The Maddeningly Mad Men World of Sexual Harassment

vintage sexist cartoon

As the rumblings of the embryonic women’s movement began to be heard in 1970, some women in the workplace began quietly grumbling too.

Even as working women began taking baby steps in their Enna Jenkins pumps, their male colleagues still felt entitled to leer lasciviously under their Bobbie Brooks skirts as they slowly climbed the corporate ladder.

Sexism was still flourishing in 1970 as the recent scene in Mad Men demonstrated. In a cringe worthy scene where Peggy and Joan struggled to be taken seriously while pitching new ideas for a pantyhose account, they were subjected to lewd, lecherous comments at the all male business meeting.


As Joan simmered with a slow burn, Peggy tried to plow her way through the double entendres and frat boy humor with smiling professionalism. Later, fuming in the elevator feeling frustrated and humiliated, the girls wanted “to burn the place down.”

Vintage image secretary 1970s

A few blocks away on Madison Avenue another group of fed up with business as usual business women took action; if they didn’t burn the place down, they went one step better they filed a landmark lawsuit.

In March, a mere month before the Mad Men’s girls humiliating business meeting, 46 females with the help of attorney Eleanor Holmes Norton sued Newsweek Magazine for sex discrimination.charging it was a segregated system of journalism that divided the work solely on the basis of gender .

At the offices of Newsweek magazine at the time there were 2 categories of employees who sat at their typewriters – men who were the writers and the women who were the researchers, sorting mail, collecting newspaper clippings. Despite their equal qualifications, the women’s jobs came with lesser status and lower pay scale

vintage secretary 1950s

Vintage ad Pitney Bowes 1958

The magazine’s well educated highly qualified women were no longer satisfied answering phones and checking facts for its male staff of writers and editors.

Meeting secretly, a group of women that would eventually grow to 46 female employees, teamed up with a women’s rights lawyer challenging the sex segregation jobs, becoming the first group of media professionals to sue for employment discrimination based on gender under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Media savvy, they called a press conference, filing the suit on March 16, 1970 the same day their magazine Newsweek ran an issue whose cover story ironically enough was entitled “Women in Revolt.”

Take My Secretary, Please!

vintage cartoon sexist office secretary

“And I was so afraid that working for a giant corporation would be an impersonal, cold, inhuman relationship.” Vintage Playboy cartoon 1962 by Sokol

It’s hard to imagine that Peggy or Joan were unaware of this highly publicized incident, but at the time sexism and sexual harassment at the office was sometimes invisible because it was so darn normal the leering eyes suggestive remarks and creepiness of male workers sexual harassment was a near daily ordeal faced by women in Mad Men workplace.

In fact it was the stuff of great humor.

The world of sexist jobs, businessmen men objectifying and infantilizing women, lascivious philandering and wild office parties was fodder for comics and cartoonists alike.

Misogyny was easily laughed off as office antics.

Not a one of these cartoons would pass HR today

Vintage Sexist Office Cartoons

vintage Playboy cartoon sexist office

“Take an Indecent proposal!” Vintage Playboy cartoon 1966 by Interlandi


Vintage sexist office cartoon

“You’re hired Miss Olson and may I escort you to our annual office picnic tomorrow?” Vintage cartoon Esquire Magazine 1951


sexist office cartoon Playboy

Bosses Portrait Vintage 1966 Playboy cartoon by Interlandi


vintage sexist office cartoon

A take on IBM’s classic slogan, advising the boss to think as he chases her around the desk. Vintage cartoon Esquire

Many of these cartoons were never meant to be glimpsed by the girls, appearing in male magazines like Playboy and Esquire, to be read at men’s clubs or the Barber shop where an earlier generation ogled the Police Gazette.

vintage sexist cartoon

“You certainly have a one track mind, Me. Bree!” Vintage Playboy cartoon 1962


vintage sexist office cartoon

“Guess what Mom. I’m Miss Magic Lift of 1958!” Vintage Playboy cartoon 1958

Christmas Parties

vintage sexist office cartoon

“Looks as though the Entertainment Committee has come up with some fresh ideas for this years Xmas party!” Vintage Playboy cartoon 1967 by R. Taylor


vintage sexist cartoon office

“Last year we gave him an electric shaver.” Vintage Playboy cartoon


vintage cartoon sexist office

“Miss Beverly, I want an option on you for the Christmas party.” Vintage Playboy cartoon


vintage sexist cartoon office

The fear that computers would end up replacing office antics would be proven wrong. Vintage Playboy cartoon 1962

Mad Men may have offered us a front row seat to the world of mid-century misogyny but it has hopefully  opened the dialogue to recognizing that sexism still exists today despite its subtlety.

And it is no joke.

Copyright (©) 2015 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved

Stay Tuned : In 1970 Newsweek was ground zero for a movement that was supposed to break at least one glass ceiling. The story Next

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  1. It’s unsettling that I remember one or two of the cartoons from back in the day and not have a feeling one way or another about them. They weren’t particularly funny. Now I look at them and just cringe.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. To demonstrate male sexism in cartoons, you will have illustrate it with a sexist incident – and that calls for a female victim. Most of these cartoons do not portrait men in a very flattering way – like the one with “one track mind”.
    And in the right place and time – like office parties – I have several times being witness to women making improvised “stand up comedy” with rather rude jokes. (Of course, after a couple of glasses of wine.) When I began at my former job, I had about 1500 co-workers in my town only – and at the time, the “work force” was about 95 percent female. As it seemed, women don’t demand you to be a saint, if you only use your head and some common sense. (“If you had had a sister – how would you want the men to treat her?”) I got a strong impression that women won’t wish you to treat them as if they were your male pals or sexual neuters – as long as you are polite and acting in a civilized manner.

    (I might add, that I never worked in any managerial position, but rather as a “common foot soldier”. I never was anybody’s boss.)

    Also, the funniest sex jokes in “stand up comedy” usually are delivered by the female comedians!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on 서울오피『girlie』밤전핸플 and commented:


  4. No, it isn’t a joke an yes it still exists in ways that are both subtle and as obvious as mid century. Having been in HR for many years, I can tell you it hadn’t changed and even with the introduction of modern technology there are still those who don’t think with their brain. It’s amazing, really.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You are absolutely correct. It is very easy to smugly laugh and be outraged by this blatant mid century behavior and mind set that seems so distant from our more “enlightened times”, which as you have pointed out are not as enlightened as we would like to believe.


  6. Harvard’s Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault is launching a survey of the student body to determine the prevalence of sexual assault, harassment, and related misconduct at Harvard in an effort to not only gain a better understanding of the magnitude of the problem, but to inform efforts at prevention.

    Read More:

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Now we know what got Dan Rather fired. A very upset female researcher. Good for her.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The cure for this social-occupational problem is often not a cut-n-dry, black-n-white solution. And going with extreme reactions regarding ANY issues (sexual included) are typically NOT the best reactions toward a long-term solution. Though in American social and occupational settings the “harassment” comes primarily from heterosexual males, it is not exclusive behavior from just them — to me it seems to be just as prevalent from an elitist or privileged mentality despite gender or orientation.

    I’ve been discriminated against simply because I was prematurely stereotyped as these exact sort of hetero-sexist males discussed here, because I was seen as “TOO CLOSE” an intimate friend with an extremely attractive (lipstick pinup Girl model) lesbian of the LGBT community. The group’s reaction to us drove a hurtful wedge for years into our then 5-year friendship which only just recently returned, but with sensitive wounds on my part. Ironically, I now know what it feels like to be an African-American in the 1860’s or 1950’s, or a gay man in the southern U.S. bible-belt states in the 1980’s to the present. It’s a feeling I don’t wish on anyone!

    Just a slight different angle on this for more perspective. Thank you. 🙂


  9. This is beyond spectacular. Drop by SOCIAL MEDIA SASS. I’ve just (re) posted my intro (Who is Tee?), which features probably the most notorious video clip from Mad Men ever.


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