Like many people, I count AMC’s “Mad Men” among my favorite television shows. Unlike many of the show’s critics, I do not find it to be sexist.
In a thought-provoking article in The Washington Post, historian Stephanie Coontz praises “Mad Men” as “quite simply, one of the most historically accurate television series ever produced.” Coontz addresses complaints from viewers who say the boorish behavior of the show’s men and the victimization of its women are over the top by explaining that the writers aren’t sexist; the time period they are writing about was.
Coontz quotes an article by Don Hazen, executive editor of AlterNet, in which he asks, “Was male behavior so despicable across the board in the upper echelons of the advertising industry in the mid-1960s, that the writers and producers of the show couldn't produce a single mensch, one man of character, one person with something akin to enlightened values?” Hazen remarks that, “After all, this year's show takes place in 1965, not the stone age.” But, as Coontz points out, from a contemporary perspective, 1965 pretty much was the Stone Age in terms of gender equality.
In that era, there were separate want ads and separate pay scales for men and women. “Head and master” laws still existed in most of the United States, giving husbands sole decision-making power in family matters. When they did go into the workforce, women were expected to put up with incessant sexual harassment and demoralization. Some of these were the women who were told, after World War II, to give up their jobs and go back to their kitchens so returning servicemen could find work; others were the sisters and daughters of those Rosie the Riveter types who enjoyed a brief interlude of wartime independence.
Robbed of choices by laws and societal expectations, women suffered from feelings of inefficacy and lack of fulfillment. If anything, Coontz argues, the women of “Mad Men” are more self-assured than their real-life models.
By the time I entered the workforce in 1978, the most egregious and overt sex discrimination was gone. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was up and running. There was a growing body of case law and administrative rulings to flesh out the first anti-discrimination statutes.
Discrimination and sexual harassment did not disappear, of course. In the early 1980s, as a reporter for The Associated Press, I covered lawsuits by would-be female firefighters in New York City who faced physical tests that were stacked against them and which had little to do with the requirements of the job. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevented the city from explicitly basing hiring decisions on gender, so New York turned to means that were less explicit, but no different in their result.
Brenda Berkman, a female marathon runner who failed the exam, sued the city, which eventually revised the test. But after she was hired, Berkman faced extreme hostility from her male co-workers. She told Scholastic years later, “men hated me so much that they might leave me in a burning building by myself, that they drained my air tank, that they phoned death threats to my house, that they followed me around on the street and threatened me.” "Mad Men" hasn’t shown anything like that.
The next few decades did not bring an end to discrimination, either. Well into the 1990s, a Shearson brokerage office in Garden City, N.Y., maintained a basement space called the “boom-boom room” which hosted male-oriented frat-like parties, while female brokers were humiliated and excluded. Smith Barney, which acquired Shearson during its “boom-boom room” days, continued to grapple with sex discrimination problems into the late 2000s, when female brokers sued over policies that prevented them from competing fairly for new accounts, promotions and pay.
Today’s women still face obstacles in and out of the workplace. Women continue to carry a disproportionate share of homemaking and child-rearing duties, though that is gradually changing. Rigid workplace cultures and short parental leaves make it difficult for career-oriented women to advance after they begin to raise families. And, while gender discrimination is illegal in hiring, promotions and termination, the laws remain difficult to enforce, particularly when it comes to hiring.
But, though we haven’t yet reached a perfect state of gender equality, we have certainly come a long way. We have come so far, in fact, that some people today can’t believe a show like “Mad Men” really portrays a world that existed just a few decades ago.