Reproduction & Abortion Week: Mad Men and The War on Women, 1.0

This is a guest post by Diana Fakhouri.

It’s not easy being a lady in the working world today. We’re still fighting for equal pay for equal work, freedom from workplace harassment, and the right to decide what grows (or implants itself) in our uteruses. In all honestly, it’s not terribly different from the drama unfolding at Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce every Sunday night, which is exactly the reason my baby boomer mother can’t stand Mad Men: “I lived it,” she says with exasperation, “why would I enjoy watching it over again?”

Do the liberal-arts educated, Anthropologie-clad millenials fawning over Betty Draper Francis’ silk scarfed bouffants see the irony my mom pointed out? As a card (or more accurately, BA) carrying member of the club, I’d like to say that we do. I’d be hard pressed to find a ladyfriend without a reproductive rights war story of her own, from sanctimonious pharmacists offering unprescribed admonitions to early morning drives across state lines to a clinic. While the scarier aspects of Mad Men-era reproductive health (Betty’s twilight sleep birthing experience from season three, for starters) seem like a far-off nightmare to today’s twentysomethings, neo-conservatives’ war on women makes it clear that such arcane threats may not be so distant.

Betty awakes from her twilight sleep after giving birth to Draper’s third child
Take abortion. Considering it’s still a litmus test for sociopolitical values, you’d think among pre-civil rights Americans the topic, let alone the execution of the procedure, would be a taboo subject. Right? Not quite. When mad man Roger Sterling impregnates his on again, off again secretary side piece Joan Harris (née Holloway), he immodestly assumes she’ll want an abortion and offers to pay to “fix” the situation. But Joan decides to keep the child, leaving her husband, surgeon Greg Harris, in the dark as to the child’s paternity, thereby reclaiming her body and sense of agency. By her own admission, Joan’s terminated two prior pregnancies, so her decision isn’t based on moral grounds. Craving motherhood and disappointed by a number of fertility misfires with Greg, Joan forges her own path. The implicit consequences of Joan’s choice are clear, but Roger and Joan’s extramarital affair is far healthier than her wedded life, and it seems fitting that the baby Joan seeks is born from her relationship with Roger.

Joan introduces her son Kevin to the office, and his father

It doesn’t take much to beat Joan and Greg in the healthy relationships department, though.  Shortly after introducing Greg, and depicting his less-than-chivalrous behavior, creator/writer Matthew Weiner blows the lid off Greg and Joan’s curious courtship with a maddening rape.  Forcing himself on an unwilling Joan in her boss Don Draper’s private office, viewers come to understand Joan’s options: quietly endure sexual violence to be a respected doctor’s wife and mother, or continue in limbo as a single working woman with no respectable chance at a family. While it’s Greg who commits the rape, it’s the cultural castigation of single, working mothers that forces Joan’s hand, leading her into the arms of a sexual predator.

This same stigma precludes Peggy from motherhood, leading the (sometimes) Catholic secretary-cum-copywriter to go through with her pregnancy but put her child up for adoption. Resident Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce cad Pete Campbell (runner-up to Dr. Harris for most egregious husband of the 20th century) is the father of Peggy’s child, sure to be the first in a line of many illegitimage offspring for the the account executive. Though their dalliance has little effect on Pete – with the exception of a few seasons’ worth of sidelong glances and shifty elevator rides between the two – Peggy’s determined resilience to continue her career unblemished is both a triumph and a tragedy. As one of the agency’s brightest creative stars, Don’s up-and-coming ingenue, Peggy conveys confidence in choosing her career over motherhood. But she isn’t without regrets, which she reveals to Don over diner coffee: “Do you ever think about it?” he prods. “I try not to,” Peggy reflects, “But it comes out of nowhere sometimes. Playgrounds.” The line is drawn out, mumbled, underscoring Peggy’s pain. Elizabeth Moss (who plays Peggy) told that it was her favorite line of the season, suggesting how strongly modern women relate to Mad Men‘s female characters.

Peggy and Don share grief, and coffee

In Rosengate‘s aftermath, the conversation on working mothers is more fraught than ever. “’Working mother’ is a redundant phrase” is the neo-conservative right’s new mantra, and I won’t begrudge them the satisfaction of believing it. But let’s not pretend that the stay-at-home-mom is the equal of the working mother. It’s an affront to parents of all backgrounds: those with the luxury to choose an at-home parent over a second income and those whose finances dictate the decision. Mad Men‘s place on the cusp of this working mother’s revolution is telling, yet quietly disheartening for its glaring proof that we’ve entered a regressive era for reproductive rights.


Diana Fakhouri holds a BA in English Literature from The College of William and Mary. Baltimore born and Virginia bred, she now lives in Richmond and has never turned down a Mimosa. Say hey on Twitter and Tumblr!