What Would Joan Harris Do? Eleanor Clift Remembers 'Mad' Times At Newsweek

Mar 25, 2012
Originally published on March 25, 2012 8:30 am

With Sunday's long-awaited fifth-season premiere of Mad Men finally arriving, Eleanor Clift recently wrote a cover story for Newsweek about what it was like for her as a young employee at Newsweek at around the same time, in the late 1960s, that the show is set. On Sunday's Weekend Edition, she talks to Susan Stamberg about what that time was like.

Stamberg begins with a simple question: With all the ambitions and abilities that would eventually make Clift a writer and pundit, why did she begin at Newsweek as a typist? "Because that was the only path for women in the 1960s," Clift says. "And frankly, I was not unhappy with that. I have said many times over the years, I just wanted to be where what I typed was interesting."

Clift talks about how the women at Newsweek were at some points part of challenging their employers about the way they were treated: the researchers filed a lawsuit in 1970 against the magazine, and they timed the announcement of the lawsuit to be at the same time the magazine published a cover called "Women In Revolt."

As Stamberg points out, many women who entered the workforce at that time participated in work but "felt that the major goal was marriage." Clift connects this specific point to Mad Men, noting that Joan is the kind of woman who went into the workplace largely because it was a place to meet men and get married, but who found out as she stayed there that she did want to do meaningful work. "I think that happened to a lot of women," Clift says.

While it may be the women in Don Draper's office who have the most obvious connection to the rise of feminism, Stamberg and Clift talk about his ex-wife Betty, as well. "Betty Draper, in the series, epitomizes the 'problem that had no name,' which is what Betty Friedan called it," says Clift. That problem, in which all the things that were supposed to make educated married women happy failed to make them happy at all, was very much a part of the sexual politics of the time as well.

In the end, Eleanor Clift says, feminism was meant to give women choices, not to exclusively support their participation in the workforce. "Feminists did not really intend to equate feminism with having a career," she says, adding that for many women, the pressure (and desire) to involve themselves in work had its own challenges, as Mad Men shows through the character of Peggy, who's beginning to worry about not being married and having kids.

Asked whether it's "deja vu all over again" to watch the show, or whether her "waist begins to pinch" just remembering the clothes, Clift says at first, she didn't have much interest in watching the show — "I lived it," she says. But, she notes, "it's addictive. It really is."

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SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Cigarettes, martinis, suits and ties. More cigarettes, right. The fifth season of "Mad Men" begins tonight on AMC. The cable series is an uncanny recreation of life in these United States in the 1960s, as lived out in the advertising world of Madison Avenue and the suburbs of the so-called American dream.

Many of us also lived out or at least lived through those years. Among them Eleanor Clift, veteran - boy, I hate that expression. Don't you?



STAMBERG: Yeah. Washington political reporter, TV opinionator and author. She has done a cover story for the current issue of Newsweek magazine on the work culture of the '60s. She's in our studio to talk about it. Welcome to you.


STAMBERG: You started out as a secretary on Newsweek magazine. And with your brains, Eleanor, not to mention your beauty, why did you start as a typist?

CLIFT: Because that was the only path for women in the 1960s. And, frankly, I was not unhappy with that. I have said many times over the years, I just wanted to be where what I typed was interesting. And I certainly found that when I started working for Newsweek.

STAMBERG: Gloves, did you have to?

CLIFT: No, Newsweek was quite informal. Although I did have a close girlfriend who went to Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School, and she had to wear gloves, and I think a hat and pearls. And she practically had a nervous breakdown.


CLIFT: It was so stringent.

STAMBERG: But everything we've been talking about was before the rise of feminism. It was before the civil rights movement, before Vietnam and those antiwar protests. It was a very different - it was a more repressed and certainly a more conformist world, those '60s.

CLIFT: Yes, the early mid-'60s certainly laid down the roots for all of these coming revolutions. And it was in 1970 that the women in New York working for Newsweek, the researchers, brought a lawsuit against the magazine. And they timed the announcement of their lawsuit for the publication of the magazine's cover, called "Women in Revolt."


CLIFT: And the editor of the magazine, who was really a wonderful journalist and a progressive-thinking individual, was really shocked that there was this much dissatisfaction among the women at the magazine.

STAMBERG: Yeah, and it had it's time to percolate because, really, the goal - and I bet that editor as well as most of society, and certainly women then - felt the major goal was marriage. I mean that's what she did. If you are lucky, you graduated college and then you got married.

CLIFT: Well, you introduced the show "Mad Men." And the character on the show, Joan, I think really does typify the women who went into the workplace because it was the dating scene. Of course, as the season I think progressives, she begins to understand that she really wants to work. And I think that happened to a lot of women.

STAMBERG: Yeah. But again with "Mad Men," the protagonist Don Draper - suit, tie, most of the time and lots of liquor, too - his ex-wife Betty lived out those so-called womanly goals. She was a homemaker. She was a family person. She had this handsome husband. She adorable kids. She had appliances. That was also every woman's dream in those days. She was perfectly miserable.

CLIFT: She was also a graduate, I believe, of Bryn Mawr. She worked for a time as a model, which her husband squelched because the idea that your wife worked was somehow a stigma for men. And Betty Draper in the series epitomizes the problem that had no name, which is what Betty Freidan called it in her groundbreaking book, describing all these highly educated women who had it all and yet were profoundly unhappy. And it took them a long time to share that unhappiness, because it seemed it was not a deserved unhappiness. They had it all; why were they unhappy? And I think we watch Betty Draper through the "Mad Men" series and nothing seems to make her happy.

STAMBERG: Yeah. But all of those rumblings really gave the force to the rise of feminism, of the women's movement.

CLIFT: That's right. And I think, you know, feminists did not really intend to equate feminism with having a career. They meant it to encompass a broader perspective and more choices for women. But it's been, you know, characterized as women allowed to enter the public sphere, but also to have a family. And I think that back in the '60s the feeling was if you chose the work path, the career path, that you were foregoing a private life. And, again, that's epitomized with one of the characters, Peggy, who is now, I think, she's 26 or 27 in the series. And she's beginning to worry that she's not married and she should be at home having babies. And it felt to women at that time that it was either or, and having it all was a concept that was delivered along with the feminist movement.

STAMBERG: In wonder watching it, do you feel it's deja vu all over again and you get a little uncomfortable 'cause there's something so creepy, and also your waist begins to pinch because of the waist bands and the pencil skirts and all of it?

CLIFT: Well, I initially was not a fan of the show. I thought why do I have to watch this? I lived through it. But it's addictive, it really is.

STAMBERG: And all of it resumes again tonight with the beginning of the fifth season of the cable TV show "Mad Men." Talking with us about it Eleanor Clift. She began her career as a secretary for Newsweek magazine. Today, she is a contributor and columnist for Newsweek magazine and the Daily Beast, plus she's a panelist on the McLaughlin Group. Thank you so much.

CLIFT: Thank you so much, Susan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.