Mad Women – Peggy Olson eat your heart out!

When my friend at Transworld tweeted about Jane Maas’ exciting memoir about the Mad Men-esque world of advertising in the sixties, I knew it would be right up my street so she kindly sent me a review copy. It skipped my to-be-read queue and I started it pretty much straight away, hoping it would be full of salacious tales and amusing anecdotes. Was I right? Well, it was a little bit short on salacious tales – Jane Maas is still a renowned figure in the world of advertising and I guess old habits die hard – no one gets to the top in the advertising (or any other) game by tattling on the people who made them their money. As the Telegraph wryly notes: “She [Maas] must be tougher than she writes herself, but this is advertising.”

Maas even admits that her 1986 book Adventures of an Advertising Woman was largely a piece of advertising in itself and concedes that she glossed over the bad jobs, the bad clients – sometimes to the point of downright lying. So how do we know she’s not doing the same thing from a different angle this time? The answer is that we don’t – nor do we ever with memoirs – but my impression was that Jane Maas was in more of a position to be frank this time. On some topics and on some people she is refreshingly forthright. And if she’s still close-lipped about some things, who can blame her? She’s still very much a woman in a man’s world, as she says at the end of the book when she asks us how much has really changed for working women, especially those with families. Not a lot, seems to be her answer. We still have a long way to go – and I’m sure a lot of modern working women would agree with that.

Mad Men fans will no doubt be curious about the woman described on her book’s jacket as “a real life Peggy Olson” but how similar are they, really? Peggy is lot more acid than Jane, who seems diplomatic and warm throughout; and Jane is certainly more conventional (no jettisoned illegitimate babies in her closet – at least as far as we know). If nothing else, Mad Women is a portrait of a woman who is professional to her core. Without a hint of self-pity she reminds us that in those days if you cried, you did so alone in the privacy of your laundry room and never spoke of it to anyone – even those women in a similar position. Then, even more than now, it did not do for women, already considered the feebler sex, to show weakness.

Despite the praise Maas heaps on her rather lovely-sounding and modern-seeming husband, she doesn’t delve much into her personal life unless it’s necessary to illustrate something professional. So the book gives us the life of Jane Maas the ad-woman but we only ever catch a glimpse of Jane Maas the just-woman. But then Jane Maas is from another era, when there was little space in the life of that rare bird: the working woman, especially if she was also a wife and mother, for a private internal life. Maas is quite frank when talking about this – after career, husband and children (in that order) there simply wasn’t time left for much else.

It fascinated me that Maas was so matter-of-fact about admitting that she may not have been the best mother or given her children enough of her time – as much because she seemed to have no regrets about it as anything else. I’m not saying that being a disinterested mother is to be applauded but it’s telling that a man who spends his life in the office is still regarded as a hard-working provider when his wife, if her career is equivalent is still (and I’m not talking about the sixties now) considered suspect – selfish, hard, a traitor to the mothering sex. (The Daily Mail does a fine line in insipid stories with titles like ‘Beware the Pot-Noodle Mums’.)

In her understated way, Maas is brilliant at illustrating these double standards. She amusingly recalls a beaded curtain she once put up at her office door to echo the creative approaches of her male colleagues at the time… and the horror with which it was greeted by a male visitor who suggested it looked like the entrance to a brothel (Maas quickly took the offending item down).

Other amusing anecdotes (the book was right on the money in this respect) included the delightful retelling of Maas’ experience of working with Roald Dahl and his wife. The man is a literary legend (Matilda was probably the greatest book I ever read as a child – and I read a lot of books) but Maas offers a rare personal slight here: “Roald is a shit” she tells us (although not without explaining why).

Mad Women is full of interesting little snapshots of life in the sixties – Maas recalls being requested for jury service and finding out that women didn’t even have to present a case to be exempt – you could simply tick a box that said ‘because I am a woman’. To someone like me who was born in the mid-eighties it seems shocking but Maas has a much more pragmatic attitude to the whole situation. Like many other women of her generation, she often remarks with a shrug that ‘that’s just the way things were’. Indeed they were – but far be it from me to suggest that Maas and her peers simply stood by and accepted it. (We’re talking about the first woman to ever run her own advertising agency here!) They simply shared a sense that women would only be able to push themselves forward with action, not complaint.

Maas accepts a furniture-mover telling her crossly to let her boss decide where to put the desk in her new office (even though she is the new company president) without so much as batting an eyelid – because that is still the world she lives in. Of course, however right she may be (and I think she is) about women still having a huge uphill battle in the workplace as well as in the domestic arena – it is not lost on me that this is not the world I have to live in. Plenty of people still think that women are not the business equal of men, but they are no longer allowed to say it aloud without potential consequences. It may not be a giant leap, but it is certainly a step forward. And without women like Jane Maas leading the way, gritting their teeth against patronising comments and hiding their tears so as not to be classed as ‘hysterical women’ – would we be so far along today? Somehow I doubt it.

Buy this book


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