Thursday, September 13, 2007

Remembering How It Was

AMC is running a series, Mad Men, about a New York advertising agency in 1960. I've caught the last three episodes, and I'm hooked. They have the look and feel of the time down so perfectly. Even though I was a high school senior and then a college freshman and in California in 1960, and the series is about working adults in The Big Apple, it almost smells like 1960.

They smoked, and thought nothing of second hand smoke. They drank almost all day long. They were sexist and racist and other things we have outgrown.

In the first episode that I saw, the secretaries test lipstick that the agency is representing. As they try on the shades, they blot their lips on tissues, which are then dropped into a waste basket. After the session, one of the secretaries brings the waste basket to an ad exec, saying, "Here's your basket of kisses." Of course, he wants to know where she got the phrase and she tells him she just thought of it. Later he is telling a few other ad men about this and describes listening to her make intelligent comments as weird. "Like watching a dog play the piano."

And, of course, when she is encouraged to write ad copy, it is on her own time and she doesn't get paid extra.

All of which got me to thinking about how things were for women in those days. About having a B.A. and being asked in job interviews for my typing speed. I also remember one job interview when I was asked what kind of contraceptive I was using. And an interview while I was still married where they wanted to know if my husband would object to my working occasional Saturdays!

When I returned to college after Julie was born, I was 23. And had two small children. UC Berkeley wanted me to get permission from my parents to live off campus! I was having none of that, and responded that I would be happy to live in campus housing with my children. It's amazing what having the guts to stand up for yourself will accomplish. Faced with the prospect of a three week old baby in the dorms, suddenly I didn't need permission after all. My Aunt Florence was newly widowed and returned to University of the Pacific at the same time. She had to get the dean's permission to live off campus although she was 41 and she only got it, as a single woman, because she owned a house within a mile of the campus. One day she was in the grocery store, wearing grey wool slacks and a white cotton blouse, and the dean of women came up to her and explained that if she was seen in town again in slacks she would be expelled.

I remember being told in 1975 by the financial director of the agency I was working at that "no woman can manage a business." Barely two weeks after that, there was a situation where someone had to go to the medical director and tell him something he wasn't going to want to hear. It should have been the accountant, who wouldn't do it. So then he called the financial director, who back peddled like crazy and refused to do it. So, I did it. By the time I got to the man's office, the fact that two men had been afraid to do it had me a little bit tense, but I took my foot in my hand and did it. The response? "Why the hell didn't Larry or Bob come to me about this? Are you the only one in the agency with guts?" Bob didn't really say too much about women being able to manage after that. Well, he did once, but I looked at him and looked at the medical director and looked back and he had the grace to blush.

My grandfather gave my mother some money in the mid-60s, and she decided to buy stock with it. She had to get Daddy's permission. Daddy was outraged. "This," he declared, "is her money. Her father gave it to her. It has nothing to do with me. Why should she need my permission to spend it on anything she wants?" But, that was the law. It was also the law that a married woman needed her husband's permission to have a bank account or credit card in her own name. And, if she didn't, if he died, she had no credit history.

And although things are no longer that bad, they still aren't perfect. It is interesting that watching Mad Men throws certain behaviors in the here and now into sharp relief.


J at said...

Powerful post, mom.

Just yesterday, we went to home depot to buy mirrored doors...they are special order, and the guy taking our measurments and ordering the doors took a cell phone call in the middle of it. He then had to rudely explain to the person on the other end of the phone that they were going the wrong way, they should be going west instead of east, etc. After he hung up, he sighed, "Women drivers". Blech. I wanted my doors more than I wanted to punch him, but not much.

Angela said...

Isn't it amazing how far we've come in such little time? Also, how much farther we have to go? My CURRENT employer is a total throwback, but I think I'm managing to teach him a thing or two.

Starshine said...

I'm glad that we as a culture have outgrown some of these racist and sexist behaviors, but we still have a way to go.

It is cool that the show Mad Men has so captured the essence of 1960. Now I want to watch an episode.

Bridget Magnus said...

I remember a conversation at my in-laws home when my husband and I were relatively newly married. He felt I should cancel the credit card I had in my own name because we didn't need it: we had plenty of credit, I was on all his accounts, and he was concerned that too many accounts total might lower our credit rating. His mother and his grandmother replied that I should absolutely keep that card because if -- heaven forbid -- anything should happen to him or we should get divorced, I needed to have credit in my own name.

17 years later, I still have that account. I use it to buy his Christmas and birthday gifts.

Ginnie said...

Your blog was especially interesting to me since I was working in NYC in 1960. My Aug. 29th, 2006 blog tells of my time at WABC Radio during that time. You are so right that it was a man's world but we did our best to take advantage of that !
I remember years later trying to open a checking account and having to get my husband's signature on the papers. We've come a long way in some areas.

Tabor said...

I saw one of the first episodes and was also fascinated by the style and culture portrayed. Haven't been able to see the rest as my TV came off the wall to paint the wall and haven't gotten around to getting it back up!

Deja Pseu said...

Did you see last night's episode? Wow.