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the group cover

Of course Betty Draper is reading Mary McCarthy’s bestselling book “The Group.” It’s her kind of book. The 1963 bestseller follows the the lives of eight Vassar women from their graduation in the depths of the Great Depression to the brink of American involvement in World War II. Cosmopolitan called it “juicy, shocking, witty and almost continually brilliant.” What’s not to love? For Betty,the Bryn Mawr grad and former jet-setting fashion model, this is just the sort of book that would capture her imagination.

In the episode “The Color Blue,” Betty is absorbed in the book, the way few characters seldom are on a modern TV drama. Like many people drawn into a good book, she is reading it all day long. She’s reading it while soaking in the tub and picks it up again after dinner while Sally does her homework.

This is entirely appropriate given the novel in question. Mary Mc Carthy was more than just a popular novelist. She was something of a literary legend. “The Group” is steeped in details, some imagined, but many of them subtle and not-so-subtle twists on McCarthy’s real-life college experiences. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1962, shortly before the book’s publication, McCarthy said that she conceived the book as a type of progress novel. She wanted to show the “idea of progress in the female sphere … economics, architecture, domestic technology, child bearing, the study of technology in the home, in the playpen, in the bed,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a history of the loss of faith of progress, in the idea of progress in that 20 year period.” The characters were composites of the girls she knew at school, but said that all of their mothers were in the book. “That’s the part I kind of like the best,” she said.

Critics focused, with varying degrees of approval, on what McCarthy called “the feminine sphere.” The New York Times was impressed by the book’s close study of women’s daily lives “in and out of battles, beds and rather contagious boredom.”

Because of its focus on housewives working women, society matrons and publishing assistants, it was easy to dismiss McCarthy’s decision to focus on consumerist details instead of The Big Issues. But even Norman Mailer, who led the charge on this front (and may have missed the entire point of the novel in the process) stopped to admire McCarthy’s ability to use the details of everyday objects and conversations to add depth and insight to her characters. “The real interplay of the novel, ” Mailer wrote, “exists between the characters and the objects which surround them.”

McCarthy’s relentless skewering of the male characters was also notable. “The men in their lives are satirized mercilessly,” the Times wrote. “[T]hey deserve their places in Miss McCarthy’s lampooning carnival. … I got the impression that she was reversing the cast of one of those minor war novels in which the leading characters are not quite human beings but rather representatives of carefully assorted milieus and callings. No heroes here, at any rate. A bunch of sad sacks, compared to the heroines.”

Even though the novel took place 30 years earlier, someone like Betty who’s focused almost solely on herself, her own vague unhappiness and dissatisfaction, she must have identified with McCarthy’s upper class college girls, their sorry consorts and the loss of faith in progress.

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equal-pay-nowWhen Peggy Olson closed the door to have her sit-down with Don Draper, her boss, you didn’t have to be a student of history to know it was going to end badly. When women have conversations like this with their bosses about equal pay for equal work, it almost always ends badly.

Peggy’s consciousness-raising moment probably came after her liquid lunch with Duck Phillips. Trying to lure her over to Grey Advertising, he nearly drowns her in a sea of flattery. He says he admires her “focused ambition. He calls her a “free wheeling career gal with great ideas.” He promises her velvet pillows, riches and awards. But most importantly, he tells her that as a single woman with no mortgage or family responsibilities, this is her time. “Strike while the iron is hot,” he says.

She was also encouraged by the Equal Pay Act of 1963 which passed in June. The relevant portion of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 that Peggy read about in the paper said sex discrimination would be prohibited in the workplace. Employers could no longer discriminate on the basis of sex by paying female employees at a rate less than what is paid to employees of the opposite sex who perform the same work using the same skills under the same conditions.

However, there are also some pretty big loopholes contained in the act. Exceptions are made for salaries paid in accordance with 1) a seniority system, 2) a merit system 3) a system which measures earnings by quality or quality of production or 4) a differential based on any factor other than sex…”

But it still sounds pretty good to Peggy. Now she has to get paid the same as the pipe-smoking poseur Princeton grad Paul Kinsey. It’s the law! They have the same job, and as she accurately pointed out, she does it better. Kinsey trashed talked the Madison Square Garden people in a pitch meeting. Peggy landed the Popsicle account all by herself. She does pro bono work for her church. She had to share an office with a Xerox machine. She barely makes more than her secretary. So what the hell Don, give the girl a raise.

Sadly, it’s more complicated than that. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was the first step in a long march to equal pay for equal work that continues into the millennium. ” Much remains to be done to achieve full equality of economic opportunity,” President Kennedy said in his remarks upon the signing of the bill. “[In 1960] the average woman worker earns only 60 percent of the average wage for men–this legislation is a significant step forward.” (In 2007, women made about 72 cents for every dollar a man earned.)

Even if Sterling Cooper wasn’t pinching pennies by counting paper clips and redlining expense reports, Don would have had several ready and legal excuses to keep Peggy’s salary right where it is. Don could tell her she doesn’t have the seniority or the numbers to merit a raise and there wouldn’t be much Peggy could have done about it. The law as it was written left a lot of room for a lot of excuses employers could (and did) use to rationalize paying women less than men. In the following four decades, a dozen lawsuits, additional legislation and a very vocal women’s movement will be needed to advance the concept of equal pay for equal work.

Social factors also contribute to the equal pay problem. Peggy works for an old school, old boys advertising agency. No turtlenecks or corned beef sandwiches here. Her boss stormed out of a meeting with a major New York department store because he wasn’t going to let a woman talk back to him. Her boss’ boss Roger Sterling throws parties at his country club where he performs in blackface. One of the account service managers was practically kicked to the curb for suggesting a client target black consumers. And let’s not forget the tragic Ann-Margret diet soda spot. Peggy knew it was a disaster from Day One and she said so only to be shot down by Don who tells her he understands women better than she does.

In 1964 Congress would pass the Civil Rights Act which includes Title VII which prohibits discrimination by covered employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Eventually, it would get harder and harder, but still not impossible for employers to pay their female employees less. Peggy’s time has yet to come.

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