In the ten years since Mad Men first premiered, the influence of Peggy Olsen and Joan Holloway as complex, flawed, and fascinating female characters has remained one of the shows greatest legacies. In the pursuit of their respective professional ambitions, both characters disrupted the patriarchy with guile in a way that had never truly been explored on television before. As a result, there's countless female characters that wouldn't exist without Mad Men, or at least not in the same way, because Peggy and Joan were groundbreaking. The influence of their characters on TV can't be understated.
Part of what felt so rare and thrilling about their characterization was that Peggy and Joan were portrayed as being just as well rounded, perhaps even more so, than their male counterparts on the show. We saw them facing the challenges of their personal and professional lives with a compelling acknowledgment of what ambitious women used to, and still have to, face in male-dominated industries. They were celebrated for their smarts, power, and capabilities, but Mad Men also rightfully denigrated for their shortcomings, and misfires, too. Their perspectives were elevated, but they weren't beyond reproach.
As well as powerfully portraying their scope for professional excellence, both Peggy and Joan were given agency over their sexuality and their love lives in ways that could be empowering, and devastating, to see. It was incredible to see Joan proudly consolidating her bodacious sexuality with her ambition for greatness around the office. And it was just as incredible to see Peggy deal with the decision to choose her life, and her career, over an unwanted child in Season 1, without that decision damaging her future romantic relationships. Both examples made for jaw dropping moments when Mad Men first appeared on TV, and specifically so because they happened to such well developed female characters.
Make no mistake, Peggy and Joan were feminist trailblazers, and they definitely led the way for these female characters to be developed on TV following that first groundbreaking season of Mad Men.
1. Kim Wexler From 'Better Call Saul'
2. Olivia Pope From 'Scandal'
Throughout Scandal, Olivia has been portrayed as a multi-faceted character unafraid of to do or to take whatever she wants, and to have control of loaded situations.
3. Leona Lansing From 'The Newsroom'
Jane Fonda is formidable in whatever she does, but as Leona in The Newsroom she was a goddamn queen, and unapologetic about it.
4. Alicia Florick From 'The Good Wife'
Like Joan, Alicia wasn't afraid for her sex life to overlap with her career, even if it was destined to end messily. However, Alicia was also wonderfully flawed, forthright, and ferocious in just about every other aspect of her life and career, too.
5. Diane Lockhart From 'The Good Wife' & 'The Good Fight'
Diane was kind of the Peggy to Alicia's Joan, maintaining a much more focused professional edge throughout The Good Wife. Her drive, smarts, and fierce wit continue to be an inspiration on The Good Fight, too.
6. Jessica Pearson From 'Suits'
Jessica has exactly the sort of grace, cleverness, and cunning that makes her stand tough within the cutthroat legal World. Which is perhaps exactly why Jessica may be leading a Suits spinoff soon.
7. Selina Meyer From 'Veep'
Veep may be a comedy, but that doesn't make Selina any less vocal, powerful, and commanding.
8. Claire Underwood From 'House Of Cards'
It isn't just that Claire is impossibly smart and startlingly assertive, but also that she shares Joan's penchant for looking seriously chic while being absolutely bomb.
9. Rayna James From 'Nashville'
Rayna might be a brain within the music industry, rather than within a corporate field, but she's just as dominating and inspiring a character.
10. Rachel Brooks From 'Justified'
US Marshall Brooks was smart and fearless, and regularly challenged authoritative and criminal men like it was no big deal. And all with her formidable wry smile, and dazzling wit.
11. Carrie Mathison From 'Homeland'
As a complex, flawed, and multi-faceted character, Carrie was utterly compelling. She always went the extra mile to get the job done, and she was also given full agency over her sexuality. No matter what dark places these decisions took her.
12. Virginia Johnson From 'Masters Of Sex'
Set in the '50s, Johnson was portrayed as being completely ahead of her time. Not only was she a divorced Mother pursuing a meaningful career, but she also explored, and embraced, her sexuality in full. Including joining a polyamorous relationship.
13. Annalise Keating From 'How To Get Away With Murder'
Annalise isn't perfect, and that's perhaps what makes her so fascinating. While there's no doubt that she's an absolute boss on just about level she possibly can be, we're also given access to her flaws and vulnerabilities, in a way that feels empowering.
14. Stella Gibson From 'The Fall'
There are few women characters on TV as unapologetic and confident as Gillian Anderson's Stella. Whether she's leading a murder investigation, challenging the patriarchy, or simply choosing a lover to share her bed for the night, she does so with inspiring levels of self-certainty.
15. Alex Parish From 'Quantico'
Alex may be incredibly sexy, and unafraid of that fact, but she's also fiercely headstrong and audacious in her pursuit for truth.
16. Robin Griffin From 'Top Of The Lake'
As was clear from the second Elizabeth Moss appeared on screen as Peggy, the actor always excels as challenging, feminist characters who dare to disrupt the patriarchy. And as outspoken, tough detective Robin, she was exactly that.
17. Quinn King From 'UnReal'
Quinn is ruthless in a way that is rarely seen in women characters on TV. Though this can often be an inspiring trait to witness, in UnReal, it can also be a little terrifying as Quinn is happy to push whatever boundaries she needs to in order to boost ratings.
18. Cookie Lyon From 'Empire'
Cookie is imperfect, for sure, but her unapologetic ambition, independence, and expression of her sexuality were irresistible to witness. Furthermore, her flaws and complexities made Cookie into a true feminist hero, striving for excellence, while capable of vulnerabilities.
Peggy and Joan may have helped usher in a whole new era of feminist characters, but here's hoping that the rest of these inspiring TV women help to inspire a whole new era of feminist programming, too.