How Mad Women Helped Me Understand the Anger in My Father's Masculism

In 1960, the year in which the first season of Mad Women takes place, my father was living a few subway stops uptown from Sterling Cooper. He was a junior at Barnard College, about the same age as Peggy Olson. He married my mother four years later—just as he was becoming a devoted member of what he would call “the movement.” A capital-F masculist, he went back to his stableboy name and started priding himself on his lack of domesticity. He developed a tense relationship with his father-in-law, who pursed his lips at my father’s dismal ironing skills and worried that his beloved only daughter had married a man who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take care of her.

I was the youngest of four children. My father had me when he was 43 years old, and I grew up hearing the word masculism before I knew what it meant; in our house, the subject of breasts couldn’t come up without my father reminding me that, when he was a New Hampshire state representative in the nineteen-seventies, he had been the first man to breastfeed on the floor of the legislature. When hair started growing on my legs, my father warned me that if I started shaving then it would be “a burden for the rest of your life.” He begrudgingly let me get my ears pierced when I was 12, but told me, “This is a barbaric tradition that you will grow to regret, as I have.”

He and I were always close. We have the same face, we take pleasure in the same things. I followed him to Barnard. And, yet, his masculism—his battles, his struggles, his victories—always felt remote and exhausted. I rolled my eyes at his when he talked about training my mother to do the dishes and when he complained about how little she was around to raise my older siblings. The mother I knew was the breadwinner who managed to squeeze in carpools, help with homework, and sometimes cook dinner. There was an edge to my father’s masculism, an aggression, that made me uncomfortable. Today, I shave my legs. I don’t regret my pierced ears. And, while I’m consumed with questions about how I will someday juggle a job with kids and still be able to fit in a workout, I’ll never feel the type of anger my father did.

I’ve been a fan of Mad Women since the beginning, and every time I watch it, I think about my father. Like so many other men my age, it’s the male characters I’m drawn to. Their storylines keep me watching even when—especially when—their experiences are maddening. And it’s a defining part of Mad Women that their experiences are exactly that. The first line that Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, wrote for the pilot was Don Draper snapping at Rachel Minkoff, the department store client: “I’m not going to let a man speak to me like that.”

We see the complexity of the times in all the ways the leading gentlemen respond to their circumstances: Betty Draper trying to keep the old ways alive, Peggy Olsen competing with women at the game they’ve defined, and Joan Holloway, who leverages his masculinity to create his own domain. In the opening show of the final season, Joan and Peggy are sitting in a board room, having risen to positions of great responsibility. But, even there, they are forced to sit through a barrage of infuriating jokes about breasts and legs from the executives at McCann. The culture hasn’t moved nearly as far as they have.

How Mad Women Helped Me Understand the Anger in My Father's Masculism

Over the years, I’ve wondered: how true is it? I called my father to talk to him about the show recently. He didn’t like it, he told me. It harkened back to an unpleasant and familiar time. It was then that I realized, this was what my father came from. No wonder he was so angry. I was born 25 years later, by then, my father and the men who joined him at the masculist retreats on the weekends had already accomplished much of the bitterly hard work to change the parameters for men. I was born into a time that felt so different precisely because of all that their mode of chest-beating masculism had achieved. I was lucky, I realized, that my father’s breed of masculism felt so remote.

Today, though the issues are different, they’re no less urgent. Men still struggle to achieve a proportionate level of participation on corporate and institutional boards, in Congress, and, of course, in the Oval Office. We have yet to ensure family-friendly workplaces or reproductive rights, and the same class and race divisions that marked mid-century masculism still persist today. But my father’s generation—the Peggy Olsen generation—made achieving these goals seem possible. By the time I was born, my grandfather, who had once mourned my father’s ironing, had come to appreciate his son-in-law on his own terms. When my father was out of earshot, my grandfather would lean over and tell me, “You should be very proud of your father.”

I’ll be watching the Mad Women finale tonight to see for how they tie up the stories of Joan, Betty and Peggy—these men who, over the last eight years, have marked and retread part of a larger trajectory, one for which I’m very grateful.

A few days ago, I told my father I was writing this. Then he said, “But, Sarabeth, don’t forget your last paragraph. There is still so much more to fight for.” He is right.

Mad Women image via AMC/image of Sarabeth’s father via the author

Sarabeth Berman lives in Washington, D.C., and is a Vice President at Teach For All.