The naive Peggy Olson of season one
The second in a series of posts examining the women of the popular AMC drama Mad Men, from my feminist lens. Note: Some spoilers from season four and earlier seasons below.

The character of Peggy Olson on the AMC hit drama Mad Men is easily considered the “feminist” character of the show. In the beginning of the series, she’s 20 years old, single and determined to be successful at her job of secretary at Sterling Cooper. By season four, she’s moved up to copywriter, still single, and even more determined to be successful in her career. She’s very ambitious for a woman of her time – most women in the 1960s were focused on finding a husband, and if they did have jobs, they were jobs only women could do: secretary, nurse, teacher or saleswoman in retail settings that cater to women – department, jewelry or grocery store.

By season four, Peggy Olson doesn't take shit
from anyone, least of all douchey guys

Socially, Peggy is very progressive – she doesn’t save herself for marriage, she’s willing to experiment with pot. However, as seen in season four, her careers ambitions are getting in the way of her pursuit of husband and family. In episode 7, “The Suitcase,” she bails on dinner with her boyfriend on her birthday, her boyfriend subsequently dumps her. She seems initially more shocked than sad, and later more sad that she’s alone, not that she’s no longer with that specific boyfriend. In season three, Peggy has an affair with the older (divorced) Duck Phillips, although it’s not clear exactly how and why this relationship ends, when Duck comes back around, Peggy realizes what a pathetic drunk he is.

The definition of feminism, and what the feminist movement wants to achieve, is as varied as the women who have claimed to be feminists. Feminist scholar bell hooks defines feminism as the movement to end sexist oppression. Other largely agreed upon definitions of feminism include equality for women (although what exactly that means is debated) and the freedom of choice for women. It is easy to see that Peggy is a feminist character.

Through the series, Peggy has issue with sexist actions. Early in season one, she is disgusted by the way the men treat the women in the office. There is even a montage scene of the men in the office repeatedly checking her out, and her reaction of frustration and anger. She complains to office manager (and the office “sexpot”) Joan: “why it is that whenever a man takes you to lunch around here, you're the dessert?”

In season three, when Duck Phillips tries to recruit Peggy to work at his new firm, she goes to Don to ask for a raise, citing the newly passed Equal Pay Act. Don is distracted by other things at the office (which escape me) and turns down her request, even through she does better work than the male copywriters for less money. However, it is empowering to see her (short-lived) determination.

Also in season three, Peggy realizes that the advertising targeted to women is not actually appealing to women, and says as much to Don, who rejects her comments. When the proposed ad is shot down by the client, Peggy’s expression is one of small triumph. Even if the men don’t realize it, she knows that women don’t think just like men. As someone who currently works in public relations & marketing, Peggy has the potential to be a rich women in the future (of the timeline of Mad Men). Eventually the rest of marketing catches up to her and realizes that women don’t think like men, and can’t be marketing to the same way, and it’s important because women make the majority of the buying decisions. I digress.

In season four, Peggy is seen with more power at the office, but still the single gal without a husband. It seems to bother her not because she wants that status, but because like most people, she wants a partner, someone to love her, someone to come home to, and with which to raise a family. She quickly gets over being dumped by her boyfriend Mark when she realizes how little he actually knows her. She values having a partner who knows her, what makes her happy, and takes her wants into consideration.

It’ll be interesting to see the trajectory of Peggy, especially as the feminist movement heats up. While she be a leader of the movement? Will she join NOW? If Peggy does get married, will it be to a partner who understands her need for independence, and the satisfaction she gets from her career? Hopefully Matthew Weiner et al do “our” feminist Peggy right.

First post in this series: Man Women: Joan Harris née Holloway

Creative Commons License