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What Mad Men gets right about the history of feminism

Peggy's going to be okay, right? Right?
Peggy's going to be okay, right? Right?
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by education reporter Libby Nelson and political writer Dylan Matthews. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Libby Nelson: Dylan and Todd, I'm glad you brought up Mad Men's surrealist humor — one of the reasons I've loved the past few episodes is that they've all included moments, whether visual gags or verbal ones, that made me laugh out loud. But when you think back over the show's memorable moments, so many of them are at least a little surreal: Roger's blackface at the Kentucky Derby party, for example, or Megan singing "Zou Bisou Bisou," or Joan's painful, painted-on smile while she played the accordion for her husband's hospital colleagues.

Those indelible moments all come from parties, an ideal venue for Mad Men's blend of realism and surrealism. Parties, even and especially the best ones, are inherently balanced between order and chaos. Anything can happen when you combine interpersonal dynamics and alcohol. All of those surrealistic scenes are a dramatization of the moment when a party goes too far: everyone's having a great time, and then, very suddenly, everyone isn't.

A Mad Men party, in other words, is a single evening that encapsulates the mood of a decade. The popular idea of the '60s is that it was a long, drug-fueled, anything-goes good time — until, all of a sudden, it tipped over into riots and rebellion. Of course, all of those dynamics were building in the background. It's just that the nation's attention was momentarily distracted.

Another strength of party scenes is that Mad Men's characters, like most people, are more interesting together than they are on their own. One thing the show consistently does well is portray how relationships reveal different facets of our identities.

Whether people can change at their core is a question Mad Men wrestles with frequently. But it accepts that we do change all the time depending on whom we're interacting with. Don's relationships with Peggy and Sally are compelling because he treats them differently than every other woman in his life. The idea that personal relationships and business are inherently separate is a cliché — it's not personal, it's business — but as every scene in "Lost Horizon" makes clear, the wall between personal and business is pockmarked with holes.

That's particularly true for the show's women. The '60s are seen as a triumph for women, but important feminist victories in the workplace are still on the horizon, and this season has made clear that women at work are still forced to abide by very different rules. If Don's office weren't ready, nobody would try to make him sit in the secretarial pool. And while personal relationships could get Shirley a champion at McCann — Roger begs her to come along with him — they can't make advertising a comfortable place for an African-American woman in 1970.

Joan's storyline shows that personal relationships are a double-edged sword. Women who came of age in midcentury America are a generation sliced into razor-thin distinctions based on the year of their birth. Joan was born too early for the feminist new world Peggy could usher in. But she also accumulated as much power as she could in the old regime, despite its inherently limited nature. Joan isn't only a victim of the patriarchy; she was also a collaborator. If you revisit any of her early conversations with Peggy, you're reminded that Joan was someone who accepted that looks were a woman's currency, and who embraced the sway she had over men. Her evolution into a high-powered executive who found her value in other skills has been one of the most profound changes any character has undergone.

In other words, Joan has a double dose of bad luck. It's easier to brashly stride into a new world if the old one has nothing to offer. In her threats to Jim Hobart, Joan mentioned two then-current feminist rebellions: the Ladies' Home Journal sit-in and the Newsweek gender discrimination lawsuit. Of the two, the Newsweek lawsuit is a better match for what Joan was trying to accomplish. It was filed by women who were frustrated that they were denied bylines and promotions and forced to serve the ambitions of their male coworkers. Their lawyer warned them, "You have to take off your white gloves." A history of the case published in 2012 was aptly called The Good Girls Revolt.

The Ladies' Home Journal sit-in by radical feminists, on the other hand, was a rebellion not just against male-dominated workplaces but against the roles men prescribed for women in society — including through advertising. In other words, they were rebelling against many of the values Joan represented in 1960. She can't become that type of rebel. In many ways, she was born too late.

Read the recap.

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