Mad Men, the new, slick, stylish show, that epitomizes a time when Playboy
was the ultimate in sophistication, offers up a view of how women in the
office were treated that would give today's HR rep a heart attack, has
helped me relate to -- of all people -- my mother.
The show, about a Madison Avenue advertising agency, just debuted three
weeks Thursday, and I'm already a loyal viewer. And, at 11:01, as soon as I
finish watching it, I frantically call my mom for clarification and a
history lesson. My part of the conversation usually begins with, "Did you
see what he did/said to her and could that really have happened?"
I've never considered myself much of a feminist -- I'm not not a feminist -- but
with the exception of a media job or two where the old school behavior
induced more eye rolls than HR calls, today, for the most part, there really
hasn't been an overwhelming reason to go out and burn my La Perla.
But I'm floored by the antics in Mad Men and the entitlement of the men in
the office and the combination of resignation (boys will be boys) and
if-we-can't-fight-it-let's-work-it-to-our-advantage attitude on the part of
Was it really like that?
Yes and no, according to my mother.
Her situation was a little different from that of the women on the AMC show.
She didn't work in an ad agency and she wasn't a secretary. She worked in a
Wall Street law firm whose founder thought he was being "very modern and
progressive" by hiring a woman. (My mother had graduated from Columbia law
school, where her boss, once a poor Irish kid when that wasn't exactly a
fashionable thing to be, had graduated from on scholarship so he was eager
to give someone else from Columbia a chance. And, if I may be allowed to do
a little bragging here, she at 20 (!) was known at the time as the second
youngest graduate of the school. Roy Cohn was the first.)
So, here's what she told me. She was hired as a lawyer -- the firm's first
female lawyer -- and for the most part, the eleven other attorneys in the firm
were supportive. The clients, not all so much. On several occasions, my
mother was asked by her boss to sit with the secretarial pool so as not to
upset the clients that a female lawyer was working on staff.
She was also the only Jewish person working there as a lawyer; a fact that
her boss pointed out, kind of a proud of himself for hiring someone Jewish
and a woman (a two-fer!). "Here's my little Jewish worker" is how, beaming,
he would introduce my mother to the clients who were more "progressive"
My mom's reaction? She wasn't thrilled, but what could she do? She knew she
was lucky even to have her job. The Mad Men types who she would see as she
headed into work from the train in Larchmont -- she lived at home for her first
few years after law school; she was, after all, twenty when she
graduated -- were amazed that she was taking the train into town with them, and
not waving goodbye to a husband waiting on the platform. They kind of looked
at her as a curiosity. When it was printed in the paper the next year that
she was admitted to the New York City Bar (one had to be 21) people she
hardly knew came up to her to congratulate her; the fact that she, as a
young woman, had made it was a big deal.
Often the women who graduated from law school (and there were only six in
her class out of three hundred) had difficulty landing a job in their field.
The thinking was that the women wouldn't "fit into the culture of the firm."
This was known throughout the school. And, while I don't know this for a
fact, she told me for years that she thought this was the case with one such
woman older she knew of at Columbia: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who upon
graduating at the top of her class worked as a research associate at
Columbia Law School.
But my mother's tenure at the Wall Street law firm did not last for long.
Within a year, one of the married associates, whom she barely knew, told
their boss that my mother was sending him unsolicited love letters (what
today we would call stalking). This crazy allegation came out of the blue,
and despite protestations ("I'm dating a single Jewish doctor, why would I
want to send married Mr. ___ letters??), and lack of evidence, she was shown
the door. "I'm sorry to have to do this," her boss told her sincerely, "but
we can't afford to have any 'trouble' here."
Such was the late 1950s for professional women.
(My mom didn't do too badly -- after working in retail for a while at Saks to
pay the bills as the world of Wall Street law firms was now shut for her -- she
went on to open a very successful private practice.)
But Mad Men has made me understand my mother's perspective and attitude -- just
be grateful that you have a job, in an industry you like -- something that we
have clashed about over the years. How lucky, I am, I realize to live and
work at a time when we don't have to put up with the things that her
generation did. The funny thing is, though, she says she wouldn't trade her
experiences then for anything: "What would be the fun in achieving something
that is so easy to get?"