Agent Carter and women in post-war America

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Agent Carter was a short lived gift that should receive more respect than we give it. With the success of Mad Men, various networks tried and failed to get viewers interested in 20th century costume dramas, in rare form: set in America. America’s refusal to take interest in our own history through entertainment is unfortunate, because it’s just so easy. That’s why Agent Carter is a rare gem, though the general public didn’t seem to think so. The irony is, the show itself could apply it’s most beloved line to itself “I know my value, anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.”

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The show’s first episode portrays Peggy sharing a New York apartment with another young professional woman, and their relationship is friendly, but not based in friendship. The foldout bed in the tiny studio apartment is used in shifts, the women likely found each other because they could work out a sleeping shift that would suit them both. This type of arrangement was hugely popular during WWII, in large cities and especially in cities that had factories and shipyards. These facilities usually operated 24 hours a day, so if you worked the day shift, you could sleep at night while your roommate was working the night shift. A single bed apartment for half the price. This continued in larger cities such as New York after the war, for people trying to make it in the city. One girl could work at a department store, the other at a nightclub, and they might pass each other somewhere in between.

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After Peggy moves from the apartment she is persuaded to apply at “The Griffith” a women’s only complex with strict rules and regulations, the most notable of which: no men past the lobby. These apartments were real, and very popular, though they often operated like large boarding houses, with meals provided. There were lots of options throughout New York history, you could find a boarding house/apartment in a building that only admitted people of your religion, race, marital status, gender, job, etc.

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The Griffith was likely based on The Barbizon, which opened in 1927 as the place for young professional women. 700 rooms for single women, and not a man in sight (above the first floor that is). But not just any woman could rent a room. You had to submit multiple letters of reference, and look, act, and dress like a proper young lady. I haven’t found reference to race, but I think it’s safe to assume that was a factor as well. Your parents could require you to sign in and out each day, and request a chaperone for outings. Stumble back to your room drunk at 1 am? You’ll get “a talking to”. No cooking in your room, in fact no electrical appliances at all. Your seams needed to be straight, your gloves clean, and your lipstick applied. Parents reluctant to release their daughters into the wild of the big city could take comfort in the mother figure who ran the place, accurately portrayed in the show as a no nonsense middle aged woman who seems to have eyes in the back of her head, and the girls virtue as top priority.

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Peggy’s roll in the workplace is so accurately portrayed. It’s largely forgotten that during WWII many American women experienced a kind of independence that wouldn’t be seen again in their lifetime. With most of the able bodied male population in service, women were mobilized for work, earning their own paycheck without question. There were military positions for women, mostly clerk work, and the other major option was factory work. It wasn’t just that it was open to female employees, but many even encouraged it with certain benefits. On site childcare was something that allowed working mothers to have consistency in a busy life, and some of the more organized shipyards even provided pre-made meals for women to take home at the end of their shift to feed their families.

Post-war, if the jobs stuck around, women were pushed out. Some simply got laid off, and some were stripped of the benefits they relied on so they were forced to quit. Removing the childcare some jobs provided was a popular one, pushing women away, and opening up jobs for men returning to the workforce. In the first episode Peggy’s roommate mentions

“They let ten girls go today”

“Did they say why?”

“Because ten more GIs got discharged. I had to show a guy from Canarsie how to use a rivet gun”

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Peggy herself is a fantastic representation of a woman landing a job in her related field, and finding it very different from her war era experiences. Peggy, even without my biased admiration, is obviously the “best man for the job” if you’ll excuse the irony. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Peggy Carter is not simply his sidekick after a time, she is already established in her own right before Steve Rogers even enters the picture. As we learn in the show, she entered into special operations from her job as a code-breaker, an admirable feat in itself. In the movie she’s important enough to be involved in the Super Soldier project, and throughout the film we see she places herself in danger in order to get the job done. Peggy Carter is highly regarded in wartime, with the best of men following her orders, whether she’s supposed to be giving them or not.

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Her roll at the SSR is a different story. She show opens in such a way that leads us to believe she’s still kicking ass and taking names. The shot of her symbolic strut down the sidewalks of New York, in a sea of faceless men in suits, sets us up for a show where Peggy Carter is a clear stand out. We know she co-founded S.H.I.E.L.D, so obviously she doesn’t just stop her career and play house the rest of her life. The jolt of reality comes when she enters the office. A meeting is called, and she’s told to cover the phones while everyone else is in the meeting. She’s called “darling” and “sweetheart” in professional situations. She takes lunch orders, and gets coffee. It’s implied throughout the beginning of show that not only do her co-workers not know she has hand to hand combat and weapons skills, but they try to shield her from the uglier side of the job and violent interrogations. At one point when she voices her informed opinion, she’s told “The war is over, let the professionals decide who’s worth going after.” despite the fact that she too is a professional. The attitude towards women is clear: you had your fun, now go on and let the men work.

Her time with the famed Captain America is turned into nothing more than a fleeting affair with a celebrity, not helped by the popular radio show portraying her as a helpless bimbo. Her relationship with Steve is referred to as a nothing more than a “liaison”. Peggy uses the public view of femininity to her advantage, playing the flirt, the dumb secretary, the assertive nag, the damsel in distress. The world she previously inhabited called for her strong personality, but now few seem to know how to handle that, so she often must resort to playing the part she’s expected to in order to progress. At one point a co-worker says point blank “You’re a woman, no man will ever consider you an equal.” Whatever thoughts ran through Peggy’s head, it’s safe to say Steve Rogers and his unwavering admiration for her and her work was unavoidable.

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In one scene a coded note is being argued over in the office, with two coworkers, her boss, and a professional code breaker. Not until Peggy weighs in is the note decoded, her time at Bletchly overlooked just like the rest of her work. It leads to the next scene where Peggy has to prove her knowledge and experience to go back into the field for a mission. No other agent is questioned, but Peggy has to convince her superiors to let her go. There her fellow agents are introduced to Peggy’s world as she’s known it, where she is not only equal to the revered “Howling Commandos” but the agents learn that the phrase “Do as Peggy says” is the most likely way to assure the job gets done. And it even shows up again in the second season.

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Would Peggy have risked a charge of treason to aid her friend if her job had utilized her to her full potential? Were she respected and able to advance in her career, her skills recognized and rewarded, would she put it all on the line for an illegal assignment? It’s hard to say, but it’s clear in the show that whenever she has a doubt of her unorthodox mission, the professional world around her reminds her just how valuable she is to them. Which is not.

How many women’s stories of that era have been lost to the same conditions as Peggy’s? Incredible women who were pushed aside after the war because of gender or race? Countless women who had challenging and important rolls during the war that have been forgotten, because the post-war era made it difficult or impossible to continue as they were. Pulled from potential careers and independence and essentially forced to return to the way of life that was seeking a husband for financial security. We see Peggy fighting back in a way that is so applicable to issues today no matter who you are or what you’re trying to achieve. In Captain America: Civil War, Sharon Carter quotes her aunt Peggy at her funeral:

“Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say ‘No, you move’.” This comes at a critical point for Steve Rogers, and sticks. Even after death Peggy Carter influences those who valued her.

Because when the rest of us ask “What would Captain America do?” Captain America asks “What would Peggy do?”

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{screenshot source}


One thought on “Agent Carter and women in post-war America”

  1. This honestly made me well up a little bit. Peggy Carter was such an amazing character, and I really loved this show – I feel like it’s really ripe to be brought back, given the current political climate and what it has to say about women and the ways in which they deal with a system that undermines and devalues them.

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