A friend told me a week ago that he was going to have to start watching Mad Men, but that his wife couldn’t handle it. “She can’t stand the way the women are treated,” he said. “She just won’t go there.”

I understand. Workplace equality is far from what it ought to be today. In 2008, for every dollar men earned, women earned 77 cents. The U.S. Census Bureau concluded that women earned less than men in all 20 industries and 25 occupation groups surveyed. Even female secretaries earn on 83.4% of what male secretaries earn.

So imagine what conditions must have been like in 1965. Or–don’t imagine. Tune in to Season 4 of Mad Men and watch as women are ridiculed, dismissed, used, abused, and generally mistreated.

And yet: in spite of the way the women of Mad Men are treated by the men, the show is anything but misogynistic. The female characters on Mad Men are among the most complicated and compelling women on television–and are all the more so for being so often downright dislikable.

For example: has there ever been a worse mother on series television than Betty Draper Francis? (Perhaps Weeds’ Nancy Botwin, but stay with me here for a minute.) She is awful to her children: abusive, dismissive, and neglectful. Although Betty doesn’t work, her kids are virtually raised by the maid. We know young Sally Draper’s going to be in therapy for a long, long time.

And yet, we root for Betty, in some bizarre way. We see how damaged she is. Her husband was not only a cad, he wasn’t even actually the person he said he was. In the latest episode, “The Summer Man,” Betty and her new husband Henry encounter Don at a restaurant with a date, and Betty falls apart. She, quite unbecomingly, “needs” a drink. She nearly squirrel’s Henry’s chances to run John Lindsay’s presidential campaign with her rude behavior. But by the end of the episode, Betty pulls it together. She looks at Don with pity and tells Henry, “We have everything.” Is she sincere? In denial? We shall see.

Joanie’s a whole ‘nother animal. She’s the subject of what today would clearly be called sexual harassment–and would have grounds for a big, fat lawsuit. In 1965, however, Joanie handles things differently. She uses her body as a shield and a weapon to keep both the secretarial pool and the men of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in their respective places. She also uses the idea that the nasty young men who’ve perpetrated a pornographic illustration of her will likely be shipping off to Vietnam as a withering response to their casual sexism. Of course, Vietnam is much on Joanie’s mind. Her husband, who’s seized upon the Army as his chance to become a surgeon, will be heading overseas after basic training. Joanie is the Amazon Queen of her pink-collar world. But her personal life is ruined, her dream of being a doctor’s wife compromised, if not shattered.

Which is why she doesn’t take kindly to Peggy Olson’s firing of piggish Joey the art director. Peggy witnesses the whole awful affair, and feels empathy for Joan. Joan tries to get Don to hire someone other than Joey to work on revisions for the Mountain Dew campaign, and Don ignores her. Peggy takes up her cause, and goes to Don for support. “You want some respect? Go out there and get it for yourself,” Don tells Peggy.

After she fires Joey, Peggy mentions it to Joan, thinking she’ll be pleased. Joan’s response: “All you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch.” Ouch.

It’s worth mentioning two other women who play significant roles in “The Summer Man”: Don’s two dates, Bethany Van Nuys and Dr. Faye Miller. Don’s been out with Bethany five times and she hasn’t gotten anywhere with him. But she marks Betty as a frigid bitch and goes down on Don on the way home in the cab.

Later, Don convinces Faye to have dinner with him, and she’s getting hot and bothered–but Don declines to bring her to his apartment. Don Draper, bless his Dick Whitmanish soul, is looking for something deeper: a woman instead of a girl. Compare and contrast with Peggy’s potential beaus in last week’s episode: Mark, the clueless boy who invites her family to her birthday dinner; and Duck, who at least understands that what really turns Peggy on is a business card that says “Peggy Olson, Creative Director.”

Finally, let us not leave out our pal, Don Draper. In a beautiful Cheeveresque twist, Don has decided to become a swimmer. He is, notably, swimming in the opposite direction of everyone else in the pool as the episode opens. He also knows that he’s drowning in alcohol; the echoing buzz at the bottom of the bottle is the same one he feels when he’s surrounded by water, drifting to the bottom of the pool. He is trying, journaling like a schoolgirl. He may yet become actually lovable.

He may even find a woman who understands and loves him, as the kind, brave Anna Draper did. He may become a champion of women–may understand that they are not his inferiors, but his path to salvation.

I would not bet against it. “Tell your wife she’s wrong,” I want to tell my friend. “Mad Men loves women.”