The women of Mad Men were each triumphant and tragic in their own way. They were triumphant over sexism, misogyny and other tragedies which befell them. The women fared better than the men and each in their own way found their own happy ending.
The most prominent female character is Betty Draper Francis, even though her scenes in the show dwindled when divorce from Don Draper became final. But because her character was such an embodiment of the era that every scene Betty Draper Francis told a deeper story. Betty Draper Francis was Don Draper’s first wife, and arguably first love for them both. Betty Draper was a typical woman of her time. She went to college more to find a husband than for scholastic reasons. Though her major was anthropology, she was never going to go to Papua New Guinea to study the aboriginal peoples there, she learned to speak Italian but that was to make herself more marketable in the marriage market. She is stunningly beautiful, in a Grace Kelly like manner (as she was repeatedly referred to in the show) and she can appear aloof and distant, which she attributes to her “nordic” roots. After college she did some modeling that’s how she met Don Draper, on a modeling shoot. He pursued her, wined and dined her, put a ring on her finger, they got married, got pregnant and moved to the suburbs in fairly quick succession. Betty Draper did what all good girls did of her generation, found a good man, got married and had children. Women who work after getting married is like an insult to her husband, indirectly implying that he can’t support his family with his income. Betty Draper did what she thought all good wives did, cooked for her husband, got dolled up before he got home and put the children to bed so that they won’t bother him after a long day’s work and kept the house in pristine order. She didn’t have any ambition outside of her home and she worked day and night to make her home, her children and herself as perfect as possible. Only until the end when she was dying of terminal lung cancer do we see Betty Draper disheveled in any way. Of course under all shiny facades lay unfulfilled desires, wishes, ambitions and dreams. If one doesn’t have a healthy outlet to express that, one becomes repressed, depressed and angry and this is the life trajectory of Betty Draper Francis. She was the embodiment of a life unfulfilled, the quiet oppression of a gilded but frivolous life took its toll on her. Though her life looked perfect on the outside, she smoked to excess and at times drank too much like many depressed and unfulfilled people do. And her unhappiness is compounded by an unfaithful husband, who was unsupportive and emotionally distant, only paying attention to her when he needed something from her.
Don Draper was not only unfaithful, but when he wasn’t sleeping with other women, he was so preoccupied with his own demons that he could not be a good companion to Betty. His betrayals were many, from talking to her psychiatrist behind her back about what she said in her sessions to lying about his identity. To give Don some credit, Betty wasn’t always easy to deal with, she could be petty, gossipy, jealous and childish. When she was angry with Don, which was often, she could be cutting and insulting in her remarks. Her natural aloofness can turn to ice cold with a stare. The death blow of the marriage came when Don Draper had an affair with the wife of a popular comedian that Sterling Cooper hired to promote one of their products. This affair was different in that it wasn’t discreet. The comedian knew that his wife was sleeping with Don Draper and told Betty Draper. This was one humiliation too many, it was one thing when the affairs were discreet but when others knew of it was too much for Betty.
Betty is ever resourceful when it came men, she already had a backup in place, her “life raft” as Don called it. She caught the eye of politician Henry Francis, who was divorced himself and promised to marry her when she divorced Don Draper. Henry Francis was madly in love with Betty and would never cheat on her. Betty’s feelings for Henry Francis was more complicated, it wasn’t the pure passionate love she felt for Don in her youth but she loved Henry in a deep way because Henry was kind to her and he made her smile again after so many years of misery. She promptly got divorced and married Henry Francis immediately after. Henry Francis was besotted with Betty and was never going to be unfaithful to her and he was prepared to put her needs and those of her children above his own. Betty in turn was a good and supportive wife to Henry. Henry was a decent and kind man, he wasn’t as handsome as Don Draper but every bit as polished and he was from a good family.
Betty soon found out that though she changed husbands, her last name and moved into an even larger and grander Victorian home, her own issues still remained. She still didn’t find an outlet for her creativity when she wasn’t being a wife or mother and soon turned to overeating to compensate and gained a lot of weight. When her mother-in-law hinted that she still had a man to please and can’t afford to be overweight, she lost the weight with the help with Weight Watchers and was back to slim self again. She thought that being a political wife and attending charities and ribbon cutting will bring meaning to her life, but she found all of that exhausting too.
By 1970 Betty decided to enroll in college to get her masters degree in psychology, she loved her studies and was on a path to self improvement and for the first time was happy and fulfilled. Henry stayed out of her way and let her do what she needed to do. But sadly that was not to last as that’s when she got her terminal lung cancer diagnosis. She met her end in a similar manner to Marie Antoinette, who was petulant, vain and frivolous for most of her life, but when her death sentence came in the form of her terminal lung cancer diagnosis, her strength and character emerged. While Henry was collapsing around her and wild with grief, she planned her end down to the last detail. Refusing any treatment she chose to live her last days attending her classes and living as normally as possible. She chose not to tell her children so to not alarm them but Henry told her daughter Sally and naturally Sally was the appointed mother figure to her two younger brothers. When Sally confronted her mother about not seeking treatment, Betty’s response was she didn’t want her to watch her die a slow painful death, like how she watched her own mother die. The last scene for Betty Draper Francis was her sitting at her kitchen table, smoking, her hair coiffed and makeup done with Sally doing the dishes.
Joan Harris is another central figure in the Mad Men Series, she started the series as the Head Secretary for Sterling Cooper, she was in charge of the army of secretaries and basically all the ‘girls’ that work in the office. She has flaming red hair, with tall and voluptuous frame. She was of a ‘certain age’ (over 30) and unmarried. Though on one hand she desperately wants to married and move to the suburbs and become a mother, she couldn’t quite give up her work either. She was unlucky in the love department though we are unsure if it’s by choice or by circumstance. She was in a long standing relationship with Roger Sterling who was married, though she loves him, she’s not comfortable with being a second wife. She and Roger Sterling were star crossed lovers of sorts, when he finally got divorced he went on to marry his 20 year old secretary and Joan was engaged to a doctor called Greg Harris. It was a relationship she settled for in hopes having children. The relationship was imbalanced and fraught from the beginning. Greg Harris was insecure in his manhood (literally and figuratively) because Joan worked with powerful and imposing men who made lots of money and had inkling that she was dating them before. So shortly before their wedding, he rapes Joan in Don Draper’s office as his sick way of getting even (though she never dated Don). Joan went ahead with the wedding out of practicality and never called him out on the rape. Joan Harris is different from the other women in that she operates from a place of practicality over love, nostalgia or sentimentality. When her husband’s career as surgeon failed to launch because of his poor test scores, it made him even more insecure and resentful, so he enlisted himself in army and went to Vietnam as an army doctor without consulting Joan. She was angry but overlooked it. When Greg was away she resumed her affair with Roger Sterling and accidentally became pregnant. Though Sterling was divorcing his younger second wife, Joan didn’t want to marry him while carrying his child. It looked like she was settling for sloppy seconds. So she passed off the baby as her husband Greg’s and called the little boy Kevin. Roger Sterling is aware that the little boy is his child but she refuses to allow him to formally recognize him. She’d prefer Kevin think that his father is a war hero. Again, this was done out of practicality and what’s best for everyone (according to Joan). She knew that eventually she and Greg will divorce and he’ll disappear and that’ll be the last he sees of his little boy so no need to create upset in the name of being honest. And she was right, Greg Harris did disappear, got remarried had twin girls with his new wife and never gave them a backwards glance.
The real tragedy of Joan Harris’s life is when her firm pimped her out to get the Jaguar account, the head of Jaguar Herb Rennet had a crush on Joan and said that he’ll give them the account if Joan agrees to sleep with him – just once. This alone is not shocking, but what’s shocking is the male partners of her firm actually thought that Joan should sleep with him, after all, she’s a woman with questionable morals. She was the long term mistress of Roger Sterling and she is divorced. Only Don Draper protested and said he’d rather lose the account than do that to Joan but the others weren’t so sure, even Roger Sterling didn’t even come to Joan’s defense and she was supposed to be the love of his life. In the end, Joan got herself a huge bonus and 10% non-silent partnership with the company. As angry as she was, as unedifying as it was, she was practical and thought of it as her way of securing her little boy’s future. The whole event was made more tragic by Joan’s practical and no-nonsense response to it. When she showed up to the next partner’s meeting (which was a cue that she went through with the ‘deed’) as a full partner of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, she wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed, she didn’t walk in with her head down, she looked everyone square in the eye, with a gaze that basically said, I am here and I am here to stay and dared anyone to slut shame her. She was unceremoniously pimped out, but she will stay to reap her reward. Joan never did have that happy ending with another man, but she was happy with the small business empire she created for herself. Since she was pimped out by her company and was awarded a 10% share, she’s received 3 pay outs and is wealthy woman in her own right. She thoroughly enjoyed her work and when she was in a position to not need to work, she found that she just couldn’t give it up, especially when there was money to be made. The thought of leaving money on the table killed her. She’d rather sacrifice a relationship with a man than her work. Her little boy Kevin is provided for not just by her but also by Roger Sterling, his biological father. He announced to Joan that he’s putting Kevin in his will and he’ll inherit half of his estate when he dies. Joan has also allowed contact between Roger Sterling and Kevin so that they can get a chance to know each other, though officially he’s still Greg Harris’s child. Roger is to never reveal his true identity to little Kevin.
Peggy Olson’s character is the the story that is most intertwined with all of the other characters. Peggy Olson starts out as a very plain nondescript secretary in Sterling Cooper, just another one of ‘the girls’. Compared with the other secretaries in the office, she was in dire need of a head to toe makeover and Joan Harris wasn’t shy to tell her about it. And even though she was so ‘plain’, it didn’t stop the men of the office making unwanted passes and advances at her. But even in her lack of physical appeal she had a backbone and a sort of self confidence that not even the formidable Joan Harris could take away. Early in her story, she unknowingly becomes pregnant with Pete Campbell’s child (a pre-wedding romp) and gives birth to a little boy, he was adopted by another family. She inexplicably becomes bigger and bigger and at the end of Season 1 she gives birth to a boy not realizing she was pregnant this whole time. At which time she ‘disappeared’ from Sterling Cooper after being promoted to copywriter along with a raise and it confounded Don Draper. So, he went looking for her and found her in some sort of a state sanitarium and in very poor mental state. Don tells her to “forget” the whole thing ever happened as that is the only way forward and to come back to work. Don personally guarantees her position and she comes back to Sterling Cooper thin and back to her normal self again. She never explained her absence, she just put her nose to the concrete and worked and worked and worked for the next 10 years. She had a gift with words and Don Draper took her under his wing, encouraged her and helped her along the way but not without a few nasty spats too. They never slept together, which is worthy to note since we are talking about Don Draper. Peggy is no looker compared to some of the other girls but she can clean up well. Peggy Olson is the one person that Don Draper helped, without expecting anything in return. As a result, they forged a close friendship, an innate understanding of each other and they quietly come to each other’s aid in various times of crisis.
Don Draper never spilled Peggy’s ‘secret’ and Peggy never discussed Don’s many indiscretions. If there is any redemption for Don Draper, it could be with Peggy Olson. Peggy never got to see the really bad side of Don Draper as that was not her experience with him, hence their final phone conversation of “what did you do that was so terrible?” to which he confessed all his sins, breaking his marriage vows, scandalizing his child and taking another man’s name and not making anything of it. Peggy finally did find happiness with her co-worker Stan but it came when she wasn’t looking, she had accomplished a lot for a young girl from Brooklyn who graduated from Miss Dever’s Secretary School. Her ‘relationship’ with Pete Campbell cooled to a professional working relationship and their secret love child was never discussed again after she told him of its existence. It was very telling in the end when Pete Campbell got back together with his ex-wife and moved to Wichita to work for LearJet, Peggy didn’t even bother to go his farewell lunch. Only the lecherous, aging and paunchy Harry Crane was there for Pete’s sendoff and one of his goodbye gifts was a cactus plant, very fitting of Pete Campbell’s prickly and unlikable personality.
The women of that era had goals, dreams and aspirations that were not just in the home. The women of 1960’s were often portrayed as housewives who were happy to be just be mothers and housewives but it’s just not true. The women of Mad Men didn’t “have it all” in the end. They had to make choices and sacrifices like all people do. But each main female character in the end reached their own happy ending which fit in the context of her life.