Gender Politics

The Times They Are A-Changin’ for the “Mad Men” of Sterling Cooper

But how are Joan, Peggy, Sally, Megan, and Dawn faring amid the cultural revolution? We assess their power rankings.

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We’ve long known that it’s the women of Mad Men who rule the show—even if the male characters don’t seem to have gotten the memo. That’s never been more clear than it is this season, set in 1969, a famously tumultuous year when the American conservatism represented by new president Richard Nixon clashed with the other cultural forces swirling about: Civil Rights, Women’s Lib, the Sexual Revolution, the anti-war movement, rising crime, the end of the Beatles, the Moon Landing, Woodstock. And in the first two episodes of the show’s final season, the cultural shifts are on full display as patriarchal forces (Don and Roger) crumble, and the promise of a rise of female power (Sally, Joan, and Dawn). Being a woman, then, as now, is a constant power struggle: Watch as Megan sucks up to her creepy new agent or Peggy fight to be heard by her new boss, Lou Avery. The times, are they a-changing? Or a-backsliding? Or both? 

Let’s take stock of the fortunes of our favorite women — and the men who love, live, and work with them.


1. Sally

Don’s troubled daughter is the only one who knows all of his truths, from his affair with the neighbor to his childhood in a brothel to his current leave from the agency. (Of course, in the complex world of Mad Men, Don got the boot for telling one of his truths—but, as he noted to Sally this week, at the wrong time.) She gets the top spot on this list for having such power over our tragic hero—how about that Valentine’s Day “I love you” kiss-off?—for continuing to hold secrets that could end his marriage, for being so obviously over her silly boarding-school classmates, and for being show creator Matthew Weiner’s true muse (according to this Rolling Stone interview) as he winds down his television masterpiece.



2. Joan

Our favorite SC&P partner engaged in a string of power struggles with various men in the first two episodes, and, so far, she seems to have emerged victorious. Ken treated her as if she were still a secretary, but sent her to an important client meeting in his stead anyway. And she saved the account, despite the condescension of the baby-faced client, and now after all these years, she finally gets what’s hers: an “account man’s” office. She’s still reliant upon the war of egos between two men, Roger and Jim, to get her due. But here’s to hoping she can finally focus on the job she was meant to have, reeling in accounts, instead of dealing with the insecurities, racism, and sexism that can all come out in a petty game of secretarial musical chairs. She deserves to be treated like the partner she is, but that still seems like a far-off dream.


3. Megan

Mrs. Draper made a slo-mo entrance in the season premiere, looking hot in a micro-mini-dress and a convertible so tiny that, significantly, hubby Don barely fit in it. She’s got a smarmy agent who wants her to get her teeth fixed, but she’s also got a callback for a network show. Though she’s pretending to be “bicoastal” with Don, it’s pretty clear that “their” Los Angeles home is all hers as she warns him not to flick his cigarette ashes outside and tells him not tear the ads out of her magazines—and hits the roof when he presumptuously buys her a huge new TV. Then again, she’s also living a life eerily parallel to that of actress Sharon Tate, who was brutally murdered by Charles Manson in the very hills where Megan is living alone in late 1969. An awful lot of signs point to Megan’s possible imminent demise, which would pack an awful symbolic punch for women wanting to strike out on their own.


4. Dawn

We saw not one, but two, women of color—Dawn and her co-worker Shirley—in a real storyline for the first time on Mad Men ever with Lou, Peggy, and Bert engaging in their ridiculous bickering about which secretary goes where. They even got to have an entire scene to themselves (brilliantly swapping names while they gossip in the kitchen, an inside-joke reference, no doubt, to their white bosses mixing them up). Better yet, the episode ended with Joan bequeathing her office-manager job to Don’s former “girl,” Dawn looking as satisfied at that new desk as Peggy was when she took over Don’s office at the end of last season. Lesson: Everyone wins when Joan moves up.



5. Pete

For our boy Pete, to answer his question from the second episode, “I don’t know if it’s heaven or hell or some kind of limbo, but I don’t seem to exist.” Well, sir you exist in limbo. And for the moment, it’s not the worst place, not when he’s living in the California sun, among blonde realtors, and sweaters slung casually over the shoulder. Too bad he can’t keep that speaker phone connection with the New York office or get them to stop talking about needing approval from that damn Bob Benson after Pete’s just brought in a huge new account. Plus ça change. As much as he talks about starting his own agency, it doesn’t seem like he can shake the urge to garner SC&P’s respect. At least not yet.



6. Ken  

Poor guy can’t get any help with his work, and, thanks to that eye patch, can’t even throw an earring straight. He looks like he’s on his way to the land of the broken men so many of the other characters already inhabit. While he used to content himself with his writing career, in this new regime, he’s now too overwhelmed to extricate himself from the day-to-day frustrations.


7. Ted

Well, California sure doesn’t agree with Peggy’s former lover. My God, the man doesn’t even appreciate the beauty of picking an orange right off the tree in the middle of winter! Maybe he needs a sweater like Pete’s. Or, you know, the love of a good woman who isn’t his wife. We know a good one back in New York who could use some flowers.


8. Peggy  

We had such high hopes for Peggy at the end of last season, watching her survey the world from Don’s office like the Khaleesi taking in her vast army of freed slaves. She could get back to that place and rise like she’s meant to, but for now, as she fights with her tenants’ kids about clogged toilets, struggles to win the respect of this new dud of a boss, and obsesses over her secretary’s Valentine’s Day flowers, it’s no wonder she’s breaking down into sobs. To get ahead, she’s becoming just like the men who run the place, but without the support system decades of patriarchy affords them (like inherent respect and a wife to cook dinner). Meanwhile, new boss Lou Avery is treating her like none of her hard-won accomplishments over the past decade mean a thing. Then again, that’s why there’s still plenty of hope for her: She rose through layer upon layer of sexism before, so there’s a good chance she can do it again.



9. Don

He’s been put out to pasture by his agency. His wife barely wants to sleep with him—and that’s without knowing of his recent affair or his “leave.” The fact that his daughter and wife are at the top of this list while he’s at the bottom says it all. So did that wrenching final premiere scene of him breaking down, drunk, on his frigid balcony. That said, he seems to be bottoming out. He’s ghostwriting great copy and taking meetings with other agencies. He had a breakthrough in his relationship with his daughter, the one person in the world who really knows him. He doesn’t have quite as much “power” as Roger still does at the agency, but his fall could be just the thing to finally turn him around.



10. Roger

Roger’s personal life is even more disastrous than Don’s: When he’s not at the office, he’s lying around in his nest of free love and guzzling vodka at brunch with his estranged daughter (who seems to be zoned out on cult life). And it does seem as if Jim’s gaining on him at the office by, among other things, recognizing Roger’s baby mama, Joan, for the executive she truly is. Hey, at least he made it to the office this week, which was a step up from last episode. As if Pete, Joan, and Don didn’t have enough trouble, they’ve also found out what good Roger is as an ally in the partners meeting … that is, no good at all. Roger is the fallen old guard. 


11. Sterling Cooper & Partners

Lou Avery’s a champion of mediocrity. Roger’s seemingly divested and certainly checked out. Bert’s racist and moribund. What’s going on here? Take those meetings, Don.


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