The Women of The Gilded Age Are Here to Run the Show
This essay discusses the first two episodes of The Gilded Age.
In what is by now a classic essay, historian Elisabeth Israels Perry argued that “Men Are from the Gilded Age, Women Are from the Progressive Era,” lamenting the lack of attention historians gave to women beyond their role in reform movements. Women were relegated to the margins, or confined to specific roles, which often left them absent from the main narrative about the Gilded Age period. And thus they were written out of the histories of the struggles for power, money, and influence that define the era.
When we think of Gilded Age New York, men like John D. Rockefeller or William Henry Vanderbilt come to mind. But as the new HBO series The Gilded Age demonstrates, in 1882 New York City, it was women who were at the center, and they were the ones running the show. And this is perhaps why The Gilded Age seems so refreshing. Yes, we are getting a period drama but also a renewed and much needed perspective on this period.
When it came to who were the leaders of society, the show demonstrates that it wasn’t the robber barons who called the shots – it was their wives. This becomes clear early in the first episode when, after moving to their new mansion on E. 61st St., Bertha Russell (played by Carrie Coon) tells her husband and railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector), “We cannot succeed in this town without Mrs. Astor’s approval, I know that much.” Mrs. Russell knows that acceptance to Mrs. Astor’s famous list of “The Four Hundred”– the most important social influencers in New York – is obtained not by writing checks, but by amassing cultural capital and claiming space, often while wearing a luxurious dress. Even her all-mighty husband soon discovers that it is the female networks that open the door to male business partners and city politicians. Business deals were not closed in boardrooms or dark studies, but during informal dinners, charity events, and afternoon teas.
“Money isn’t everything,” the show reminds us; especially when it comes to securing one’s social future. The battle over influence is fought between aspiring newcomers like Mrs. Russell vs. “Old New York,” represented by her neighbor Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski). Much of the series revolves around the tension between maintaining old traditions and forging new ones. Not only does Mrs. Russell desperately want to break new ground among the elite, but also the young (but penniless) debutante Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) and aspiring Black writer Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) each look to take advantage of the new age and to carve out their own paths. This story is a battle of entitlement, pride, and fashionability. “Whatever her faults, she has imagination and taste. And nerve,” Mr. Russell says of his wife. “She will need all three in New York,” the architect Stanford White (John Sanders) advises him.
Yet money nevertheless lies at the heart of The Gilded Age, whether it is the lack of it that pushes Marian to live with her aunts – the widow Agnes and spinster Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon) – or the excess of it, as the Russells try to buy a place among the elites. Unlike his previous project Downton Abbey, series creator Julian Fellowes is less interested in telling an upstairs/downstairs story (although it is certainly there, Fellowes can’t help it), but more in the cultural intrigues and clashes of the powerful. Indeed, more than an Americanized Downton Abbey, the show is a feminized, Gilded Age version of Succession, another HBO hit.
The Gilded Age was a time of great change and tension in America. The industrial boom, the realignment of race relations, waves of immigration, labor unrest, and the rise of new political forces make this period a rich backdrop to tell a good historical drama. And the show depicts these changes well. From the first episode, viewers meet Peggy, whose story provides a plotline to address race relations, Black women’s experiences, and gives a much-needed representation on the screen. Thanks to historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar, who served as the series consultant and a co-executive producer, viewers can rest assured that the fictional world of the series is historically accurate and that characters like Scott will not just remain a token character. The first episode also hints at the complexity of gay male life in this period, and it will be interesting to see how much it will be developed.
These two plotlines are a welcome addition to the more expected narratives of romance, hostile rivalry, and coming-of-age that are the components of any good period drama, but it is yet to be seen if other aspects of Gilded Age society will receive attention. Will the series address the tremendous violence and labor unrest that were part and parcel of the railroad industry? The first episode alluded to the ethnic and racial tensions between Irish immigrants and African Americans, but will viewers get a glimpse into the anti-Semitism of the era or the extreme xenophobia against Chinese immigrants and other minorities? After all, 1882 was the year when the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in Congress. But even if Fellowes remains in his comfort zone and doesn’t dwell on the major rifts of the period, The Gilded Age’s focus on women’s perspectives in and of itself provides a notable addition to the period’s story.
That focus on women also allows Fellowes to do what he does best: creating a visual sensation for the viewers, who are sure to enjoy the opulence of late-nineteenth-century wealth. The huge interiors, the luxurious furniture and chandeliers, the lavish spreads, and of course the fashions, are part of what make The Gilded Age a real visual treat. Yet, as with many period dramas, fashion itself plays a role in moving the plot forward and giving depth to the characters.
And fashion did play an important role during the Gilded Age. Clothes were a marker of class and taste, but as the show demonstrates, they were more than a manifestation of what Thorstein Veblen coined “conspicuous consumption.” We can distinguish between the “Old New York” of Agnes and Ada’s dark-colored dresses and demure silhouettes, and the bright colors and often over-the-top gowns of Mrs. Russell, who literally wears her ambition on her sleeve. Yet, as Mrs. Russell discovers, you can be too fashionable for your own good. While dressing in one scene, her maid persuades her to remove a brooch, showing an understanding that displays of wealth can be interpreted as tacky. Despite following all rules of etiquette, it takes more than an elaborate dress to claim your place within the elite.
While the show’s first episode is titled “Never the New,” alluding to the strong grip old elites and tradition hold in New York’s high society, Fellowes has already signaled to viewers that “times are changing.” And if changes can’t come fast enough for Mrs. Russell, they are sure to disrupt the lives of the van Rhijns. Whether it is the abandonment of mourning clothes and etiquette in favor of bright pastels and social networking, or the hiring of a Black secretary, Fellowes makes clear on which side of the battle he is. Despite the apparent losses of the Russells in the short run, we know that the future belongs to them. “Revolutions are launched by clever people with strong views, and excess energy,” Agnes acknowledges, and if the first chapters are a sign of what to come, The Gilded Age might be telling the story of this revolution.
- Elisabeth Israels Perry, “Men Are from the Gilded Age, Women Are from the Progressive Era,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 1, no. 1 (January 2002): 25–48 ↑
Einav Rabinovitch-Fox teaches U.S and women’s and gender history at Case Western Reserve University. She writes about the intersections between culture, politics, and modernity. Her book, Her recent book, Dressed for Freedom: The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism (University of Illinois Press, 2021) explores women’s political uses of clothing and appearance to promote feminist agendas during the long 20th century.