- Single Girls and Working Women:Gender, Power, and Feminism in American History and Culture
Since 2007, AMC’s acclaimed television series Mad Men has captivated audiences with its gripping portrayal of men and women in a 1960s New York advertising firm. Through such characters as Don Draper, the consummate adman whose own persona is a carefully calibrated lie, and Joan Holloway, the office vixen whose appearance and demeanor are skillful projections of femininity and sex appeal, Mad Men highlights gender difference while literally showcasing the performative nature of gender. In its depiction of Joan and another character, Peggy Olsen, both unmarried at the beginning of the series, Mad Men also explores the gendered nature of the obstacles and opportunities faced by these ambitious “single girls.” Peggy’s start as a secretary is marked by a dawning impression that success will come from appealing sexually to her male boss; later, she secures a job as a copywriter due to her status as a woman better able than men to pitch products to female consumers. Joan uses her sexual power to curry favor with male bosses, but finds that her considerable intellectual abilities draw less notice. She ultimately rises to become an ad-agency partner, but only after being pressured into sleeping with a prospective client to win an account. For both characters, a woman’s role in the workplace and her access to power is inextricably tied to her gender and sexuality. As a period [End Page 176] drama exploring the workplace culture of Madison Avenue and the personal lives of its characters, Mad Men entertains as it conjures and comments on gender dynamics and sex norms of the 1960s. It also assumes a place in a long history of cultural imaginings about female singlehood and sex and power in the American office.
The four books under review here help make sense of the popular appeal of a program such as Mad Men, while also historicizing its themes.1 Together, these works address cultural narratives about gender, sexuality, and work, and probe the experiences of a range of working women including secretaries, stewardesses, and financiers. They explore such important developments as the emergence of a widespread women’s movement that helped to identify and combat gender discrimination. These works also point to striking continuities over time. For instance, both in and out of the workplace, female sexuality has routinely been problematized as a source of woman’s peril or her dangerous power. Within the workplace, a woman’s status has historically been bound by her gender, a fact that has not only shaped women’s lot as workers but also fueled debates about gender equality and difference. Taken together, these works also reveal important connections between cultural representations, gender ideology, and lived experience. Finally, these authors demonstrate links between female workforce participation and an incipient feminist consciousness. At the same time, they illuminate the hesitancy on the part of some working women to embrace the women’s movement, even as it helped open doors in the workplace or provided new ways to understand old problems.
Julie Berebitsky examines how Americans have imagined, experienced, and understood sexual encounters in the office since women first entered the white-collar workplace in the nineteenth century. Exploring “a wide spectrum of sexual interaction,” Berebitsky argues that “Americans have seen coercive and unwanted sexual encounters as merely one dimension of the larger sexual culture of the office” (4). Thus feminists’ identification of “sexual harassment” in the 1970s...