Peggy Olson: Feminist Icon

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With Mad Men returning next week, Lucy Mangan charts feminist trailblazer Peggy Olson’s calm, quiet rise to become the ad agency’s star. And why that would be impossible in 2012…

She’s back! And I bet she’s better than ever.True TV heroines are thin on the ground (I’m perturbed to realise that the two who sprang first to mind were Lisa from The Simpsons and Miss Piggy – neither flesh-and-blood actresses) but Peggy Olson in Mad Men, which returns for its fifth season on 27 March on Sky Atlantic, is undoubtedly one of them.

January Jones as Betty Draper, protagonist Don’s porcelain vase of a wife, has done a brilliant job of shattering in slow motion over the five years covered by the series (1960-65). But Betty’s has been a story with which we are, through cultural osmosis and some form of folk memory, familiar. Betty is the woman coming of age in the decade of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, gradually realising that despite all she’s been told, marriage and children are not necessarily the fulfilment of her every desire.

Joan Harris née Holloway (played by Christina Hendricks) has been a less traditional portrait – a woman working within the system, using her sexuality to get ahead and only occasionally suffering for it – with Hendricks giving a performance as restrained and subtle as her famous figure and wardrobe are not. But Peggy is, or becomes, a career girl, an archetype whose story is less often told and whose journey is far more interesting and perhaps also far more important to us.

Office feminist

Arriving at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency offices in the first episode to take up her post as Don’s secretary, Peggy is a good, naive, impressionable Catholic girl from Brooklyn, expected to take his hat, pour his drinks and type his letters until she can find a nice man, settle down and turn into another decorative Betty-vase. Instead, by the end of the first series she’s become a junior copywriter – the first in the firm’s history.

Over the next few series, after she’s become pregnant and given the baby up for adoption, we watch her work her way up the agency ranks – accruing her own office, Manhattan apartment, secretary and even a baffled, grudging respect from (some of) her male colleagues – with no role models, no support (inside or outside the office) or legislation to help her as she goes. She’s stepped out of line and she’s stepped up.

She has the worst of several worlds. Her promotion doesn’t protect her from the rampant sexism in the office – it simply adds an extra layer of hostility and fear to the men’s attitudes. She’s not one of the boys but she’s no longer one of the girls – they either don’t understand her progress or they resent it.

Peggy has to figure things out for herself, re-negotiate again and again the balance of power and the expectations which shift swiftly, noiselessly, every day between her, the ad men, the secretaries and her poor, bewildered mother. “You want to be one of those girls?” cries the latter, as Peggy tells her she’s rented her own place in the city. “I am one of those girls,” she replies.

Yet on she goes, because that’s what pioneers do. She’s a living, breathing, working feminist before the word started circulating anywhere near Madison Avenue’s gleaming towers. Is she aware of what she’s doing for the women who come after her? No. When you’re blazing a trail, the daily slash-and-burn is all you have time and energy to think about. It’s those who come after who analyse, forge philosophies and muster movements.

Career path

We left Peggy at the end of season four having just landed a $250,000 account for the firm, pulling it back from the brink of bankruptcy, and watching her achievement go largely unnoticed and certainly unrewarded. She has developed a strong (if almost, and this is the beauty of Mad Men, entirely unspoken) personal bond with Don. It’s his first non-sexual relationship with a young woman and, within the limitations of his time and temperament, he’s been a good mentor. I suspect season five will see her struggling to reconcile the pull of this with the lack of credit afforded her. The strange thing is that although Peggy has proved herself to be an astonishingly courageous, hardworking and ambitious individual (hugely effective even when the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against her), you wonder how she’d fare in the modern workplace, even though it is, on the face of it, a much easier place for a woman to be.

Quiet confidence

Her mode of working – maybe even of being – belongs to another era. Her calm, understated demeanour and her unswerving but quiet determination would not necessarily be recognised as successful or rewarded accordingly now. Although she is undervalued in the Mad Men office, there is a sense – if only from the defensive and hostile men – that they know her true worth. In the modern workplace, however, where many of us feel we have to shout over people in meetings and virtually tap dance on our bosses’ desks to have our ideas given due consideration, there is a real question as to whether she’d be given even this much (oblique) respect. As Susan Cain laments in her New York Times bestseller Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, the modern workplace is no place for the quiet or contemplative. Peggy confronts people when necessary, but carefully and only after assessing the situation. Her confidence grows over the course of the series but her core does not change.

Reticent people go unheard these days, argues Cain. The vogue for brainstorming, for endless meetings, open-plan offices, teamwork, crowdsourcing and all the sprawling, overwhelming rest of it rewards only extroverts; gregarious, alpha-types, good at banging their own drums and sounding their own trumpets, ideally under a 50-megawatt spotlight. They dominate meetings, determine the parameters of debates, find it easier to get promotions and fit comfortably in the workplace they have effectively designed. Those who value, who need, who thrive on discretion and discipline, peace and solitude instead of stridency are marginalised. It is odd to think of Peggy benefitting in any way from what seems to us to be a fairly abusive and hostile office culture, but she is. While fending off the likes of Ken Cosgrove (who likens her to a lobster in front of his copywriting buddies: “All the meat’s in the tail!”), she is at least part of a society and office culture that still recognised and rewarded substance, individualism and self-sufficiency.

I can imagine Peggy doing badly in 2012. Some studies claim that introverts are disproportionately found among women. Or at least what we might call ‘effective introverts’ – those who, rather than having the inner resources and inner-direction and self-sufficiency that mark the true introvert, lack the self-esteem and confidence to shout as loudly at work as they would like, so the outward effect of exclusion from the game is the same. Women are doubly penalised as this extrovert culture exists in addition to rather than (as you might hope) instead of the old ones Peggy is used to. It’s dispiriting to realise how many of the hurdles Peggy clears remain – maybe lower, maybe in less extreme forms, but there still.

Perhaps the most obvious is extracting truly equal pay – despite legislation requiring it – from employers. It’s the one thing Peggy asks for that she doesn’t get. According to the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for female equality, UK women today earn on average 85p for every £1 that men earn. At current rates of improvement, they estimate it will take 98 years before we hit parity.

Until a few days ago I might have scoffed at this as just some of the unwarranted pessimism that bedevils the feminist movement, but then I spoke to a friend who’d just left her job at a company that prides itself on, and makes quite a feature of, its liberal, progressive credentials because she discovered that her male friend and exact peer was receiving nearly £15,000 more than she was for doing precisely the same job. Once she started asking round, it appeared that this was commonplace and went hand in hand with other gender-skewed shabby practices too.

At least in the Sixties you knew everyone was out to get you. Peggy’s experience of unwanted pregnancy and giving up her baby has, fortunately, been consigned to history but the vision of working practices compatible with raising a family, of sufficient and sufficiently paid maternity and paternity leave that doesn’t handicap parents who want to return to work at the same level after their break, remains as distant as that of the paperless (oh, my aching sides!) office.

Total equality

As for the persistence of sexism… well, on the one hand, the casual, constant kind that women in Mad Men endure/exploit has disappeared. How much has truly gone and how much has just gone underground is something we could debate forever. On the one hand, I can’t believe that men of our age, born to post-second-wave-feminism mothers, raised alongside girls rather than segregated from an early age, growing up with them as friends instead of being encouraged to conceive of them as a separate, mystifying species, really think of us as inferior beings there for their delectation and objectification. It doesn’t feel true. But then I also can’t believe that we have a prime minister who thinks it’s funny to urge a female speaker in the House to “Calm down, dear” or a government that implements reforms that are costing female employees their jobs at twice the rate of men. Maybe in a few decades when our generation has become the old guard, we will see genuine and lasting change. In the meantime, whatever’s working at the micro-level clearly isn’t at the macro.

Mad Men is a brilliant, clever, subtle show and the creation of Peggy is the most brilliant, clever, subtle thing in it. Together they remind us not just how far we’ve come in such a short time, but how far we still have to go. We should take her as our role model for her ability to plough on and not get distracted from our goals, for proving that introverts can – and do – succeed in today’s extrovert world, and also for her awareness that the gains made and the advantages we have were not given to us as a right. They were fought for and they need to be firmly held on to with both hands. Peggy can not afford to becomplacent. Neither can we.

Do you think Peggy is a feminist icon? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @StylistMagazine