Mad Men, Sane Women - Feminism and Retro Television

While TV of the 50s and 60s depicted women's lives as men imagined it, retro TV about the same era depicts women's lives through a feminist lens.
By: Victoria A. Brownworth
April 29 2014 6:11 PM

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. So begins Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. That opener also works as a coda on post-World War II period-piece television and women. It was an era of sweeping historical and political change. WWII had opened doors for women like never before, because all the men who could fight were in battle. Millions of men were on the front lines all over the world. Women were keeping the home fires burning–and working outside the home doing everything from the iconic "Rosie the Riveter" munitions work to clerking for the military to breaking codes for the war effort. For the first time in any century women were largely free of men and the sexist constrictions of being female. They could do what they wanted and not face opprobrium because they were aiding the war effort, they were working toward the same end as the men who were fighting.


No one questioned them and that freedom was heady. Women banded together, forging friendships they would never even have had access to in other circumstances. Sometimes those friendships were sisterly, sometimes more romantic, but regardless, they were driven by the intensity of the times and the unprecedented freedom that came with it.


And then the war ended.


That changed everything. When the men came home, the women were sent back to the lives they’d had before. Husbands and families expected women to do as they were told, just as they had done before that taste of total autonomy. But many women found that difficult to do.  


One period drama focusing on this era of roiling change just began its new season, PBS’s The Bletchley Circle.


The Bletchley Circle is one of the most subtly feminist series you’ll see on TV. The seriesexplores this very period, taking the viewer back to the war years, but situating the story in the present of 1952 when everything has settled back to "normal"–as if anything could be normal again after the deadliest war in human history in which 60 million people were killed, 2.5% of the world population at the time, and every man was suffering from what had happened to him.

The women who comprise The Bletchley Circle, Susan, Millie, Lucy and Jean,are housewives–now. But in the war years they were the British’ secret weapon against the Nazis, the women who were the decryption experts, the code-breakers who worked at Bletchley Park, the central site of the UK’s Government Code and Cypher School.
Churchill said these code-breakers helped to win the war several years earlier than expected because they broke the Third Reich’s infamous Enigma machine.


These code-breakers were also loyal to a fault. They kept true to the Official Secrets Act. No one knew who they were or what they had done. Even their own families had no idea. In November 2013, one of the surviving women upon whom the series is based, Mavis Batey,  died at 92, her service finally revealed and recognized. Batey had volunteered to be a nurse in 1939, but was instead assigned to Bletchley Park, where she became one of the lead code-breakers whose work helped pave the way for D-Day. Her work and that of the other women of Bletchley Park was not noted by the British government until 2009; almost no one knew of their work.


It’s this secrecy and the hidden lives it spawns that forms the foundation for The Bletchley Circle.


These women vowed never to be "ordinary," never to go back to their stultifying lives after the intense excitement of breaking major codes. But that’s not what happens. Life resumes and they have little choice: misogyny and gender stereotypes beckon. Their husbands, returned from the war, have no idea what it is their wives had done during the war, nor that their skills helped win the war as dramatically as the husbands fighting on the front lines.


Susan Gray (Anna Maxwell Martin) leads the group of women who savored that victory.
And when a series of seemingly unrelated murders happens, she thinks there is a pattern. The police do not, dismissing her findings. So Susan commandeers the old group to help her solve yet another puzzle, break yet another code. This time not just in solving the murders, but freeing men wrongly charged for the crimes, and finding the right man. At one point Millie uses a bright red lipstick to trace a line on a train map of where the serial killer hunts. The lipstick is dual purpose signifying the trappings of femininity and the blood of the killer's victims.

 Rachael Stirling (Tipping the Velvetas Millie in Bletchley 

This work is the same, yet different, from their war work. It’s edgier, out in the world, putting their lives on the line. They are rogue decoders. In season one, both Susan and Lucy find themselves in real danger, with a killer they’ve set up to be caught. In season two, another code-breaker from Bletchley Park, Alice, is on trial for murder. Did she commit it, or is she hiding a different secret altogether? Jean leads the team to uncover the truth.

But the work is done secretly–just like their code breaking during the war. They lie to husbands, proffering shopping trips and ration books as excuses. (Husbands don’t present themselves well in this series. Their resentment of their women is palpable. They expect a kind of treatment that no longer exists, because the women can’t fully return to the lives they once led. They’ve tasted too much freedom.)


When Mad Men began its final season this month, the reviews continued to focus as they always have on the men of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and especially Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the man who so epitomized a period, with his glass of scotch in hand and ready cigarette nearby. But over the past six seasons,Mad Men, the cable show that proved cable could win awards and compete with network, it’s the women who have been the series’ backbone and moral compass. While Don Draper is Mad Men’s antagonist keystone, it’s the women in his orbit who drive the show’s narrative as much as anything.

In season 7 the show has fast-forwarded to 1969 and the dawning of the Age of Aquarius is in full swing–along with Vietnam. Nixon is president, JFK is long dead as are now both his brother and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Change is coming rapidly to SCDP and nowhere is this  more evident than in the progression the women have made over the past six seasons. Feminism is very much in play. The world in which men snapped their fingers at nameless women demanding coffee or sex is fading, and a new era in which women are ascendant is dawning.


Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) has long been the series’ counterpoint to Don. Except as Don has been on a downward spiral, Peggy has been on the rise, working her way through the ranks to become Don’s peer. The man who had it all is now in a static place, while Peggy has been climbing rung-by-rung up the ladder. And all of it without a wife, while Don has had two.


Joan (Christina Hendricks), too, has propelled herself forward, out of the steno pool and into the role of businesswoman. More than any of the other female characters, Joan evinces what it is to be a sexy, attractive yet ambitious and smart female in the period between the late 1950s and the late 1960s.

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