Sexism in America: Peggy Olson, Hillary Clinton, Mom & Me

Peggy Olson
Peggy Olson punches the Madison Avenue glass ceiling in Mad Men.
Peggy Olson in the secretarial pool.
Peggy Olson in the secretarial pool.
Peggy Olson
Peggy Olson punches the Madison Avenue glass ceiling in Mad Men.

Beyond the booze, the babes, the cool, retro clothes, and the slick mid-century modern Madison Avenue backdrop,  AMC’s Mad Men is a story about office work and sexism at the dawn of the feminist era– before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), before Roe v Wade, before Ms Magazine, and before the Equal Rights Amendment’s (ERA) revival.

Mad Men’s Peggy Olson is the quintessential poster girl for working women and office survival. As Mad Men begins, Peggy is the Plain Jane secretarial school graduate who is assigned to be the secretary for handsome cad, sex addict, and creative genius Don Draper. As the episodes unfold, Peggy breaks out of the secretarial pool– with Draper’s help– to become a copywriter. Even in her success, Peggy isn’t given the respect she deserves. Initially, she shares a tiny office with the copier, suffers through Draper’s  unrealistic demands that rob her personal life, and works primarily on women’s products– stockings, bras, make-up, and cleaning products. She presents at pitch meetings when they need someone to give “Mom’s opinion.” Fighting sexism and entrenched behaviors, roles, and ideas in the ad agency office, Peggy claws her way up the career ladder and against-all-odds becomes a sought-after creative genius in her own right toward the end of the series.

Mad Men presents a more honest view of the 1950s-60s than the moralistic TV shows of the period– like Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, or Lassie...

the primary characters of Mad Men.
The primary characters of Mad Men.

Life was clean and idyllic in those old black and white TV shows. In prime time, no one was a alcoholic or a drug addict. No one worked in a gritty factory. No one had an unwanted pregnancy or an abortion. No one protested the war, marched for civil rights, disagreed with the government, dodged the draft, got arrested, smoked pot, took LSD, or had steamy out-of-wedlock sex. Mad Men has all of that and more because Mad Men tackles social issues that are generally ignored by the media– particularly inequality and discrimination against women, minorities, and the disabled in the workplace.

Peggy Olson and Mom

My Mom (far right on the end) and the secretarial pool from American Radiator (~1949).

Mad Men begins in during the Eisenhower era, and by the final season, it’s 1968. Richard Nixon has just been elected president. (Real 1960s news clips are interspersed throughout the show and add to the sense of time, place, and history.) The ad agency has changed shape and personnel several times over the seasons. At the beginning of the final season, Peggy has lost her mentors, Don and Ted, and is struggling with a new boss with old fashioned ideas. He’s not the creative genius Draper was, and he’s definitely not interested in encouraging Peggy. Repeatedly, we see staff meetings where Peggy’s ideas are the most creative, but the boss passes them over for mediocre ideas proposed by men who are her junior. “Accutron… it’s not just a time piece. It’s a conversation.” vs. “Accutron! It’s accurate!” (The Accutron watch was not mechanical, therefore a more accurate, early techie accessory.)

When the CLIO Awards come up, Peggy is sure that her campaign will win an award for the agency and perhaps, then, her work will be valued. Instead, Ginsberg– one of the guys– wins the award for a project that Peggy had passed off to him. Peggy is dumbfounded when she doesn’t win an award– until her curmudgeonly sexist boss says he didn’t submit her campaign to the CLIOs. “See, Peggy, it’s not so bad,” Ginsberg says. “You didn’t lose. You weren’t even considered.”

Thelma Springer
Thelma Springer (~1949)

This reminds me so much of my Mom’s story. She was valedictorian of her high school class. She was smart, well-read, and hyper-organized. She was a tenacious grammarian, a good writer, and an accurate  speed demon on an electric typewriter. She joined the Navy during World War II “to get out of office work”, but the Navy stuck her in an office in Norfolk. She worked for the Lorain Journal for a while in the 1950s but never became a writer (despite her skills). Mom toiled in the pink collar ghetto for 40 years and never rose above the ranks of administrative assistant. Her proverbial complaint was that her employer hired young, college-educated men from the Thunderbird School of Global Management to be her boss, and then she had to train them to be her boss. Such a waste of talent. Like Peggy, the Navy and Mom’s corporate employers never considered her for any other type of work, beyond secretarial. Her advice to me when I was in high school? “Learn to type because you’ll never be anything more than a secretary.”

When she retired in the early 1980s, desktop computers were just entering the workplace. Mom worked in Human Resources and managed benefits for everyone in the factory. Since there were a few hundred employees– some union and some not– with multiple plans, her record-keeping had to be detailed and accurate. Consequently, her paper files and her Rolodexes were extensive. Seeing these massive Rolodexes on her desk not long before her retirement, I said, “Mom, you know, as soon as you walk out the door, they’re going to hire someone to type all of your Rolodex cards into a computer.” Looking like Peggy in the second picture at the top of this article, Mom said, “I’m done caring about this place.”  (BTW, don’t ask me why a corporation headquartered in Amherst, Ohio would recruit from the Thunderbird School in Phoenix, but they did.)

At one point in Mad Men, Peggy fights hard for one her ad campaign ideas, and her new boss says that he’s “immune to her charms”– implying that she slept her way to the top (which she didn’t). There is a scene where Peggy and Joan (office sexpot turned executive through her own true grit) have a meeting with three young bucks from the parent ad agency. The women are trying to convince the men that Topaz Stockings (a grocery store brand) should be carried by Macy’s (a client the men are handling). During the meeting, the men don’t take the women seriously. They snicker childishly, make sexist jokes about Joan’s bosom, and refuse to focus. “You should be selling bras — not stockings. HaHaHa.” In the elevator after the meeting, Peggy turns on Joan, judges the way she dresses, and blames Joan’s sex appeal for the course of the meeting. (Women judging each other, blaming each other, and turning on each other in the workplace– how many of us have experienced that in the workplace?)

Peggy Olson and Hillary Clinton

After one particularly infuriating meeting with her boss, Peggy’s pent-up anger and frustration hit the breaking point. After a dressing-down, she calmly walks out, slams the door to her office, and drops to her knees in tears. She has given up her weekends, her lovers, her baby, and her personal life and devoted all of her energy to climbing the corporate ladder– and still her talents and ideas get no respect from the men who dominate the workplace.

As I watched strong, talented Peggy sob uncontrollably, I had an epiphany. Peggy Olson not only represents the 1960s pink collar ghetto office workers like my Mom; Peggy’s struggle against sexism, gender bias, and discrimination is a metaphor for Hillary Clinton’s struggle against pervasive structural and historical sexism today. Think about it…

Around Peggy, men drink too much, fuck their secretaries, cheat on their wives, throw temper tantrums, shout at each other, and fire people on a whim. Through it all Peggy and the other women are expected to be hard-working, obedient, respectful, and quiet– even when directly and publicly insulted. (Sound familiar? “Hillary talks too loud; her laugh is a cackle.” Never mind her ideas, intelligence, experience and dedication; those are all discounted over trivial complaints. When blow-hard Donald Trump and Grump Grandpa Bernie Sanders shout and wag their fingers at us, they’re viewed as strong leaders who will “make America great again” and “take bold steps to save the middle class”. Double standard? Of course.)

On the debate stage, Clinton’s intelligence and experience shine; ideology aside, she’s arguably the smartest person in the room with most well-thought-out, creative ideas. What is she dinged on? Being “too prepared”. On foreign policy, in particular, no one can touch her. By contrast, on social media, if anyone dares to stand up for Clinton or say anything positive about her ideas or record, the Bernie Bros and the Tea Partiers, alike, regurgitate sexist slurs and memes until they successfully shut down the conversation with their bullying and name-calling. (I have personally been on the receiving end of multiple Bernie Bro attacks– so don’t tell the Bernie Bros phenomenon is a Clinton plot. I’ve seen the memes.) No one cares that Clinton has more experience than anyone else running for president; her qualifications and ideas are ignored, discounted or just “not considered”– as with Peggy and Mom.

Has Hillary Clinton ever slammed the door after a grossly unfair and frustrating day, dropped to her knees, and cried in anger and frustration? I don’t know. Given the decades of lies and hatred that have been unfairly thrown at this intelligent, caring, capable and experienced woman, I wouldn’t blame her if she did. Somehow, I think Hillary Clinton is enough of a badass that she is still saying, Bring it on, boys!

The overt sexism aimed at Clinton and multiple well-respected backers (Gloria Steinem, Madeline Albreit, and Dolores Huerta) could backfire and solidify her base of… ahem… women of a certain age (like me) who have personally  experienced sexism, wage discrimination, verbal harassment, and sexual harassment. In the workplace and the classrooms, we have been coached not to ask questions or appear too aggressive, while we watched our ideas stolen, discounted or not even considered because of our gender. We see our struggle… Peggy’s struggle… Mom’s struggle… playing out on the national stage in Hillary Clinton’s struggle as she tries to win an office for which women have never been considered.

As Craig said in a post earlier this week on Blog for Arizona, we all have our hot button issues. For me, it’s women’s equality. Women are under attack statewide and nationwide. The attacks against Clinton are just symptomatic of the attacks against women as a group. Vaginal ultrasound. Pregnancy before intercourse. Fetal personhood. Absurd over-regulation of women’s health clinics, resulting in mass closures. Cuts in Food Stamps, public education, unemployment, childcare subsidies and other social safety net programs. An entire political party voting against equal pay. Anti-abortion bills that result in premature death! No other group is suffering from a systematic governmental assault on multiple levels. Their goal is further suppression of women’s rights, women’s voices, women’s education, and women’s votes. Women will never have equality without the Equal Rights Amendment, paycheck fairness, equal representation in government, and control over our own bodies. American women need a Warrior Woman to fight for the 51%. Hillary Clinton will fight for women and families, and that is why she has my vote.

It’s time for women to break the thickest glass ceiling in the world– the US Presidency. #ImWithHer #MadamPresident

Happy International Women’s Day.



  1. You state:
    No one cares that Clinton has more experience than anyone else running for president; her qualifications and ideas are ignored, discounted or just “not considered”
    I believe there is another candidate that has more experience, John Kasich, but most people do not know this since he never gets camera time on the debates.
    I agree with most of your article, but you can’t talk about the pink collar ghettos, without recognizing Ms. Clintons’ own attack on working women. Or her comments about stay at home moms. She seems to think that women should vote for her just because she is a women. There are other countries that have had women, and it is time for us to as well. Just maybe one with less baggage.

  2. I have a mother, sister, daughter, and a wife, and I agree that our history of and current environment of sexism is a stain on this country.

    I want to see a woman as POTUS, most other first world countries have had women in charge.

    But there are legitimate reasons for someone to vote against Clinton that have nothing to do with her gender.

    Her vote for war in Iraq, which led to the rise of ISIS, over 4000 dead American soldiers and a hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, the damage and death brought to Libya, something led by Madam Secretary, cannot be overlooked.

    We don’t understand war in the US, because we don’t fight our wars here. Her actions in the middle east as Sec of State are something that I do not consider commendable, and my country acting like the Soviets in the 1980’s is horrifying.

    And yes, I do hold men accountable for Iraq as well, and every other “conflict” where we’ve killed people in other countries for profit. I’d pay for a front row seat to see Bush/Cheney/Rice and the lot locked up in Gitmo, right next to HRC’s BFF Henry Kissinger.

    We should not forgive war crimes or the people who supported them just because we don’t see the blood or because “other people did it too”.

    Her ties to Wall Street, which does more damage to this country than ISIS ever could, should be alarming to anyone who can remember as far back as 2008.

    I was with HRC until Bernie stepped up. And Bernie’s made it clear he stepped up because of Clinton’s war record and her ties to Wall Street.

    I agree this is still a sexist country, but please do not paint anyone who doesn’t support HRC in the primaries as sexist.

  3. Great article, as a man I’ve been surprised by the lack of support from woman for Hillary. Hopefully that will change once she gets the nomination.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful article. It is past time for Madam President.

  5. “As Craig said in a post earlier this week on Blog for Arizona, we all have our hot button issues. For me, it’s women’s equality. Women are under attack statewide and nationwide. The attacks against Clinton are just symptomatic of the attacks against women as a group.”

    What they do to women today. Tear apart their families in the broken Family Court. Discard the women in prison. Fastest growing group in the mass industrial prison complex. Wake up, folks. If you think this is not about you, think again. Arizona this is broken YOUR justice system!

    “A Broken Justice System: The Case of Courtney Bisbee”

    “A Broken Justice System – Cases in Point – Part 2 – The Case of Courtney Bisbee” by Phil Locke | Wrongful Convictions Blog 10/01/15

    “Courtney Bisbee Case – Redux (Sentencing)” by Phil Locke | Wrongful Convictions Blog 10/05/16

    “Courtney Bisbee Granted Evidentiary Hearing!” by Phil Locke | Wrongful Conviction Blog 10/18/16
    Her Writ of Habeas response by Judge David Duncan (2-days in federal court, U.S. District Court of Arizona)

    Over 178,100 supporters sign petition to FREE COURTNEY BISBEE, “HELP FREE AN INNOCENT MOM” | Maricopa County, AZ

    1,743 Exoneratons! The National Registry of Exonerations – Exoneration Registry 2/22/16

    Criminal Law 2.0, by The Hon. Alex Kozinski (Why the US Justice System Really Isn’t Just)” by Phil Locke | Wrongful Convictions Blog

  6. Excellent article! Yes, “It’s time for women to break the thickest glass ceiling in the world– the US Presidency. #ImWithHer #MadamPresident …”

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