watch, as it's too accurate to what it was like.

In any case, to your point about employment. You know, that's a tricky one. It's absolutely true that white women have had it better than people of color in the US. But employment is more of a vexed question. I'm no expert, but I think looking at when many jobs and professions began admitting women and minorities, you will see a fairly close time synch. And in the past 30-40 years, there were still many ways in which being a man (of any color) trumped being a woman. And of course, affirmative action had much to do with opportunities being opened up both to women and minorities - it really broke down the doors for all of us.

But here's a true story for you: At the same time I was trying to find a job post-college and only being asked every where I turned if I could type, I had a male friend from college who was Hispanic who was also job searching in the very same area. We had both majored in liberal arts but I had actually graduated, while he had dropped out. I was offered only secretarial jobs; he was offered management trainee jobs in more than one large corporation. He was outright told it was an affirmative action thing -- they needed non-white males. But they weren't (yet) recruiting women for the same jobs (or reasons).
Aim, I forgot to answer your question: yes, I'll definitely be blogging about the show as the new season unfolds!

I don't know if I'll write about every episode, but only if I feel I have something insightful to say. Also, to me, they're so rich, I like to think about them for a day or two. So other folks around here may beat me to the punch of commenting on each episode, but I'm sure I'll still feel compelled to write about the show in my own way.
I'll be looking forward to your posts about the new season!

The photo of Peggy ... that Selectric she's on looks like one that didn't come out until the early 70s, doesn't it?
Good eye, Grifftan, I used a Selectric typewriter like that (I LOVED it) and I'm sure it wasn't around in the early 60's. Like John B above, I was also 12 in 1962. Dan Draper took the train home (when he went home) to Ossining. I lived in Yonkers and I always remember my mom telling me that her doctor would tell her not to quit smoking when she was pregnant (and pregnant she was...6 times) because it would keep her weight down. Oye! But I turned out alright! Right?
Fascinating. I'm not a Mad Men fan, but I love the way this essay is constructed, Silkstone.
When you read an ad that said "Whites only need apply", you never got the chance to be asked whether or not you could type. Black women historically have had greater success at gaining employment than black men in clerical and entry level positions. When the feminist movement coopted the civil rights movement, the determination was made to include women as part of equal opportunity and affirmative action black women represented a kind of double play for corporate employers working with quotas real or imagined, self imposed or super imposed. To this day, black males lag behind black women in total numbers regarding white collar positions. I predict that you will get a string of EPs with your work on Mad Men. Especially if the show increases in popularity and viewership, and opens the season to critical acclaim....
Oh yes! I could relate... I graduated in '85 with a five year degree in Architecture (a five year Bachelor's, later called a Master's). Although women were treated as equals at the entry level, that didn't stop the good ole boys from enjoying a squeeze or comment... CAD skills leveled the playing field. (We even used the computer for some of our word processing needs.) There were only a few succesful women at the firm, and mostly they were in interior design, only one in architecture.

Ten years later, I worked for an architecture firm in Tokyo... it was back to the fifties! While my firm was the anomaly (employing and encouraging women architects), I watched American female designer friends at other firms, being asked to serve tea and "host" customers at dinners and receptions. I entered elevators operated by girls in outfits looking like the old Pan Am stewardesses complete with gloves!

These days, I wheels my son's stroller past construction sites and explain everything. He knows that Mommy loves to watch buildings go up. He knows that Mommy put together the new play kitchen.... and when the toy stops working, he grabs the Phillips head screwdriver and hands it to Mommy!
Including women in the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action mix was away for corporate employers to keep their workforce all white even if they couldn't keep it all male.....Black women have been perceived as much less threatening to the establishment hence they have had much grater succes with gaining access to white ollar corporate America....
Mad Men's creator Matthew Weiner is obsessive about detail (e.g., he's had them replace the apples shown in the background because fruit sold in stores in the early 60's was much smaller than today) so I had to look up the Selectric. Wikipedia says it came out in 1961. That suggests it was anachronistic in the first MM shows, which started in fall of 1960. Also, the model Wikipedia shows looks different than the one in the photo above. So, a rare slip of accuracy for MM! But not too far off -- it definitely existed well before the 1970's as some thought.

Trilogy, I can go you one better. My mother's OB gave her amphetamines to take when pregnant with me as she thought my mother was gaining too much weight -- this was the 50's when keeping birth weight low in babies was considered important. fortunately it was in the 3rd trimester and my mother only too them for about a week before flushing them down the toilet because they made her feel nuts. Otherwise, I would have been born with 2 heads. As it was, I was considered an enormous baby at over 8 lbs (my older sibs were all down in the 6 and 7 lb range).

Ron, I agree that African-Americans have been and still are disproportionately shut out from opportunities open to whites. I do think that many men don't realize how tough the work place was for even white women until fairly recent history. (It wasn't that long ago that even secretaries had to be men, after all.) "Whites Only Need Apply" disappeared in the 1960's with the civil rights act. Sex-segregated ads persisted into the 70's and de facto discrimination against women persisted in the 1980's and beyond. So did, of course, racial and religious discrimination, just in more veiled forms. But what's striking per my own experience is that my Hispanic friend with no degree was treated better in the exact same job market than I was with a degree (with high honors and 2 majors, BTW). I was asked only if I could type. They never looked at him and asked if he could mop. Instead they recruited him aggressively to be a management trainee, something no one considered doing for me. Do you see what I mean?

You and Dr FeelGood both have an interesting insight into how African-American women could break in through clerical and other jobs, and be in a better position once there was more access for women to professional jobs (as happened for me) -- I certainly saw that happen in business in the 80's and after. I actually worked with 2 African American men in the 1980's who were word processors, so some broke through in that regard, as tech shift allowed some men to get office jobs. But then the rise of PC's on every desk made a lot of those entry level jobs go away, for both genders and all races.

Yakky, thanks for sharing your experience - really interesting! I have had occasion to be exposed to business and career info in various Asian countries in the past few years and it is striking to me how even when women are in professional jobs, they are still expected to fit a feminine role -- they are the shoulder to cry on, they bring in food for people, they are nurturing and non-confrontational etc. It does seem a throwback.

I also always think of Sandra Day O'Connor, who graduated from Stanford Law School in the 1950's and couldn't get a job as a lawyer at any firm in Calif and was only offered 1 legal secretary job, despite being 3rd in her class at Stanford (her future fellow Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist was valedictorian of same class). Even education at a high degree didn't get women into professional jobs for a very long time.
And you still write great. There's a really tactile image from MM that I know you'll get: Secretary puts crackling plastic cover on behemoth IBM Selectric at the end of the day.
Grew professionally with the same technology. In the beginning I couldn't understand why we kept recieving these crap machines that just made every administrative task more difficult. And this was in the U.S. Army. As for the harrasment...well you won so fogive them...but never forget.
my wife had a similar journey, despite all her smarts, that was based on her "word count" as a typest. On the other hand, nobody was ever really her 'boss' though she gave the word lip service to keep them fooled.

I expect in another five to ten years, if not already in the cities, the fashion will change once again and women will long for the day when men were 'men' and not the miserable wimps they have become at the hands of their liberated mothers.