Watching the first season of AMC’s Emmy-winning series Mad Men, it’s tempting to say things have progressed tremendously for women, and move to another topic.

The series, basic cable’s first to capture a best drama Emmy, accurately depicts office politics of 1960 at fictional Madison Ave. ad agency Sterling Cooper. To say the women of Sterling Cooper — secretaries and switchboard operators nearly all — are subservient to their male-executive bosses is like saying Fred Astaire could dance a bit.

Sweet, bright Peggy Olson, played by Elisabeth Moss, is informed during her Sterling Cooper orientation by the female head of secretaries that, along with typewriter maintenance and coffee-break procedures, she should choose a birth-control method. Immediately. While Peggy can’t sleep her way to the top — women could only dream of leaving the typing pool — sex with execs is almost a job requirement. In case you were wondering about racial or religious diversity at Sterling Cooper, don’t. It didn’t exist.

Yes, it’s easier to be a woman today, but there’s little room for error, as Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) discovered this summer. If she acted with, dare we say, manly determination, she was attacked as being not ladylike. When she shed a tear, she was unfit to be commander in chief.

Ditto for Miley Cyrus. While she can galvanize legions of girls with her music and double life as Hannah Montana, press hounds are watching her intently, obsessing, some would say, as she matures into a woman. Judging by the uproar over images in Vanity Fair, any perceived slip will result in an avalanche.

When Katie Couric took the anchor chair at CBS, more than her journalistic cred was up for grabs. Judging by watercooler chatter, you’d have thought CBS should lay off news staff in favor of hairstylists, makeup artists and clothing consultants. Does anyone comment on Brian Williams’ cravat choices?

And are the women on our cover generally seen as execs, or as female execs? When it’s the former, we’ll think of moving to another topic.

Return to 2008 Most Powerful Women in Cable table of contents

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