Mad Men Era Sexist and Cruel, and I Miss it

Is it wrong to miss the stewardess? The bellhop? The secretary?

I know they’re politically incorrect. But the hit show “Mad Men” on AMC – set in the early 1960s and arguably the best TV show since “The Sopranos” – has brought back dormant longings I didn’t know I had.

I miss the boomerang shapes on Formica kitchen tables. I miss open windows. I miss offices with big, colorful rooms instead of gray cubicles.

I miss the idea of becoming a beatnik in Greenwich Village or San Francisco. (Sorry, the hippie just ain’t the same.)

I never got the chance to experience the typing pool as a hotbed of fashion and gossip, but that was the plan. My father, ever the egalitarian, decided that my brother’s failing grades earned him a place at an elite private college. I, with straight-A report cards year after year, should become a secretary.

While still in high school, I learned to type. Shorthand eluded me and I dropped the class, but the typing lessons have served me well. (Thanks, Dad. Still waiting to use the Latin you recommended, though.)

By the time I entered the work force, secretaries were on their way out. And stewardesses were becoming flight attendants. The days of Coffee, Tea or Me? were coming to a close.

While a teenager I read the 1969 book, “Why Isn’t a Nice Girl Like You Married?” by Rebecca Greer. The landmark “Sex and the Single Girl,” by Helen Gurley Brown, was no doubt banned from my library branch in a conservative Dallas suburb, but Greer’s book made it to the shelves.

Greer was a journalist, not a stewardess, but oh did she ever get the stewardess vibe. Her book is long out of print, but I remember fragments.

For instance: All you need to get by is a dark skirt, a few blouses and some stockings, rotated endlessly. And, of course, you don’t need a husband to have a sex life.

But for me, the message that resonated most was: The world is your playground. You don’t have to wait for a husband to take you globe trotting. You can go by yourself, especially if you land a job as a stewardess.

For a little-traveled suburban girl, the life of the stewardess looked magical. London, Rome, Egypt, Singapore – all on the company dime, and all with the hint of a fling with a hot pilot. Or perhaps a businessman like the ultra-cool, impossibly handsome Don Draper of “Mad Men.”

In the end, I did not become a stewardess. Or secretary. I was not a very good hippie, and I never made it to Europe. I became a journalist. I have practiced my craft of putting what I’d observed into words in many a gray, windowless room. And yes, I get the irony.

These days when I watch flight attendants, with their drab uniforms and quick tempers, distribute packets of crackers to passengers – who, by the way, are taking the phrase “casual dress” to the limit – I find myself recalling a lost world.

The early 1960s was unjust and unequal in countless ways. The single women of the time, with their impeccable swept-up hairdos and tight dresses, suffered many indignities.

“Mad Men” shows that, too. But it’s the glamour of the era that I can’t quite shake.


Mad Men guys have a laugh with stewardesses. Such cute hats!

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2009]


About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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