Margaret was eighteen years old when she became a feminist. It happened pretty much as soon as she arrived at UI Chicago for college. Leaving home in Minnesota had been scary and overwhelming, but chopping her red hair short and trading in long skirts for blue jeans was exciting and dangerous. College was full of new ideas and dynamic women who wanted her to understand her own power. She learned about the history of the womens' movement and new-wave feminism and the interaction of women's rights with other civil rights, exciting and confounding ideas that cost her many nights of sleep as she read through everything she could find on whatever topic had grabbed her attention.
She also learned a great deal about being a woman, and that sometimes being with women was every bit as good as being with men, but that was an even more confounding idea that she wound up putting away for quite some time. Instead of dating at all, she focused on increasing her own internal power and energy, starting with quite an elaborate ritual of crystals and meditation, but eventually refining it down to a quick prayer in the morning and a piece of amethyst in her pocket to ward off headaches. She majored in womens' studies and minored in political science, graduating summa cum laude, just as she'd planned.
Margaret was twenty-two years old when she became a secretary. That had not been part of her life plan. She'd assumed during college that if she just worked hard enough and graduated well enough, there'd be jobs out there. That did not turn out to be the case, at least not in Chicago, and Washington DC was very far away. She couldn't move out there without a plan and a nest egg. Margaret wasn't too worried yet. Things had a way of working out the way they were supposed to, if one just worked hard, took vitamins, paid careful attention to the phases of the moon, and always kept an ear to the ground.
Besides her skill at arguing about politics, she could also type ninety-five words per minute, a sideline that had earned her some money in college and could at least be a place to start. Tucking aside all of her firmly held belief and carefully honed rhetoric, and despite an impromptu soliloquy on her mother's Canadian heritage when she got nervous in the interview, Margaret picked up a job at Mueller-Wright, a defense contractor with offices in Chicago. She started out in the typing pool, which was easy work that allowed time for some socializing, and the cafeteria had amazing blueberry scones. Her awareness of patriarchal social stereotypes made her squirm a little bit in the subservient secretarial role, but the money was decent and the other women were friendly. It was just a temp job, it was good enough.
Margaret was twenty-three years old when she became Leo McGarry's personal assistant. That had been something of an accident of fortune, or at least a well-timed maternity leave. The first time she met Leo, he was seething because his previous temporary secretary had not come up to par after four entire hours to learn the job, so it was a little bit intimidating, but she refused to be cowed. Instead she looked him in the eye, told him that seventy-three degrees fahrenheit was the optimal temperature for office efficiency, then got to work. He didn't seem to know how to respond to that, instead just letting her do her job, and within four hours she'd fixed his filing and put his schedule in order, and started reading some of the files to get an idea of what the man actually did. It was really interesting.
Mr. McGarry smelled like expensive aftershave layered over with expensive whiskey, wore suits that cost her yearly salary, and spent a lot of his day yelling, but despite all that, Margaret started to like him. He could be thoughtful in small and unexpected ways, he had a wicked sense of humor, and he was immensely intelligent. Margaret couldn't stand working for dullards. The liking must have been mutual, because even after the eight weeks of his previous assistant's leave were up, Margaret kept her assignment to his office. He called her a girl, which was annoying sometimes, but he called the male associates “kid,” so she figured it was nothing personal. Four months in, she could anticipate most of his needs before he even told her. Eight months in, she could occasionally boss him around when it came to things like food and sleep. It was with a terrible mixture of pride and disappointment that she heard he'd been appointed Secretary of Labor and would be leaving the company. Things wouldn't be the same without him.
Margaret was twenty-four years old when she became a resident of Washington DC. It wasn't the way she'd planned to get there, but she wasn't going to complain. Being the personal assistant to the Secretary of Labor was a lot more interesting than sitting in the basement of some cubicle farm a stone's throw from Capitol Hill. Important people knew her by name, and the smarter ones treated her very nicely because she was the gatekeeper to her boss. She was careful not to abuse the privilege. She was careful about a lot of things in those days. Mr. McGarry was drinking more, and not always saving it until lunches or after work anymore. He still did his work and took his meetings, but Margaret started scheduling him an extra half-hour in the morning for hangover relief so nobody would see his bloodshot eyes and occasionally shaky hands.
It took Margaret about a year to really get used to both the job and the city. Washington was a wonderful place, full of interesting people with fascinating history, and situated directly on a confluence of ley lines that she was sure would be fortuitous. She got her first apartment without a roommate and studied feng shui to decorate it, though Leo objected strenuously when she tried to rearrange his office. She snuck things in a little bit at a time anyway; he needed all the help he could get. In November of their second year, he sprained his back while playing tennis and was out for several days. He came back sooner than he should've, relying on pain pills to keep him functional. Eventually his back healed, but the pills never went away. Margaret started to worry.
Margaret was twenty-five years old when she became the Secretary of Labor. Nobody appointed her to that position and she was never given the official title, it just sort of happened bit by bit. Leo's morning half-hour gradually stretched to an hour, and then ninety minutes. He'd be okay until lunchtime, when he'd either go out to a very fancy, very high-class bar, or lock himself into his office for an hour with a fresh bottle of Johnny Walker. By the end of lunch, he would need another ninety minutes of peace and quiet before afternoon appointments, and even those were sometimes a little rocky. He didn't have very much time anymore to read the files and briefing books he should've been familiar with, so Margaret would read them instead, summarize them concisely, and write her opinions in neat script at the bottom so he would know they were merely her opinions and not real printed text. It took weeks before she realized that he was giving out many of those opinions verbatim, as though he'd dictated them to her and just forgotten. Some nights, he seemed to forget when it was time to leave the office and just fall asleep on his couch. She called Jenny McGarry the first few times, but eventually got the unspoken message that Leo's wife was not at all interested in dealing with the issue. By this point, Margaret had no idea what to do.
By April of 1993, the situation was becoming untenable. Leo still came into work everyday, still wore a freshly-pressed suit each morning. That was Jenny's contribution to the business of maintaining her husband's career, Margaret guessed. Even when he was less hung-over than usual, his eyes were dulled, his words slow. She didn't know how many pills he was taking anymore. There was a very small window, just before lunchtime, in which he could usually still take meetings. For the rest of the day, she doctored his schedule shamelessly, inventing meetings and phone calls, long lunches and doctor visits and reading sessions. Whenever anybody came in to talk to him, they'd see his packed schedule and accept whatever tiny window of time they could get, or just allow her to pass along a message from Leo that answered whatever question they had. She would give Leo the briefing books and her neatly typed summations, then remove them from his desk hours later, untouched, and type up opinion memos to send out with his signature carefully forged on the bottom. She knew it was wrong, probably illegal, but what else was she supposed to do? In June he disappeared entirely for three days, leaving her and Jenny both frantic until a call from the governor of New Hampshire told them that Leo was alive and going to get better. Margaret had never been more relieved to clear a schedule for “family emergency.” When Leo came back a month later, shaky and pale and sober, they never really talked about what she'd done to keep his job.
Margaret was thirty years old when she became completely and certifiably a crazy person. After she and Leo had finished their stint at the Department of Labor, he'd taken a year off work to travel, lecture and (she hoped) save his marriage. It seemed like the perfect time to embark upon her own career, long deferred but never quite forgotten. She polished up her resume, leaned on a few of the many contacts she'd made at Labor, and with a glowing letter from Leo, quickly landed herself a job at the Women's Leadership Coalition. It was mostly a research position, honestly, but Margaret didn't mind that. She wasn't really the sort of person who went out and did the politicking. It was a good job, a safe job, the sort of position that would lead to more contacts, a better office, a bigger salary, the gradual steady march up the Washington support ladder. Only utter insanity could explain her choosing to leave the job after two years for a job that was much less steady and sure, and paid considerably less.
Utter insanity took the form of a call from Leo McGarry himself, summoning her to the campaign trail to help him run his best friend Jed Bartlet for president in a year when he couldn't possibly win. Margaret had never been on a campaign herself, but she'd heard plenty of stories from the other members of President Newman's administration about the hours, the travel, the food, the exhaustion. She'd be an assistant again, a prestige downgrade at least on paper, but she'd also be working for Leo again. And for Jed Bartlet, to whom Margaret owed a considerable personal debt that neither of them would ever acknowledge for helping Leo get clean. She quit her job, sublet her apartment, dumped her boyfriend, and gave in to the madness.
Margaret was thirty-two years old when she became the Senior Assistant to the White House Chief of Staff. She gazed wide-eyed into the camera that snapped her ID photo and wondered what her ten-years-younger self would've thought about her still being an assistant a decade after finishing college. She would probably overlook it, Margaret decided, because she was too busy gawking at the lofty surroundings. Assistant, sure, but it was a hell of a title bump anyway. Margaret was used to the long hours and late nights, though there was a lot more life-and-death stress on the Chief of Staff than the Secretary of Labor. She was sorry when Leo's marriage fell under the wheels of the administration's speeding train, but desperately glad when he didn't turn to drinking to make the pain go away. She couldn't have done his job for him here, would never have wanted to.
Maybe she wasn't the feminist icon she'd once dreamed of being, maybe some of her old colleagues at the WLC thought less of her because she'd gone back to a stereotypically gendered career path, maybe ten years working for the same man meant she was stuck in a rut. But if it was a rut, it was outside the door of the second-most powerful man in the nation, ten feet away from the back door to the Oval Office. She had great friends in the other assistants, remarkable women in their own right despite being ignored too often as secretaries, and she'd even been in the unique position to have several conversations with the First Lady of the United States about Ouija boards. For a temp job, Margaret decided, it had not turned out too badly.