Footnotes of Mad Men: The Liberation of Betty Draper–Or Not

OH YOU TWOAt the end of season two, Betty became convinced that Don was cheating on her. (Crazy, right?) She spent much of a day tearing apart the house, looking for clues of infidelity. Shoving her hands inside pants pockets (smoking), pulling out desk drawers (drinking), reading every scrap of paper in the house (sweating), Betty, in a deflated and droopy party dress, found nothing. Generally, TV shows will afford one scene to this sort of lipstick-on-the-collar scenario, but instead we were drawn into the hunt over the course of the entire episode.

THE GROUP§ So now what else is there to do but draw a hot bath and pick up Mary McCarthy’s The Group, the 1963 best seller about the post-Vassar lives of ‘nice’ girls in the 30s. Most regard the book as an early feminist novel, because it’s an exploration of the follies and successes educated women experience when they are confronted with a society that only values their domestic abilities. While others-say, Norman Mailer-thought it, largely, boring: “not one of the girls even exhibits an engaging bitchery,” he wrote. Although: “it is nonetheless possible now to conceive that McCarthy may finally get tough enough to go with the boys.” Oh, wow, well: lucky her! Still:

These pissout characters with their cultivated banalities, their lack of variety or ambition, perversion, simple greed or depth of feeling, their indifference to the bedrock of a collective novel-the large social events of the season or decade which gave impetus to conceiving the book in such a way. Yes, our Mary’s a sneak. Like any First Lady she disapproves of unseemly ambition, and yet she is trying a novel which is all but impossible to bring off in a big way.

So maybe this won’t be the lit match thrown on Betty’s tinderbox. (As it were.) And problematically, the character who most resembles Betty Draper is Elinor the lesbian, who jets off to Europe for most of the book. And overall, it seems like something closer to a factory worker picking up The Wealth of Nations instead of the little red book.

SEX AND§ What about this clingy teacher lady?! Doesn’t she seem a bit too blasé about the whole marriage thing? Maybe not. Another one of the lady-books burning up the best seller list was Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl. Gurley, who, in her own odd way, inspired a generation of homewreckers and housewives to lead whatever sexual life made them happy (and rich!), wrote that she viewed infidelity as an inevitability. So why not chase married men? In a chapter entitled, “The Availables: The Men in Your Life,” Brown speaks favorably about affairs with them. “I’m afraid I have a rather cavalier attitude about wives,” she wrote.

Also, here’s another little gem from the book: “My friend Agnes lives over a garage in one enormous room… A hot plate and ice box make the kitchen, but you can see wonderful old sycamores through the windows.” Who does that remind you of? Hello, Bowdoin! (Fun fact: Bowdoin didn’t actually start accepting women until 1970, so whose shirt is our little schoolteacher wearing, hmm?)

OH GURLEYBrown’s advice wasn’t some radical critique on marriage or a purposefully risqué sexual diary. It’s about class, as in, Brown did not even come from one. She grew up in a farmhand encampment in the South where women walked around barefoot and lifted their dresses to pee on the side of the road. Whatever it took to be forever removed from that caste, Brown believed you should take it: wife, kids, another mistresses, whatever! Brown eventually got out of the Southern slums, went to secretarial school, became a working girl at an ad agency, entered an essay contest for Glamour, won, and ended up where all nice girls do: Hearst publishing.

Looks like our girl Peggy will be running Cosmo in no time and, hey, maybe Betts will get another European charm on her bracelet. If you know what I mean.


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