Just think how many women are main characters in the show. There’s Peggy, Joan and Betty. Of course there are lots of others but these three really stake out the feminine mystique in the early 1960’s.
First, there is Joan—that beautiful and curvaceous woman, who has all the men panting! She is, in effect, the office manager. Her responsibilities include ensuring the smooth running of the secretarial pool. She’s somewhere in her early thirties and for much of the series to date, unmarried.
Think about women in the 1950’s and 1960’s. They had limited access to the workforce except in a few areas, such as secretarial, nursing and teaching. Those were proper jobs for women and the only ones really available. The idea was that you supported yourself somehow until you found a husband—preferably a real catch—at least in financial terms.
In the 1930’s my own mother, a teacher, was faced with a rule. As soon as she married, she had to leave the profession! I believe that during the depression, the thinking was that a woman should not deprive a man of a job if she were supported.
What does Joan want? When she marries her doctor boyfriend, she has a way out. She doesn’t really want to work and no self-respecting husband would ever permit that. She wants a husband, a home and a family. I realize that the word permit is undoubtedly out of date and thankfully so.
But in the meantime, Joan has survived the behaviour which would be considered sexual harassment today and dealt with severely. She believes she truly knows what men are like and her place in the scheme of things. To an extent, she does. But she’s the woman who survives by being seductive. That’s how she manages. Who can blame her? She knows she can get almost any man eating out of her hand. That’s the way she deals with the world. Just think of the advice she’s given Peggy Olsen in the first two seasons—to stop dressing like a little girl.
But do you remember that episode in which Harry Crane, newly-minted head of the television department, asks Joan in desperation if she will read some scripts for TV for product placement? She’s delighted with the work and gets right into it. Something new and exciting for her! She thinks if she does a good job, she will be valued for her true abilities. And then within a few weeks, Harry has hired a man to do the work. She’s standing before his desk and you can see that moment of disappointment in her face when he tells her she won’t be doing that work anymore. For Joan, there was that moment where she thought she had some interesting and engaging work, in which she could explore her abilities. But Harry gave it to a man without a second’s thought or understanding! What did it matter? Her husband didn’t want her working anyway. That pain was part of women’s experience at the time.
I remember well. When I began practising law in 1973, a female lawyer would never admit she could type. If she did, she would be pressured into the role of part time secretary by the men in the office. Fortunately, I was hopeless at typing.
So Joan is the working woman of the 1940’s and 1950’s—putting in time until she could catch a husband. She’s diametrically opposed to Peggy.