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An Ode to Mad Men’s Peggy Olson: TV’s Most Relatable Feminist

5 minute read

Over the last five seasons of Mad Men, we have watched Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy Olson go from apologizing to Don Draper to sitting in his chair. Surprised by her initial success as a copywriter, Peggy slowly grew into her talent, eventually realizing that Don’s approval wasn’t everything and demanding that she be respected for her work. More than any other character on the show, Peggy has grown and changed, and on April 13—when the seventh and final season premieres—she will adjust to finally being in a position of real power.

In this week’s New York Magazine cover story on actress Elisabeth Moss, Willa Paskin teases that this final season of Mad Men will be as much about Peggy as it will be about Don. She posits that Peggy, after all, has been the secret protagonist of the show all along. And while Mad Men has quickly addressed and then dismissed many issues of the 1960s—from race relations to hippies—it has consistently addressed the issue of feminism through Peggy and Joan’s struggle to move up the corporate ladder.

And of the two, Peggy has become the feminist icon, working tirelessly for her spot at the top. Long before Lean In hit bookshelves, Peggy was already demonstrating its principles, for better or worse. Paskin writes of Peggy:

TV has many ambitious women, but Peggy stands out among them for navigating a working world—with glass ceilings, boys’ clubs, and take-me-seriously work clothes—that feels, despite its period detail, remarkably contemporary. Peggy is “the one we relate to, the one that’s us,” Moss says, and the legions of essays and blog posts and tweets celebrating her extraordinary ability to lean in are proof of her connection to the audience. (Peggy Olson is easily the most GIF-ed feminist icon of all time.)”

But why is Peggy so damn relatable? Maybe it’s because she’s crusading for a different kind of feminism than we would expect in her 1960s setting. When the fifth season of Mad Men began last year, Elisabeth Moss told Vulture:

[Peggy] is not going to be a hippie, she’s not gonna start burning bras. She’s a different kind of feminist. She’s the one who works really hard, and concentrates on her job, and wants to move up in the world of her business. And her progressiveness and her brand of feminism — it comes in probably a bit of a more realistic way, you know? Those were the women — there were more of those women than were the hippies who burned bras and picketed. Those women were the ones who were actually, you know, going in and asking for equal pay, and asking for equal rights, and demanding to be treated better in the workplace. That’s who she is.”

Relatablity is the key. Watching Peggy, working women see their own fight for respect in the office. She works twice as hard as her boozy compatriots. She’s beautiful in the girl-next-door kind of way, but refuses to use her looks as a means of advancement like her colleague Joan is wont to do. She makes mistakes: she’s stubborn; she falls in love with her boss; she sometimes doesn’t play nicely. And slowly but surely her confidence grows until she can challenge her own mentor.

But she’s also a little bit unlikable. She takes things more seriously than her colleagues. She turns off her superiors and clients by sticking to her ideas and refusing to woo them with sex appeal. She doesn’t have the best taste in guys: she’s had affairs with three coworkers and dated some real schlubs. Rather than struggling with splitting the burdens of work and family—a favorite topic among today’s feminists—she simply denies and then forgets that she’s had a child, choosing to forge ahead with her career instead.

o Credit: Jessica Brooks/AMC
Jessica Brooks—AMC

But her beauty lies in her refusal to fit into a box. Sure, her clothes have gotten better, and she’s gotten more adventurous. But she’s definitively not the girl Joan or Don or anyone else wanted her to be. She’s a testament to the fact that you don’t have to lean in or out, be less bossy or more bossy, be charming or asexual. You can just be the best you.

While the struggle to go from disposable secretary to young powerhouse may not be as daunting as it was in the Mad Men era, it’s no cakewalk nowadays either. As Sheryl Sandberg and Anna Maria Chávez pointed out in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, ambitious women today are as likely to be dubbed by underlings and colleagues as “bossy” as Peggy is on the show. Her struggle is our struggle.

And just as Peggy inspired Mad Men’s audience, she surely also inspired other shows to write in strong female characters who are good at their jobs. Before there was Virginia on Masters of Sex or Elizabeth on The Americans or even Moss’ detective on Top of the Lake, there was Peggy.

So yes, of course Peggy has been the secret star of Mad Men all along, a hero to Don’s anti-hero—his better half.

Watch her evolution in this great video, curtesy of Vulture, from 2013.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com