Mad Women, Not Mad Men

Article excerpt

Byline: Julia Baird

On TV, the seeds of a revolution.

In October 1959, the golden-haired poet Sylvia Plath dreamed that Marilyn Monroe appeared to her, like a "fairy godmother," and gave her a manicure, hairdressing advice, and an invitation to visit at Christmas. Four years later, both women were dead. Others followed. Monroe's death, according to Time's obituary, was "the trigger of suicides in half a dozen cities."

The years that preceded the onset of the second-wave women's movement were marked by a strange kind of private violence and turmoil. While suicides were still rare, between 1960 and 1970 the number of American women who took their own lives increased by 32 percent. More commonly, there was a deep frustration, restlessness, and resentment many women tried to articulate to spouses, doctors, and therapists--as Betty Friedan put it, a "problem that had no name." This problem was often treated with drugs, alcohol, psychotherapy, and, at its extreme, electroconvulsive therapy. Psychologists argued about why more women were considered mentally ill than men, why more were drugged and institutionalized. In her bestselling book Women and Madness, Phyllis Chesler argued that women's anger, or rebellion, was frequently misdiagnosed as sickness.

Which is why I often wonder, as we watch another gripping season of Mad Men, now set in 1965, why it isn't called Mad Women. In the early 1960s, men's rebellious or indulgent behavior may have been destructive and odd, but it was seen as normal, or at least explicable, while women's was stigmatized or pathologized. And these women are getting mad. We can see the beginnings of the women's movement in the flashes in the eyes of the female workers, lovers, and spouses--the hurt look on Don's secretary's face when he gives her an envelope of cash for her Christmas bonus the morning after he slept with her. We see it when Joan throws a box of roses at a boss she thought had professed his love for her, crying, "I am not your darling." She hates, she says, being made to feel like "a helpless, stupid little girl." And we see it in Peggy's regret and loneliness as she lies in bed with a man who thinks he "took" her virginity (ignoring again her gynecologist's warning not to become a "strumpet"). Men slept around with little consequence. …