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.