Most women in the early to mid 1960s were treated as second class citizens. They were relegated to “female” jobs like teacher, nurse, or secretary. And what we now think of as sexism—doctors addressing the husbands or fathers of their female patients, instead of the women themselves, banks refusing to grant mortgages to female applicants, and gender–based job posting boards—were standard practices 50 years ago. Few thought to question them or demand equality.
Given the social make up of the Mad Men era, a woman could do one of two things: marry and be a mommy, or sex around. In black or white terms: she could be a Madonna or a Whore. And while no one is saying that literally—we all know that babies of the time were not conceived “immaculately,” for example-- in society’s eyes, a very real dichotomy held sway: you were either a sexless, socially acceptable “mommy,” or a bad girl who purred and oozed the many sins of the flesh.
Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards (1970s) was the first TV single working girl to push the dual image envelope; her pluck and typing skills may have landed her the job, but ultimately her smarts and hard work allowed her to nail it and rise all the way to newsroom producer, while having boyfriends, and, gasp, unmarried sex, along the way.
Mad Men’s Peggy Olson stands as Mary Richard’s successor; she too poses challenges to 1960’s traditional gender roles. But what about Peggy’s co-worker Office Administrator Joan Holloway? In Episode 510 “Christmas Waltz,” Joan announces without a trace of rancor to ad man Don Draper, “My mother raised me to be admired.” And while Joan may well be angry at having been served divorce papers at the office, may be tired of playing cat and mouse with Roger, and appears to be fed up with soon to be ex husband, Dr. Harris, she has shown herself to be competent at cleaning up office messes (in one shining moment, she actually covered up the dead Ida Blankenship with a blanket so as not to disrupt a client meeting). But mostly, Joan seems comfortable with the status quo. Her words about being an object of admiration indicate that she is clearly identified with the women’s roles of the time.
Joan is a sex object and she knows it. She even seems to like it that way--much like some women who are around today.