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Why Mad Men's Take on Birth Control Is (Sadly) Not Outdated in 2017

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is the Health Editor at SheKnows. She is a bioethicist and writer specializing in sexual and reproductive health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham ...

A decade after it aired, the Mad Men pilot still makes a strong statement on birth control

There was a lot to love about Mad Men: the gorgeous vintage clothing and hairstyles, the nuanced characters... the opportunity to gaze upon Jon Hamm’s handsomely symmetrical face for an extended period of time without looking too creepy.

The show also dealt with — or at least acknowledged — some of the civil and women’s rights events that took place throughout the 1960s. In a lot of the episodes, the differences between life in the Mad Men era vs. now served as obvious benchmarks showing how far we’ve come since then. (Health benefits of smoking? That’s rich! A cheap apartment on the Upper East Side? Surely you jest!)

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But one area that unfortunately has not made as much progress as we would have hoped since the 1960s, is attitudes toward women’s health.

A decade after it aired, the Mad Men pilot still makes a strong statement on birth control
Image: Science Museum/Contributor/Getty Images

This all started in the pilot episode, which aired 10 years ago today. In it, we meet Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), a young woman from Brooklyn starting a new job as an advertising executive’s secretary at the New York City firm of Sterling Cooper. On her first day on the job, office manager Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) makes an appointment for Peggy with an OB-GYN. Even though that doesn’t happen much anymore, it’s the conversation that takes place at the doctor’s office that sounds so familiar to women in 2017.

The scene opens with Peggy sitting on the examination table in the OB-GYN’s office reading a pamphlet entitled “It’s Your Wedding Night: What a [sic] Every Bride Should Know, How to Be a Good Wife.” Dr. Emerson walks in and the examination, along with the judgment, begins.

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“I see from your chart and finger that you’re not married, and yet you’re interested in the contraceptive pills.” he says to a nervous-looking Peggy, as more of a statement than a question.

The doctor stands there smoking during the examination, while Peggy’s legs are in the stirrups.

“Joan sent you to me because I’m not here to judge you,” he says, very clearly judging her. “There’s nothing wrong with a woman being practical about the possibility of sexual activity, although as a doctor, I’d like to think that putting a woman in this situation is not going to turn her into some kind of strumpet. I’ll warn you now: I will take you off this medicine if you abuse it.”

Ah-ha — there it is: Essentially, the same sentiment toward access to birth control that women face today. Except that the calendar in the office is turned to March 1960. It is so expected that women in the workforce end up having sex — hence why Joan sent Peggy to Dr. Emerson in the first place — but at the same time, being perceived as being “easy” is unacceptable.

“It’s for your own good, really,” Dr. Emerson tells Peggy. “The fact is, even in our modern times, easy women don’t find husbands. I’m going to write you a prescription for Enovid. They’re $11 a month.”

Technically, Enovid wasn’t approved by the FDA until May of 1960 (you were close, Matthew Weiner) and wasn't made available to the public until June 23 of the same year. But the cost of Peggy’s prescription was accurate, with $11 being the equivalent to around $90 in 2017.

All of this took place around a decade before Our Bodies, Ourselves — what is basically the women’s health bible — was published by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. The landmark book clearly and accurately explained how women’s bodies worked, allowing those who read it to be empowered with knowledge.

Curious about the accuracy of this scene from Mad Men, I asked Judy Norsigian, one of the co-founders of Our Bodies Ourselves (which still operates as a nonprofit organization) if this was a common scene for women at the time.

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“In the early 1960s, most doctors wouldn’t prescribe the new contraceptive pill for any woman not already married... and this kind of paternalistic attitude was rampant in medicine, where about 98 percent of OB-GYNs were male and also trained to think of women as passive and appropriately subservient to men,” she tells SheKnows.

Norsigian also says that it’s “interesting to note that the doctor in this scene is also smoking — just one example of how an existing body of science was still completely neglected by most physicians (the same could be said about the neglect of good science about nutrition).”

“All of these gaps in medical training and awareness were an important reason for why Our Bodies, Ourselves became so popular over a very short period,” she adds.

Even though Peggy and Joan had to wait another 10 years before the book would come out, we’re fortunate enough to have it as a resource now, along with portrayals of birth control in pop culture.

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