“Mad Men” Actresses Reluctant to Call Peggy and Joan Feminists

This season, Mad Men is set in 1968, a time of powerful and exciting organizing in the U.S. feminist movement—while the fictional Madison Avenue advertising crew scribbles out new taglines for headphones, it was the year feminists took to the streets to protest the Miss America pageant.

The show is distinguished for its portrayal of ambitious, complex female protagonists. Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway, among Mad Men’s many women, figure out how to make their own way in the male-dominated corporate world of New York advertising. The audience is meant to root for these women as they slog through rampant sexism, make personal choices good and bad, and deal with the everday feminist issues of trying to build both respected identities and stable finances for themselves.

The actresses who play these characters, however, are reluctant to characterize them as feminists. 

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly this week, Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy, and Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan, the two disagreed with suggestions that their characters could be deemed feminists, even though they have feminist qualities. 

Peggy, for example, worked her way through constant humiliations and brush-offs from her male colleagues to be taken seriously as a copywriter, disappointing her conservative mother. But that doesn’t make her overtly political—even when talking about overcoming gender barriers in her job path, Peggy seems career-driven, not concerned about a movement. As Moss says of her, “She’s not a revolutionary, and she’s not going to be like burning her bra anytime soon. I think she doesn’t care. She doesn’t care about politics unless it relates to her job. She’s not going to be a hippie.  She’s a professional woman.” 

Moss’s remark reflects the misguided opinion that feminists—then and now—are hippie chicks protesting in the streets and burning their bras.  The author of The Feminine Mystique, lest we forget, was a suburban housewife, not a reefer-smoking flower child. 

Joan, similarly, is a confident character who is certainly concerned with building new personal and career opportunities for herself, though she doesn’t seem to be devoted to a broader movement for women’s empowerment. Joan watches out for herself and demands to be taken seriously.  “Some people have called her a feminist but I would not,” says Hendricks. “I think she knows that she deserves to be treated in a certain way, but her methods are not technically what you would call ‘feminist.’ Maybe now you would, but I don’t think you would have at the time.” 

However one chooses to define a feminist, I think the fact that both Peggy and Joan demand to be treated with respect by men in an age when most middle-class women were expected to be homemakers displays a feminist way of thinking.  

Based on my personal experiences in the entertainment industry, I could understand if Moss and Hendricks are reluctant to be known for playing “feminist” characters. There’s an industry-wide aversion to the term “feminist.”  In Hollywood it’s a word that still carries negative connotations.  Once, I mentioned to a friend who’s the director of a modeling agency—a nice guy with two daughters—that I work part-time for an organization that empowers women.  To this day he occasionally asks me if I’m still working for “that lesbian group.”  He asks in a joking, friendly tone, of course, but his choice of words shows the lack of regard and a limited awareness of the diversity of women’s empowerment among people in showbiz. 

Established female performers like Amy Poehler and Beyoncé have enough clout at this point to say essentially anything without fear of hurting their careers, and the two have publicly stated that they’re feminists. People lower on Hollywood’s ladder, however, who still have to hustle to get good roles, often feel they need to step carefully at the risk of being pigeonholed. 

This all boils down to the same recurring issue Mad Men deals with: In the media world, it can still be dangerous to be considered a feminist.

Photo credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC  

Check out our recaps of Mad Men’s sixth season!

by Yoonj Kim
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19 Comments Have Been Posted


That last line is key. I'm a little disappointed in what I see as Elisabeth Moss's lack of insight into her character - I can't help assuming that Peggy's hooking up with Abe, a political and social activist, and those inklings of political awakening that I remember seeing in Peggy last season were meant to lead somewhere meaningful for her character - but maybe Moss is being deliberately disingenuous. She is an actress 'lower on Hollywood's ladder', so I guess protecting her career is more important than having a nuanced political view of her character (on the record, anyway). Pretty sad.

Moss' Lack of Insight (re: Peggy Olsen)

I'd say Matt Weiner is the only being on earth that has GREATER insight into the Peggy Olsen character.

But, the rest of your comment is well-taken. Journalists in general, more particularly American journalists, and even more specifically entertainment reporters can not be trusted to get it right - especially about your politics.

The "feminist" term has for many years been hijacked by extremists - some of which are so intolerant that they have muzzled free-speech by university professors (and gotten some of them fired).

Of course Moss does not want to be associated with such intolerance.

Plus, as you so ably pointed out, she is low on the Hollywood ladder - that community has it's own special brand of intolerance - better not to arouse any of that.

The individual vs. the greater good

Thanks for the article! I have to disagree a little bit, as I would not call Peggy nor Joan feminists either--and I think that's OK. I think a big part of being a feminist is looking out for other women and supporting other women to get ahead. To me, Peggy and Joan are as ambitious as hell (awesome!) but they're out for their own success, not other women in the office. I'm sure it was a reality for many women at the time who really had to focus only on herself to get ahead and leave the politics behind (It still is in some workplaces and career fields today).

I think the show would suffer a bit if any one of them was an activist. The show is so much about being alone and the costs of that individualist, consumer culture, and that's part of its tragedy, and the tragedy of these women NOT being part of the movement that could give them more tools to dismantle the master's house so to speak.


I agree with this comment. Peggy and Joan are both ambitious women, but ambitious women do not necessarily feminists make. To me, feminism indicates not simply a belief that I, as an individual women, can get ahead, but a dedication to the good of women as a collective-- a dedication to making it easier for not just me, but for all women to get ahead.

By that measure, Peggy does not strike me as a feminist. She has enough confidence in herself to build a career and stand up to her male colleagues, but she doesn't seem to be particularly conscious of any connection between what she goes through, and the predicament of other women. In fact, she seems to refuse the idea that what she faces is a collective problem with a collective solution: her attitude is more "I did it on my own, so other women can singlehandedly claw their way up to the top, too."

Joan is certainly not a feminist. A strong woman, yes. But she also refuses alliances with other women, and does not see it as her job to help them along. That, plus part of the major conflict of Joan's character is that she is a strong-minded, ambitious woman who likes her career, but she judges herself by very traditional standards, and finds herself inadequate by those standards. Remember how crestfallen she was when the other women in the secretarial pool found out she was-- gasp!-- 30 and unmarried. Remember how we all suffered through watching her enter into her disastrous marriage, and her equally disastrous attempts to be a housewife. She may be doing things that some feminists find inspirational, but her values are not feminist at all.


You said everything I was thinking! Thanks!

Agree completely! Well said!

Agree completely! Well said! You can have a feminist reading of a text without feminist characters in that text!!

By the way, Elisabeth Moss has said previously,

"She's a different kind of feminist. She's the one who works really hard, and concentrates on her job, and wants to move up in the world of her business. And her progressiveness and her brand of feminism — it comes in probably a bit of a more realistic way, you know? Those were the women — there were more of those women than were the hippies who burned bras and picketed. Those women were the ones who were actually, you know, going in and asking for equal pay, and asking for equal rights, and demanding to be treated better in the workplace." (Page Six)

I think it's actually Moss getting a better understanding of the fact that Peggy's consistent marginalization of other women in the office does not necessarily a feminist make, (despite Peggy's impressive career success).

Being vs. acting

So, I can't disagree with Elizabeth Moss or Christina Hendricks. Their characters haven't identified themselves as feminist though both characters have made decisions and undertaken actions that are feminist-principled.

But does making decisions and acting in ways that harken to feminist principles make one a feminist?

I think that women then, before then, and now, have HAD to act make decisions and act in feminist-principled ways to survive. I'm sure Peggy and Joan are emblematic of a lot of women, not self-professed feminists, who daily acted in feminist ways, made feminist-principled decisions, to pay their bills and keep their heads up.

It would be great if Matthew Weiner had Peggy or Joan or any major character realize their feminism. But, I wonder if most women had the time. I wonder if Weiner has the balls. :)

Betty Friedan's book is

Betty Friedan's book is titled The *Feminine* Mystique. Also, Mad Men is a period piece. As previous commenters have observed, Joan and Peggy certainly highlight a host of gender-based injustices endemic to the 1960's, but so far they are operating wholly outside of the Women's Liberation Movement (as it was called at the time) and therefore labeling the characters "feminist" is anachronistic. So, I disagree that the actress's denial of the term is a repudiation of feminism as a movement-- it just doesn't happen to accurately capture their respective characters's motivations. We'll see if that changes in the next season or so!

I think Joan's character has

I think Joan's character has really evolved. She's always loved work and wanted to be professionally successful, but early in the series she viewed marriage to a man with status as "everything." But she's realized her own marriage wasn't everything to her. This was very much illustrated in the episode where she confided in Lane about missing work, and he comforted her and said he understood that home was important but not everything. So I see her character as coming around to a more feminist perspective.
Agree that the actresses seem to have a narrow view of what constitutes feminism. Peggy absolutely wants workplace quality, and one of the reasons she leaves for a different agency is because she is sick of being denied certain work because she's a woman.

Also, I do feel the corporate business world is sometimes more alienated from the feminist movement even though it very much has a lot to do with feminism, if that makes sense, so maybe that explains some of the disconnect. I mean, even today Sheryl Sandberg talking about feminism is a huge deal.

But anyways, I am glad the actresses bring these strong female characters to TV, even though they don't technically see them as feminist.

What's in a name.

It's called "The Feminine Mystique". Come on guys. Just a little attention.

Seriously! About half the

Seriously! About half the time I hear/read this book mentioned in the media this same mistake is made. Shocked to read it in Bitch.

I actually remember reading

I actually remember reading an interview with Elisabeth Moss in BUST from 2009 where she was asked if she thought Peggy was a feminist. This is what she said then (yes, I had to dig up the magazine!): "She's the utmost feminist. She represents the women who had no predecessors and nobody to follow. They were the first women to ever sit in the conference room with the men, the first to be allowed to present their ideas. I feel very proud and happy that I get to play that part of that era."
So I don't necessarily think she's afraid to be associated with playing a feminist character.


I read the question as whether or not the actresses felt the CHARACTERS thought of themselves as feminists, not if the actresses thought the characters were.

Anyway, I can't imagine either character being exposed to the early inklings of 2nd wave feminism at this point.

Joan is brilliant at her job but literally uses her body to advance professionally. Would we call that feminist action?

Peggy wants professional recognition but, as others said here, for herself only. She hasn't formed a union or helped any other secretaries with their creative pursuits or anything like that. And at her new job she is resorting to mimicking Don in her position of power - she thinks channeling masculinity will garner her respect. She is probably right for 1968, but it's not progressive.

Not all females with voices in male-dominated spheres who think they deserve respect are feminists. (i.e. Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, Phyllis Schlafly)

I am also crossing my fingers that at least one of the Mad (wo)Men will attend a consciousness-raising. Betty desperately needs to read The FeminINE Mystique. I also propose a spinoff when Sally goes to college in the early 70s - she's gonna be one angry young woman!

Top of the lake

Elisabeth Moss is currently in the Jane Campion short TV series Top of the Lake which is so strongly feminist, she plays a minority female cop in a misogynistic town where she was raped as a teenager and is trying to find a missing pregnant 12 year old girl. It is very female orientated and very feminist leaning, also stars Holly Hunter.

Campion TV Series

Is this being shown in the US?

Joan was born in 1931

That's what it says in Joan's bio on wiki. That would make her 36-37 years old during this season. I doubt many women that age (and occupation) thought of themselves as feminists in 1968.


Feminism was not really "full speed ahead" until the early 70s. Women involved in the anti-war movement noticed how they were relegated to 2nd class status and broke away in the early 70s to become activists in the new Feminist movement. Yes, this is true despite the Miss America protest in '68

I agree that feminism was not

I agree that feminism was not really full speed ahead until the early 70's. But a lot of the prep work was done in the 60's and Mad Man should show some of it.

Mad Men is very good at showing sexism and getting audiences to root for the female leads. But has done a terrible job of showing feminism. Mad Men could have had a scene where Betty or Joan sees a copy of The Feminine Mystique and ignores it. Mad Men could have had a scene where Joyce says she's going to a National Organization for Women (NOW) meeting and Peggy says it looks interesting but she doesn't have time for groups. Get the drift?

I think that Mad Men owes its audience an episode on a major 60's feminist event as much as it owed its audience an episode on the Martin Luther King assasination. You cannot cover the 60's without covering feminism.

What a huge sellout

Years ago, Matt Weiner admitted that Mad Men is a feminist show in the sense that the series displays what relationships between women and men were really like in the 60's. So why are the leading women of Mad Men trying to distance themselves from the word????? What is going on here???? Are they trying to get more men to watch the show?????

Someone needs to tell the leaders of Mad Men that without feminism, many of us would not watch the show. I was leery of Mad Men when the series premiered but decided to give the show a chance after Ms Magazine did a good writeup on it.

Sorry, but I will be VERY disappointed and will probably stop watching Mad Men if some of the women do not evolve into feminists. And I am not alone in my viewpoints. The Mad Men team is not doing itself any favors by shying away from feminism.

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