The shocking violent sexism of The Gilded Age

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The Gilded Age has officially returned to HBO with its second season, and the women of the period drama are once again calling all the shots.

The glossy series, set in the late 19th century, follows the lives of two upper-class families living on Fifth Avenue and their navigation of New York society. Much like the first season, the season two premiere of The Gilded Age - which debuted on 29 October - is filled with shots of lavish hats, disputes over opera houses, and questions of whether Mrs Russell will have anyone in attendance at her dinner party this time.

From the mind of Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, The Gilded Age is a mirror to the real-life period of 1877 to 1900, in which the United States experienced rapid economic growth due to industrialisation, demands for political reform, and changing roles for women. American writer Mark Twain coined the term in his 1873 novel of the same name, used to describe the era of opulence - gilded, versus gold - and the shaky underbelly that lives beneath the industrialists’ quick accumulation of wealth.

However, many of the women in The Gilded Age are stunted by the expectations of high society. There’s Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), a widow and matriarch of the van Rhijn family - an old money Dutch-American family belonging to New York City’s elite. She lives with her sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon), a so-called spinster with a kind heart but influenced by her sister’s traditional views on women. They’re joined by their estranged niece, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), a strong-headed young woman who wants to please her aunts but longs for something bigger. In the first episode, Marian befriends Black aspiring writer Peggy Scott on her way to New York, and she’s quickly hired as Agnes’ secretary.

Across the street, in the newly-built mansion opposite the van Rhijns, are the Russells - a “new money” family who recently acquired wealth through George Russell’s (Morgan Spector) stakes in the railway industry. His wife, Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), is desperate to climb the social ladder and will stop at nothing to become the gem of New York society. The key to helping her climb those ranks are her children, Larry Russell (Harry Richardson) and Gladys Russell (Taissa Farmiga) - the latter of who made her formal entrance into society and is finally eligible to be married.

For those who are familiar with the Gilded Age, industrialists such as John D Rockefeller and William Henry Vanderbilt often characterise this time period of extreme wealth. As for women, many of them were relegated to the domestic sphere - namely, due to the lack of rights for women during this time. HBO’s The Gilded Age offers a fresh perspective of the era, seeing as the fictionalised wives of industry titans, like Mrs Russell, are often the ones secretly pulling the reins. However, this was far different from the actual time period.

Louisa Jacobson as Marian Brook in HBO’s The Gilded Age (HBO)
Louisa Jacobson as Marian Brook in HBO’s The Gilded Age (HBO)

For starters, women didn’t win the right to vote until 1920 with the passing of the 19th amendment - more than two decades after the series takes place. While Marian has shown glimpses of her rebellious tendencies, such as going against her aunts’ wishes and teaching a watercolour class at St Mary’s school for girls, little to nothing has been mentioned about the women’s suffrage movement.

In fact, there were many female grassroots organisers advocating for the right to vote during this time. Prior to the Gilded Age, the Seneca Falls Convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York, over the course of two days in July 1848. In 1869, Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). However, the issue of women’s suffrage lay quite dormant during the Gilded Age, until the NWSA merged with the competing American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which ultimately played a pivotal role in passing the 19th amendment.

Fellowes’ critically-acclaimed series Downton Abbey focused much on the upstairs-downstairs dynamic between the British aristocracy and their live-in servants. However, in The Gilded Age, most domestic servants in the northeast were Irish immigrants or people who had been formerly enslaved. Meanwhile, 90 per cent of Black working women in the late 19th century were employed in domestic service. By 1900, more than one million women were working as domestic servants. For many years, the only professions available to women were domestic service, teaching, or sewing. While many colleges began opening their doors to women after the Civil War ended, it was shockingly illegal for married women to work due to “marriage bars” of the late 19th century.

Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski in ‘The Gilded Age’ (Barbara Nitke/HBO)
Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski in ‘The Gilded Age’ (Barbara Nitke/HBO)

In The Gilded Age, young Marian often expresses her desire to work but is advised by her aunts to take up something more acceptable in New York society, like volunteering for a charity. As Agnes tells Marian in the fifth episode of season one: “Charity has two functions in our world. The first is to raise funds for the less fortunate, which is wholly good. The second is to provide a ladder for people to climb into society who do not belong there.”

Perhaps the most consistent belief in both the real-life Gilded Age and the HBO series is the quest to find a husband. For white, middle to upper-class women in the United States, much of their lives and education were devoted to preparing her to become a wife. According to Daniel Scott Smith, author of Family Limitation, Sexual Control, and Domestic Feminism in Victorian America, 90 per cent of women married during the 19th century and more than 95 per cent were not employed outside the home. While the status or wealth of who a woman married advanced her own social status, many married women were still barred certain legal protections or freedom. Throughout much of the 19th century, wives couldn’t even own their own property, keep their own wages, or enter into contracts. As women’s rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton once claimed, strict divorce laws were among the greatest obstacles to women’s freedom and she likened marriage to “legalised prostitution”.

In The Gilded Age, young single men like Larry Russell are encouraged to “sow their wild oats”, as told by his own father in the eighth episode of season one. But in the second episode of season two, George Russell then tells his daughter Gladys: “Marriage is not the place to look for freedom.”

The period drama series has captivated both audiences and historians, but questions of how The Gilded Age will portray the inevitable women’s suffrage movement still remain.

New episodes of The Gilded Age season two drop every Sunday on HBO.