Mad Women, Not Mad Men

On TV, the seeds of a revolution.

In October 1959, the golden-haired poet Sylvia Plath dreamed that Marilyn Monroe appeared to her, like a “fairy godmother,” and gave her a manicure, hairdressing advice, and an invitation to visit at Christmas. Four years later, both women were dead. Others followed. Monroe’s death, according to Time’s obituary, was “the trigger of suicides in half a dozen cities.”

The years that preceded the onset of the second-wave women’s movement were marked by a strange kind of private violence and turmoil. While suicides were still rare, between 1960 and 1970 the number of American women who took their own lives increased by 32 percent. More commonly, there was a deep frustration, restlessness, and resentment many women tried to articulate to spouses, doctors, and therapists—as Betty Friedan put it, a “problem that had no name.” This problem was often treated with drugs, alcohol, psychotherapy, and, at its extreme, electroconvulsive therapy. Psychologists argued about why more women were considered mentally ill than men, why more were drugged and institutionalized. In her bestselling book Women and Madness, Phyllis Chesler argued that women’s anger, or rebellion, was frequently misdiagnosed as sickness.

Which is why I often wonder, as we watch another gripping season of Mad Men, now set in 1965, why it isn’t called Mad Women. In the early 1960s, men’s rebellious or indulgent behavior may have been destructive and odd, but it was seen as normal, or at least explicable, while women’s was stigmatized or pathologized. And these women are getting mad. We can see the beginnings of the women’s movement in the flashes in the eyes of the female workers, lovers, and spouses—the hurt look on Don’s secretary’s face when he gives her an envelope of cash for her Christmas bonus the morning after he slept with her. We see it when Joan throws a box of roses at a boss she thought had professed his love for her, crying, “I am not your darling.” She hates, she says, being made to feel like “a helpless, stupid little girl.” And we see it in Peggy’s regret and loneliness as she lies in bed with a man who thinks he “took” her virginity (ignoring again her gynecologist’s warning not to become a “strumpet”). Men slept around with little consequence. If women like Peggy did, it was scandalous and scarring.

And we see what Friedan called a “strange stirring,” especially in the beautiful, bored housewife Betty Draper and her dull anxiety, buried fury, halfhearted attempts to conform, and brittle, harsh mothering. She drinks in the daytime, sleeps with a stranger, and seems unable to fathom her own unhappiness. When the series began, her hands shook inexplicably; she saw a therapist, who reported back to her husband.

The anger of the women of Mad Men has simmered throughout the series; yet while today we can pick up their cues and wince at their slights, or abuse, at the time they would have been dismissed as suffering from neuroses or bad temper. As Lisa Appignanesi wrote in Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors, by the end of the 1950s “defiance, unruliness, disobedience were characteristics [therapists] translated all too readily into the language of illness.” Mad Men is set on the cusp of a time when anger becomes rage. When women realized they weren’t insane, or hysterical—they were mad. And that they weren’t alone in being belittled, fondled, cheated on, abused, and, in Joan’s case, raped. (In 1963 it was still legal to rape your wife.) In 1960, nine out of every 1,000 women had divorced; by 1980, 22 had, and 60 percent of married women worked.

All this is worth remembering because in so many abstract, judgmental debates about women today, we forget the madness and acute frustration of generations past—as well as what remains the same. Sure, the show’s sexism can be funny—when it’s clearly retro, witty, and overt. Roger says, “When God closes a door, he opens a dress,” and we laugh. But when Don says, “I won’t let a woman talk to me this way,” it’s more revealing than funny, because it still rings true. When Mad Men’s women hear Monroe has died, they grieve. Joan tells Roger: “This world destroyed her.” In a way, her death in ’62 marked the end of a time of mute, tragic victims and the beginning of an era when women began to speak, loudly, and refused to be the strumpets and “stupid little girls” too easily dismissed, or destroyed, by the world. Today feminism is scapegoated for many ills and depicted as anti-mother. We forget how much, in fact, it helped keep our own mothers—all of us—sane.