It’s impossible to talk about the women of Mad Men without talking about feminism. But now that we can finally discuss when season 6 picks up (the wee hours of 1968), we can also address what our working heroines think of their position in the burgeoning movement.
Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) are both in very different positions now then they were when we first met their characters five seasons ago (or eight years by Mad Men‘s timeline). Both women have made significant professional strides while suffering consistent humiliations at the hands of their male colleagues and superiors. If the beginning of season 6 is any indication, we should expect to see more of both Peggy and Joan as they try to conquer their new positions — Peggy in a more senior role at a new agency, Joan as a Partner with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Though both might seem emblematic of a larger movement, it’s unlikely that it was rooted in any sort of feminist consciousness. When EW spoke to Hendricks and Moss, both were hesitant to categorize their characters as feminists.
“Some people have called her a feminist, but I would not.” says Hendricks of Joan. “I think she’s smart and able. I think she knows that she deserves to be treated in a certain way, but her methods are not technically what you would call ‘feminist.’ Maybe now you would, but I don’t think you would have at the time.”
After shockingly agreeing to essentially prostitute herself out to a client for a promotion, season 6 picks up with Joan trying to figure out whether or not she’ll be welcome at the executive level. But Joan is not just self-interested. She’s helping her co-workers as best she can, even though her advice can sometimes come across as harsh. Also, as a single, working mother in an executive role, Joan is making headway for women — even if it’s unintentional. “One of the things that last season was about and will always continue to be for Joan is: What you thought you wanted isn’t really what you wanted. The whole goal was to play the cards right, get a husband, and move out to the country. And what a surprise to find out that the husband and the child are not as fulfilling as the work,” says Hendricks.
Meanwhile, Peggy experienced a more natural route of promotions, but likewise doesn’t see herself as part of any social movement. Moss says Peggy’s career is her priority. “She’s young enough and progressive enough to have a handle on what kids want, but she’s also old-fashioned. She’s not a revolutionary, and she’s not going to be like burning her bra anytime soon. I think she doesn’t care. She doesn’t care about politics unless it relates to her job,” says Moss. “As the show goes on, the generation passes her by. She’s not going to be a hippie. She’s a professional woman.”
Jessica Paré, who plays Don Draper’s wife Megan, warns against expecting too much from the female characters on the show. “They’re not archetypes. They’re not stereotypes. They don’t represent one idea or one movement,” says Paré. She does, however, admit that Megan is in a different lot from Peggy and Joan. “She’s one of the first people to profit from the advances that women made at that time in the sense that she doesn’t really see a barrier to her having both a career and a healthy marriage and family,” says Paré.
“As the epicenter of the feminist movement, New York was a place where feminism was very much in the air,” says Alice Echols, the Barbara Streisand Professor of Contemporary Gender Studies at USC. But, Echols notes, the transition from 1967 to 1968 did not yet offer a mass, organized movement in which the women of the Mad Men world could participate. “At this point in time what you had were small groups of women who were active in the anti-war, student, and civil rights movements getting together in consciousness-raising groups and talking about the things that were pissing them off as women.”
So, even though we might not we might not see Peggy and Joan taking to the streets to protest the Miss America Pageant with Robin Morgan in 1968, we can at least root for them in their careers and take comfort in the fact that outside of universities and more radical groups, these conversations weren’t commonplace yet.