OP-Ed: 'Mad Men' and Discrimination

by Rene A. Henry
Rene A. Henry
Rene A. Henry

SEATTLE, Wash., April 13 – The television series “Mad Men” has started airing its seventh and final season (Sunday, April 13, 10 p.m. Eastern on AMC). I will miss watching this program since I’ve been a devoted follower from day one. The creator of the show, Matthew Weiner, has done an extraordinary job telling the story of the way Madison Avenue was in the 1950s and 1960s. And he wasn’t even born until 1965 and grew up in Los Angeles.

Four times “Mad Men” has won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Combined with Weiner’s work on “The Sopranos,” the writer, director and producer has received nine Emmys. The series has received a score of other awards. He is a stickler for correct historical facts and meticulous detail in every possible way which must challenge the show’s script researchers, wardrobe and prop people every week.

During part of the era depicted in the television series I worked in the San Francisco office of Lennen & Newell, which then was the tenth largest advertising agency in the world. The headquarters were on Madison Avenue in New York and in many ways very similar to the fictional Sterling Cooper agency of “Mad Men.” The television series has brought back many memories, good and bad. I still have a couple of relics from this era -– an IBM electric typewriter that I sometimes use and a hat just like the one Don Draper wears. 

One issue that Weiner has not presented as the subject of an episode is the blatant and widespread discrimination practiced in the Fifties and Sixties by many New York agencies and publishers. I know because I experienced it first hand when I was job hunting early in my career. 

Then if you wanted to work on Madison Avenue you had to graduate from one of the eight Ivy League colleges -– Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton or Yale. The street’s hiring policy was very clear. Pages of “Help Wanted” display advertising for job opportunities in the Sunday New York Times would have a line in bold face type at the bottom of almost every ad - Ivy Only or Ivy League Only. 

Having graduated with a degree in economics from The College of William & Mary, the nation’s second oldest college and the alma mater of several presidents and many of our founding fathers, I was not deterred by the discriminatory line in the ads and optimistically went door-to-door from one agency to another. 

At most agencies the receptionist had a bronze plaque on her desk that also said Ivy Only. When I wanted to leave my résumé she would ask “And what Ivy League college did you graduate from?” Since I did not have a degree from one of the eight Ivies she refused to accept my résumé. The only way I got around the discrimination policy was through personal contacts to someone in the company.

In addition to this bias, the issue of discrimination against race, creed, color and sex was obvious, understood and practiced. Weiner has depicted some of this by the characters portrayed in the series. To work on Madison Avenue a woman had to graduate from of one of the “Seven Sisters,” the female Ivy equivalent: Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley. 

And then the young woman had to continue her education and graduate from Katharine Gibbs to gain typing and secretarial skills in order to be considered only for a secretarial, receptionist or clerk position. Weiner obviously made an exception for Peggy Olson, played by Elisabeth Moss, who he also had break the “Glass Ceiling” long before there was such a term. In the television series she was promoted from a secretary to a copy writer to a department head. How Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, got to his position is another anomaly. 

Well after the Sixties, I still wondered what agencies and publishers continued to quietly observe the illegal today Ivy Only hiring policy. 

I hope that Weiner has another project in the works that will be even more entertaining than “Mad Men.” 

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Rene A. Henry now lives in Seattle and is the author of nine books. His latest is "Customer Service: the Cornerstone of Success". He is a member of both the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. He has been a “Blue Ribbon” judge of the Emmy awards for more than 30 years.

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