Fierce Female of the Week: Peggy Olsen

It’s time for another Fierce Female of the Week feature! I may be late to the party, but earlier this year I totally jumped on the Mad Men bandwagon. It is a brilliant show with brilliant characters, but the most interesting and badass character – in my opinion – is by far Peggy Olsen. Her rise from low-level secretary to Copy Chief at a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s is inspiring to women everywhere who are working hard to make their career dreams come true. Though I can’t touch on every fierce moment of Peggy’s life in this article, here are some standout moments:

Peggy began the show as Don Draper’s (the show’s lead) secretary but after only a few months received a ‘big break’ when she was part of a brainstorming session for Belle Jolie Lipstick with the other secretaries. Creative Freddy Rumsden suggests she is used as a copywriter after she refers to a waste basket filled with lipstick-covered tissues as a ‘basket of kisses’. She comes out swinging as an up-and-coming copywriter, which in and of itself is a huge deal for a young woman in the 1960s.

After just a few months as a copywriter, Peggy starts to become frustrated by the small workspace her secretarial desk provides. She notices that many of her male counterparts have their own offices, and upon seeing that an old office has been abandoned, she boldly asks Roger Sterling (the co-owner of the company) if she can occupy it. He is impressed by her boldness and allows her to take it over. In an era when women were almost always considered ‘less’ than men in the workforce, this is an amazing example of a young woman knowing her worth. Peggy began tapping at the glass ceiling mere months into her career.

Peggy considered men her equals from the get-go. When she is belittled with secretarial requests from men in her department, she is quick to say no. An example of this is when both her and Roger stay late to work on a creative project – Roger gets tired and asks Peggy to get him coffee. She doesn’t hesitate when she turns down the request. Instead, she continues to focus on her work – not even looking up. She also demanded equal pay the very morning she learned that the Equal Pay Act had passed. She never once settles for less than she deserves.

Peggy is a symbol of both professional and sexual liberation for women in this era. We see several examples throughout the show of Peggy being comfortable in her own body. (“Let’s get liberated!”) She doesn’t shy away from her own desires, and is quick to talk about her own sexuality. And although she knew very little about her own pregnancy when she unexpectedly gave birth to Pete Campbell’s baby after a one-night-stand, she made the decision to give the baby up for adoption. This decision showed that she valued her career above having a family – which was a big deal in the 60s. Elizabeth Moss, the actress who played Peggy, said this of the decision: “No one should have to make a mistake just like a man does and not be able to move on. She should be able to live the rest of her life just like a man does.”

Peggy was a pioneer in her field and consistently broke down the barriers. She started at Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency in 1960 as a shy Catholic girl from Brooklyn (“Are you amish or something?” – Pete) and finishes the decade as a respected creative professional, breaking the glass ceiling at every opportunity. She doesn’t become Don Draper – not at all. Instead, she ends the series as a fully-realized version of Peggy Olsen.


*Image courtesy of AMC