Through seven seasons of Mad Men, we've seen Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss) bloom from being a nervous and naïve secretary into a strong, powerful copy chief. She's stood up for her rights as a woman to progress in her workplace, balancing her ambition with the changing times of the 1960s. Spoiler alert up and through Sunday night's episode of Mad Men from here on out.
On Sunday night, Peggy took the latest step in her career: joining the advertising giant McCann Erickson. She resisted the move, one that will probably deprive her of some of the power she's gained over the years. When she finally entered, she did so with cigarette in mouth, sunglasses on and giving not a single fuck. Her defiance is perfectly in line with her previous attitude: strong-willed and unafraid of threatening the status quo.
In the eyes of a 2015 viewer, Peggy has said and done things that look ugly. Her shaming of co-worker Joan (Christina Hendricks) for what she wears in a recent episode wasn't the best look. But Peggy's 1960s brand of feminism has to be considered with historical context. She was a pioneer in her field and consistently broke down barriers. She's not perfect, but no one is. Being an imperfect feminist doesn't make her less of one. It makes her human.
Peggy's not only a feminist, she's one of the greatest on TV. Here are eight reasons why she's one of the most admirable women in television history.
She knows women aren't just their gender.
Episode: "Babylon," season 1, episode 6
Peggy's breakout moment on Mad Men was when she was selected for a focus group for Belle Jolie lipsticks. Instead of eagerly trying on as many lipsticks as possible like the other secretaries, Peggy slowly and carefully watches. When asked her opinions afterward, she responds, "I don't think anyone wants to be one of a hundred colors in a box."
The response piques the interest of her higher-ups, and her boss Don Draper (Jon Hamm) gives her a shot at writing some copy. Thanks to her ability to see women as more than one of many, she gets the chance of a lifetime. Luckily, she runs with it all the way to the top.
She treats men as her equal.
Episodes: "The New Girl," season 2, episode 5, and "Shut the Door. Have a Seat," season 3, episode 13
In 1963, Peggy, Don, Roger (John Slattery) and company decide to start their own firm, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. They have to quickly transfer files and supplies over a weekend. There's no time to lose, which requires all hands on deck. Roger, not known for his usual rounds of hard work, quickly gets tired and asks former secretary Peggy for a cup of coffee. Her one-word response is perfection: "No." There's work to be done, and she is not your secretary.
It takes Peggy a while to grow such a backbone, though. Even after she's promoted to copywriter, she still refers to Don as "Mr. Draper" well into 1962. It takes a word of advice from Don's then-lover Bobbie Barrett (Melinda McGraw) to get her to wake up. "You're never gonna get that corner office until you start treating Don as an equal," Bobbie tells her. Shortly after, after Don shames her in a meeting, she levels the playing field: "Thank you, Don." Simple, effective and progressive.
She loves and respects LGBTQ people.
Episodes: "The Jet Set," season 2, episode 11, and "The Beautiful Girls," season 4, episode 9
Peggy has made for a fantastic ally over the years. She's remarkably comfortable with her co-creative team member Kurt when he comes out to the office in 1962 — and he gives her a new haircut for her trouble. In 1965, she becomes close with a Life magazine photo editor named Joyce (a pre-Girls Zosia Mamet). Their friendship is adorable, largely because of their comfort with one another. It's a wonderful bit of progressivism on Peggy's part.
She knows how to close a deal.
Episodes: "The Mountain King," season 2, episode 12, and "Waterloo," season 7, episode 7
Peggy is an ace copywriter, but her skill extends to how she pitches her taglines. Season seven's episode "Waterloo" is the best example of this, in a moment when Peggy gets to be triumphant not just instead of Don but with his support. Her pitch is stirring and emotional, just like the best of his. The student has learned all she could from her teacher.
Yet years before, she gets her first taste of that. A remarkable pitch for Popsicle that evokes family, religion and love is the first time the audience saw Peggy hit a home run. "Take it. Break it. Share it. Love it," she intones. It's beautiful, and emblematic of her best work.
She stays in control of her relationships.
Episode: "Meditations in an Emergency," season 2, episode 13, and "Time & Life," season 7, episode 10
The April 26 episode "Time & Life" features a scene between Peggy and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) in which the two talk about the future Sterling Cooper & Partners. This would be heavy talk for any two co-workers, but that's not Peggy and Pete.
In 1960, Pete unknowingly impregnates Peggy with his child. In 1962, on a couch in his office, she tells him what she'd done — giving the child up for adoption and moving on with her life — and why she hadn't told him. "I wanted other things," she says, signaling her career is more important to her than raising kids. "One day you're there, and then, all of a sudden, there's less of you."
In 1970, Peggy and Pete sit on a couch in his office and have a serious conversation. Yet the history Peggy chooses to take the reins of a decade before is what makes it all the more extraordinary.
She can let loose, but she gets shit done.
Episode: "My Old Kentucky Home," season 3, episode 3, and "Dark Shadows," season 5, episode 9
"I'm Peggy Olson and I want to smoke some marijuana." Those iconic words in season three's "My Old Kentucky Home" were worth a giggle. But it's what she does after smoking — coming up with a winning campaign that her male co-workers couldn't manage — that makes Peggy stand out. Similarly, her question to her season five team illustrates a similar dilemma: "Am I the only one who can work and drink at the same time?"
You don't get to Peggy's position by being a slouch. You get there by playing hard, but working even harder, and often simultaneously.
She isn't afraid to ask for what she wants.
Episodes: "The Mountain King," season 2, episode 12, and "Mystery Date," season 5, episode 4
As a young woman in her field, nothing was going to come to Peggy if she didn't ask for it. When her former co-worker Freddy Rumsen's office sits unoccupied for a stretch of time, none of the men of Sterling Cooper are willing to ask partner Roger Sterling for it. Peggy is. Roger even notes how impressed he is with her guts.
Unfortunately, that comes back to bite him in the ass three seasons later. When Roger comes to Peggy to ask for secret help with an account she wasn't allowed on, the heroine knows she has the upper hand on him. "You want me to work up an entire corporate image campaign for $10?" she asks. "You're being very demanding for someone who has no other choice. Dazzle me."
After a tough negotiation, Peggy comes out $400 richer — a dazzling result indeed.
She knows when to walk away.
Episode: "The Other Woman," season 5, episode 11
Perhaps Peggy's biggest strength: Unlike the other characters of Mad Men, she knows when to leave a poisonous relationship. After her connection to Don, her mentor and friend, is no longer helping her, she knows she has to move on — and to a rival ad agency. It's incredibly difficult for her, of course. To part with the person who helped make you who you are is like severing a limb.
But Peggy is responsible for Peggy. She benefits from the stepping stones men give her, but she arranges the steps into a coherent path. In a decade when all odds were against her, Peggy not only survives, but thrives. She does everything to push herself forward. That's what makes her one of TV's great feminists: She makes herself.