The Sexual Harassment of Lily Bart

Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, over a century after its publication, is a transcendent work exploring the trauma of sexual harassment. It was criticized in its time as a ‘novel of manners,’ while its proponents called it a social satire.

Maybe it’s about manners, maybe it’s a scathing commentary on wealthy socialite culture, but mostly what it’s about is a single, broke woman trying to navigate a career, life, and society while being continuously and solely valued for her sexual attractiveness and perceived availability. She was trained to be a rich man’s wife, but she can’t stomach the men to whom she could be wed.

Miss Lily Bart, heroine of the novel, is from a fallen New York family. Well-connected but broke, beautiful but desperate, plodding the path of privilege and wealth for which her shoes were made, Lily is of the fashionable set of late 19th Century New York. What she’s got is is beauty, charm, masses of debt, and that most cursed of all things, standards.

Older, married, well-connected men make passes at her, and though she turns them down so much of the time, her reputation is sullied by the existence of their advances at all. Friends and enemies alike ask what she could be doing to lead these men on so, and answer with a wink and nod.

Miss Lily Bart is a hanger on of power, a socialite with her body and cunning as her only assets. Try as she might to wield some of that power on her own terms, without giving over her body to men, she is unable to gain any traction. It’s simply not allowed.

What we do to our women! What we have done, what has been done, what women have been put through. Yes, fragments, not sentences, because these were lives lived in fragments, lived according to proscribed principles. Women of standing who were socially and financially crippled by their perceived association to men who wanted docile, easily manipulated, willing young women in secret corners, in their beds.

With no fortune of future of her own, Miss Lily runs from fashionable country house to fashionable town house, perfectly made up, well coiffed, perfectly clothed, expensively jeweled– this is what’s expected, and she’ll deliver no matter what, no matter how much debt she has to take on. (MFA, anyone?) But like many women when faced with a job for which they have prepared and interviewed, for which they have worked and sacrificed, she is faced instead with men who take every opportunity to thrust their sex upon her, ignoring everything about her but the wants they impose upon her.

If Lily Bart were facing down her career prospects today, she would have been one of the endlessly talented, fierce women who were never given a chance because they did not go along to get along, did not stand idly by for sexual harassment and abuse. Just as she was in her day, she would have been cast off, obliterated, defeated by men of power and influence who don’t give a damn about the women they tread upon to secure their own aims.

Critics at the time painted Wharton’s heroine as someone who eschews passion and love for money and security. But when the men in control of all of it demand she be used according to their aims, and not her own, she refuses them. Time and time again, Lily holds tight to what she knows to be right, and in not letting herself be used by men, she is destroyed by them.

Why did critics hate her? Why is she still considered a vapid socialite of American literature? Because even in the stories we tell ourselves, we blame women for men’s unwanted advances. We blame women for our perceiving them as slutty and too available. We blame women.

The tables are starting to turn on this, as we’ve seen with all of the men being brought down through the exposure of their illicit actions and unkempt desires. Let’s bring back Lily Bart, sexually harassed throughout House of Mirth, and for a century of criticism afterwards. She is every woman who has been forced to submit to sexual harassment in order to achieve job security, and tossed to the gutter when she doesn’t play ball.

Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart in Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth.
Edith Wharton as a debutante, circa 1862


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