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Enabling “Mad Men” — Part I: The Betty Chronicles

August 12th, 2009 No comments

During a recent vacation in Maine, the four adults in the house gathered what was left of ourselves after our kids had finally gone to sleep, and plowed through the entire second season of Mad Men. (We’d done the same with the first season during last year’s vacation.) One week, thirteen episodes on DVD: now that’s the way to watch TV. By the end, we were all struck by the same thing:

The title and the show’s dead-on depiction of the dysfunctionally glamorous advertising world of the early 1960’s notwithstanding, most of the best-developed and consequently most interesting characters are the women: Betty Draper, wife of the show’s tortured protagonist, Don Draper; Joan Holloway, office manager for the ad agency; and Peggy Olson, secretary-turned-copywriter. All reflect the legal and social cages that helds women during that not-so-long ago time, as well as the various strategies women used to pick the locks.

From my perspective, the sometimes-unstated legal rules that enforced the social norms are especially interesting. In this first of three separate posts about these women, I’ll focus on Betty Draper. 

Don Draper is a beautiful, irresistible man with money and power. As was more common then than now, he sleeps around — often, and with different women. From season 1, it’s obvious that Betty knows about it, but her options are few. The neighborhood’s scorn for the one divorced women in their midst (before they know anything of the circumstances), reflects the high social cost borne by divorcees. When Betty finally takes a stand during season 2 — only after being publicly humiliated — Don denies everything. Despite excavating the house for clues, she unearths no proof of his infidelities. At the time, this meant that divorce would not have been a legal option for for her, or at least not one likely to succeed. There was still no such thing as “no fault” divorce, and most states required that adultery had to be proven by “clear and convincing evidence” — the legal term for evidence somewhere between the “more likely than not” standard used in civil cases, and the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for criminal cases. Inasmuch as a adultery was then universally a crime (although seldom punished), this standard made sense. But the effect was to make exit from marriage almost impossible. In New York, where the show is of course set, this was especially true — adultery was the only ground for divorce until 1967!

Yet the show and the law actually reflect legal and social progress over an earlier era: For most of the season, Betty won’t allow Don into the home, and he accepts her decision (while not admitting anything until the season’s final episode, and then obliquely). And the law by this time had at least equalized the legal treatment of the spouses — for centuries, women could get their exit visas only by showing that their husbands had engaged in a “course” of marital infidelity, while men had but to prove a single instance. Even by the early 1960’s, though, I’d guess that someone has studied and shown that the almost exclusively male judges were more sympathetic to husbands than wives.

Betty’s options were further limited by her discovery that she’d become pregnant before kicking Don out of the house. Because of her wealth and station, it seemed that she did have the option of abortion (a friend tells her of “a doctor in Albany.”) What Mad Men doesn’t say is that abortion remained illegal (except in rare circumstances) in New York until 1970 (three years before Roe v. Wade).

The writers, wisely, left unclear whether she’d actually have gone through with the procedure;  before she takes any action, Don returns, hat in hand. In the season’s final scene, the two of them are sitting at a quiet kitchen table as she tells him of her pregnancy. It’s clear that her condition, and her limited options, contributed to her complex decision to take him back.

Like any well-written and thoughtful show, Mad Men isn’t preachy, or comfortably clear. Would a fuller range of legally available options have been better for everyone, including the couple’ s other two kids? Perhaps, but maybe not. It’s impossible to say, of course: We only see one course of possibilities played out. I usually — and here — come out on the side of choice, autonomy and dignity over enforced status.

But let’s not pretend that progress is an unmitigated good in every case. Law makes its decisions in bulk.

Sotomayor: Abortion as a Public Health Issue

July 15th, 2009 1 comment

I no longer listen or watch raptly as Supreme Court nomination hearings proceed. They’re mostly for show, and a little goes a long way.

In Judge Sotomayor’s case, the little I’ve seen —  except for the moving sight of her mother in the audience, fighting back tears of joy and pride — has been as scripted as have been recent hearings. Republicans are cautiously on the attack, recycling the few pieces of ordnance they have (will anyone ever again refer to herself as “a wise Latina”?) and at times revealing their embarrassing ignorance of all things judicial. Democrats work on the hagiography while pre-emptively blocking any efforts to suggest that the nominee might actually have a heart. (Chuck Schumer’s references to cases where Sotomayor had ruled against sympathetic plaintiffs were noteworthy in this regard, if a little…odd.) And the nominee herself, determined to give them nothing (especially since she’s reputedly such a Latina hothead!), is plodding along in a performance that is measured — at times even boring — by design.

But I did stop what I was doing and listen attentively to a brief exchange between Judge Sotomayor and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The discussion concerned the nominee’s work as a Board member for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (“PRLDF”). Having served on the board of a legal advocacy group my own self, I can tell you that even the lawyers among us had approximately zero input on the cases the organization chose to take, and even less on the legal arguments and strategy the organization pursued.

Nonetheless, there’s something to Sen. Graham’s line of questioning, because Board members are generally committed to the goals and philosophy of the organization, even if they might have quibbles about details. If Equality Advocates, on whose board I sat, had suddenly decided, for example, not to take cases involving transgender rights, I would have known about that decision, and protested it. Sotomayor said as much, noting that Board members did care about fidelity to the organization’s broad mission statement.

So Graham pressed Sotomayor on briefs that the PRLDF had filed arguing that denying poor women the right to a government-funded abortion was the moral equivalent of slavery. Sotomayor claimed, quite plausibly, to have known nothing of this, but then she did speak to the overall goals of the organization in the same way I would have felt comfortable describing the work of Equality Advocates. She said that the Fund (which contains the word “Education” in its title) was interested in issues of “public health,” as were other advocacy groups.

Aha! Graham had what he perceived as an opening. “So you think abortion is a public health issue?” he asked.

Somehow, she managed to avoid answering the question directly — but she shouldn’t have. Here’s the exchange (beginning shortly before 4:00):

Abortion is a public health issue, and this description of it shouldn’t be seen as controversial. Graham was doubtless proceeding from the presumption that those who see abortion as a matter of public health are on the extreme end of the pro-choice side.

It’s true that one argument in favor of abortion rights has been that, on a population-wide basis, safe and legal abortions lead to better health outcomes; illegality and the lack of regulation predictably compromise women’s health. But that doesn’t mean that the argument is decisive from a public health point of view, nor does it mean that the public health perspective is the only perspective from which to consider the issue.

Recently, those opposing abortion rights have argued that abortions have their own public health consequences, including increased incidence of breast cancer and adverse mental health outcomes for women who terminate their pregnancies. There’s not a lot of evidence in support of these theories, but that didn’t stop Justice Kennedy, in his 2007 Supreme Court decision in Gonzales v.  Carhart, from reciting supposed psychological consequences in support of his ruling that a law restricting late-term abortions was constitutional.

And public health, properly understood, isn’t a purely utilitarian calculus, anyway: Properly understood, it incorporates a respect for persons and autonomy that has both long- and short-term effects on health and well-being. In short, to recognize the issue as one with a public health dimension is to add a useful prism through which to view this complex and probably irresolvable issue.

But not the only prism. Saying that an issue has an important public health dimension isn’t ruling other perspectives out of order. Questions of rights and morality can’t and shouldn’t be read out of the issue. The challenge is to hold all of these perspectives before us as we strive for some kind of legal and social rules that we can live with, if not totally embrace. That goal sometimes  seems impossible to achieve, but I’m optimistic that public health talk can take some of the heat out of the discussion and enable sensible compromise.

Repeat: Abortion is a public health issue.