(Originally published in Nashville Scene, May 7, 2015)
For the past eight years, I’ve felt like I was spying on my mom. Not on “Honey,” the doting grandmother who lavishes affection and jelly beans on my kids and helps with homework at the kitchen table, but on a sassy and unwitting trailblazer who, whether she knew it or not, was paving the way for me in the workforce.
From the moment Mad Men debuted, something about it rang familiar. Something more than the fact that chain-smoking, silver-haired Roger Sterling — pre-mustache — was a ringer for my dad.
The whole mise-en-scène of a 1960s advertising agency reminded me of something I’d heard about, in bits and pieces, from my mom, who worked at J. Walter Thompson her first year out of college.
Her memories are clipped and vivid, like the best 15-second spots. The time she saw a secret screening of the first Ford Mustang commercial. The time she plucked an original Charles Schulz Peanuts cartoon from a wastebasket in the art department. The time she saw Walter Cronkite cry live on CBS. Intimate moments with iconic brands.
Mom set out to make it in NYC in 1963, almost a decade-and-a-half before Old Blue Eyes sang about it, which tells me that she was ahead of her time. But she would disagree.
“Did you think of yourself as a feminist?” I recently asked her.
“Oh, no,” she said, as if I were implying she would ever incinerate perfectly good lingerie. Then she added, “But I did read The Feminine Mystique.”
“Did you know at the time that advertising was the ‘It’ career of the era?”
“No. I just knew I wanted to be in advertising.”
Truth be told, Mom wanted to be a writer, but journalism was “too seedy.” Copywriting jobs at white-shoe firms such as J. Walter Thompson offered a sophisticated alternative for wordsmiths, if not exactly an easy path for women.
In fact, the dean of the journalism school at University of North Carolina explained to Mom that advertising firms would not recruit female students on campus. So, after graduation, Mom schlepped from Chapel Hill to Manhattan and finagled an interview — and ultimately a job — at the real-life rival to Mad Men‘s fictional Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
In her description, Mom did not play the leading-lady role in J. Walter Thompson’s Midtown office. She was neither Joan nor Peggy, though as we watch the show on Sunday nights she frequently swears she “wore that exact dress,” or hairstyle, or necklace. She’s quick to vouch for authenticity in Mad Men‘s wardrobe.
There are other details that ring familiar in Mom’s experience. Smoking. Casting cattle calls. Office decor. There was an entire department dedicated to the interior design of management’s workspaces. Remember when Roger’s office goes monochrome? That stuff happened, Mom says.
She points out a few differences between the venerable JWT and the upstart SCDP. Booze, for one. At JWT, even the Christmas party was dry. And the offices had metal gates for doors, which afforded security but not privacy, to prevent closed-door shenanigans.
So maybe there wasn’t as much sex as in Mad Men, but there was plenty of sexism.
Mom earned $73 a week to pay rent ($75 a month), travel (subway) and clothing (sleeveless wool dresses, circle pins, pearls). While she knew her take-home pay lagged behind that of her male colleagues, what really galled her was the fact that a fellow new hire of the opposite sex got to go straight into copywriting, while she had to take a yearlong copywriting course first. Problem was, Mom couldn’t enroll for another year.
Why not? Because she missed the first week of the course.
Why? Because she got hired after the other recent college grads.
Why? Because the recruiter wouldn’t interview women on campus. Oh, right.
Consequently, it would be two years before Mom got to write copy. Until then, she’d be sentenced to copying — literally, with carbon paper — the writing of men. And shopping for their wives’ presents and their babies’ clothes. She decided $73 a week wasn’t worth the wait. Or vice versa. She gave notice and got a job at a magazine, where women were prevalent. (A half-century later, Mom writes for Nfocus magazine.)
In her exit interview, Mom explained it all to the personnel rep.
“Why didn’t you complain?” the personnel rep asked.
Reasonable question. I mean, if I thought for one minute that some guy was climbing the ladder faster than I was just because of his junk, there’d be more than complaining. There’d be hold-onto-your-hat, hair-on-fire hell to pay.
But not for Mom.
“That’s just how it was,” she told me. “And I wasn’t used to complaining. I guess it was a life lesson.”
Like so much about the women in Mad Men, it’s hard for me to imagine things were like that for my mom. Then again, I know things are so different for me because of Mom and all those Mad Men women.