In Episode Nine of Season One, entitled “Shoot”, we see a tense exchange between Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) as she returns Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) dress that she previously borrowed from her. It seems this confrontation has been building up all season as Peggy and Joan have often disagreed on many things. Peggy and Joan represent two very different types of women, with different goals, and very different ideas about what constitutes success. These differences eventually lead to jealousy and cruelty—an unfortunate side effect of success for women in the workplace.
Throughout the season, Joan attempts to offer Peggy advice on how to attract a potential male suitor, and while her intentions are good, this advice does not particularly work out well for Peggy (case and point: her extremely awkward attempts at flirting with Don in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”). Despite Joan’s attempts, Peggy is more interested in advancing her career at Sterling Cooper than landing a husband, something Joan finds difficult to understand. Joan’s power comes from her sexuality and her power over men, and she believes, like many women did at the time, that finding a husband was the most important thing in a young woman’s life.
As a result of this, she tells Peggy that her recent weight gain will prevent her from “doing well” and finding herself a husband. Peggy retorts with a prideful look on her face, “I’m the first girl to do any writing in this office, since the war.” To which Joan replies somewhat confused “Writing? Is that what this is about? I thought you were only doing that to get close to Paul.” This quote is another example of historical references in Mad Men as Peggy mentions that she is the first female copywriter since the war, referring to the mass employment of women during World War II.
With many of the men overseas, women had to fulfill traditionally male roles in the work place, including the advertising world. Despite the massive gains for women during the war (financial independence, learning new skills, putting their education to work), it was largely seen as a “special situation” that would only last until the war was over and the need for labor diminished. At the end of the war, many women were forced to give up their jobs to make room for returning veterans, and return to their domestic roles. The 1950’s were a large step back for the progress of women—though we begin to see that change in the 1960s, and Peggy Olson is a prime example.
However, from this point Peggy and Joan’s conversation grows increasingly cruel, as they each point out the others shortcomings. Joan essentially tells Peggy that the reason she was able to work on accounts is because the wife of a client was not worried about Peggy’s involvement (insinuating she is not a threat because she is not attractive). Peggy becomes defensive and retorts, “You know, you’re not a stick…I know what men think of you—that you’re looking for a husband, and you’re fun. And not in that order.” Peggy’s expression then softens, and she tells Joan, “I just realized something…you think you’re being helpful” to which Joan replies, “Well I’m trying dear.”
This short exchange between Joan and Peggy may seem only indicative of their relationship with each other, but it represents the pressures and dynamics between women at the time (though things haven’t exactly changed much). Joan’s way of thinking is more traditional in the sense that she feels a woman’s ultimate goal should be to get married and quit her job. Peggy, on the other hand, is more progressive in her views. Peggy truly enjoys working and wants to advance her career at Sterling Cooper and chooses not to focus on finding a husband. The two women continue to put each other down, not being able to understand their differing mindsets. This trend of pressuring and putting each other down is something women have been doing a long time—often at the cost of the mutual advancement. One of the reasons feminist movements did not happen earlier is because women were often isolated, and would oppress and criticize each other (usually out of jealousy). One could interpret Joan’s ‘concern’ as thinly veiled jealousy, as she has been working at Sterling Cooper for a long time but has yet to receive a promotion, or a husband. Despite her jealousy, Joan does try to help Peggy, albeit in a condescending way, and as Peggy realizes this she feels less hurt by Joan’s criticism. Their relationship is a complex one and a result of the restrictive and contradictory environment for women in the early 1960s.