'Mad Men' series inaccurately depicts difficulties of divorce for women in '60s
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Like a tumbler of scotch, the marriage of Betty and Don Draper is on the rocks.
When last we saw "Mad Men's" golden couple, Don had confessed his identity was a lie and Betty hopped a plane to Reno for a quickie divorce.
The fallout will be revealed tonight at 10 during the season four premiere of AMC's hit cable show.
To viewers of a certain age, the breakup story line of two beautiful New Yorkers isn't particularly shocking. Divorce? In the age of Tiger Woods and Sandra Bullock, what's the big deal?
Back then, the result of divorce wasn't pretty, and most often women and kids felt the brunt of it. Divorce meant scandal and often, financial hardship for the wife. Experts say Betty Draper, decked out in more matronly clothes for her new life and new man, does not reflect the emotional and financial upheaval divorced women faced.
"As historians, most of us just love 'Mad Men' -- it is so realistic, not just in the details, but in the gender dynamics," said Stephanie Coontz, a sociologist and professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "But, I think in this case they've gotten it wrong."
Discovering Don was not the man she thought she knew was merely the last straw for Betty, who surely suspected her husband's many dalliances. So she began a flirtatious relationship with Henry Francis, a well-placed aide to Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York.
Henry flew with her to Nevada, where "divorce mills" of the day allowed (mostly) women to establish residency for six weeks, then file for divorce.
But Ms. Coontz, who has authored a number of books examining American life and family, said she doubts someone like Henry would have considered courting a married woman with three young children.
"In 1964, Nelson Rockefeller could not run for president because he was divorced -- anyone with high aspirations, unless he was absolutely besotted with love, would never have considered getting involved in a divorce."
Like Ms. Coontz, Kristin Celello is a "Mad Men" fan. Dr. Celello is an assistant professor of history at Queens College, CUNY in Flushing, N.Y., and author of the book "Making Marriage Work: The History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth Century United States."
"Women throughout the 20th century were blamed for the higher divorce rates," she said. "Something that surprised me a lot when I was researching my book was that divorce really was at the highest in the late '70s, early '80s and now remains steady or declining in the past 30 years."
In the early 1960s, the post-Camelot era in which "Mad Men" is set, amicable couples had to participate in a charade before the court. Often, husband and wife had to pretend to have participated in bad behaviors such as adultery, physical or psychological abuse in order to "prove" grounds for divorce.
Naturally, the court cast a dim view on these false testimonies, but it was the only way to have the divorce granted.
"If both didn't want to have 'grounds,' it was denied. How stupid was that?" said Harry Gruener, who heads the Family Law Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
A Nevada divorce was no guarantee, either. Judges regularly refused to acknowledge them in New York and Pennsylvania, which meant the ex-spouses could not remarry others.
There was no alimony at the time, and child support was a matter for the courts to decide.
Without a doubt, the introduction of no-fault laws in the 1970s paved the way to obtain easier divorces. Until then, most states required one of the parties to prove unseemly grounds against the other, including adultery and physical abuse.
New York was especially conservative. In fact, it is currently the only state in the union without some form of no-fault. That could change soon; the issue is before the state legislature this summer.
"New York had one of the strictest divorce laws and really, the only thing you could do to prove grounds was adultery," Dr. Celello said. "They did relax the law [to include other grounds] in 1966, which was a huge deal. The hearings were on TV.
"[Sen.] Robert Kennedy came out in favor of changing the law and that was a big deal, given his family's Catholic heritage.
"Until then, people had to come up with creative ways to get around this. There were actually agencies where you could 'hire someone,' so you were 'caught with another woman,' " Dr. Celello said.
"The law was in step with the social mores of the time," Mr. Gruener said, adding that "the probably misguided policy was: you made your bed, now lie in it.
"Divorce was still a big scandal. We always thought that Hollywood people could do it, but for the average person, there was a lot of guilt," said Mr. Gruener, who has practiced law since 1970.
Christine B. Whelan is visiting assistant professor at Pitt, where she is teaching three classes on the sociology of marriage, gender and everyday life, respectively.
Her American Family course at the University of Iowa last year made occasional reference to "Mad Men," but to her dismay, the students couldn't relate.
"I said 'Listen guys, I'm going to make this required viewing,' " Dr. Whelan said, laughing.
A divorced woman in 1963 was a social pariah, she said, but noted that the Drapers are not meant to be viewed as an average couple in average America. "It's emblematic of a very small slice -- not only does Betty get out of her [bad] marriage, she has another man all lined up."
One thing "Mad Men" gets right is the neighborhood ladies' opinion of Helen, an attractive, young divorced mother of two introduced in the first season.
"She is this dangerous creature, and the other women view her as a threat," Dr. Whelan said.
The study of divorce data is by no means easily confined to charts and graphs. Factors such as age of the participants, education, social climate, remarriage and income can color the results.
"The statistics drive family sociologists up the wall," Dr. Whelan said. "This 'one out of every two marriages today end in divorce [conclusion],' that's just false. But someone might read [statistics] that way."
The "Mad Men" era was particularly ready for change, say experts. The social and financial instability of the war years was followed by a boom of bland consumerism in the 1950s, and many women who had attended college in record numbers discovered they were suddenly "just" housewives.
Ms. Coontz has a new book coming out based on interviews with women who read Betty Friedan's iconic 1963 writings when they were young -- "A Strange Stirring: 'The Feminine Mystique' and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s."
"People say feminists hurt the homemaker, but one of the first reforms was marriage," she said. In "Mad Men," "You can see Betty already grappling with the same malaise that my real-life informants went through."
In season one, Betty realizes while driving the car that she cannot feel her hands.
"Early in the show, her hands go numb, numb just like the 188 women I interviewed for this book who thought, 'I was crazy,' or just felt numb. They couldn't express it, this emptiness and despair."
Ms. Coontz came across a Gallup poll from December 1962, that indicated American housewives were happy with their lives, but 90 percent said they would advise their daughters to delay marriage and work at a job first.
Culling through popular periodicals of the era, Ms. Coontz noticed a disturbing theme.
"When you read the advice books or the magazines, there was a sense, even in unhappy marriages, that it was all your fault," she said. "If your husband is having an affair, or drinking, 'Ask yourself what you're doing wrong ...' and 'maybe you're not a good-enough housekeeper.' "
Well, so much for Betty Draper. Other women on the show have had their share of problems: Peggy bore a child out of wedlock; Joan was raped by her then-fiance. It's soap-opera stuff, but it's also mesmerizing.
"The show decidedly is a drama, and a lot of its characters really are unlikable," Dr. Celello said. "But that's part of its brilliance.
"I say, 'Why do I still root for Don Draper? He's reprehensible.' "
First Published July 25, 2010 12:00 am