Internalized Sexism and Misogyny in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. The Social Role and the Treatment of Women

Essay, 2021

12 Pages, Grade: 2,0


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Djenisa Osmani

Textual Analysis: Women Writers of the Progressive Era

September 1st, 2021

Internalized Sexism and Misogyny in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth

The Social Role and the Treatment of Women

It is no secret that in the past (and partly even today) there has been no equal treatment and equality between men and women, which is the result of patriarchally led social and cultural structures and conventions. Women have always been subjected to fixed stereotypes and regulations that determine what a woman is allowed to do, how and what she is allowed to be. It is usually assumed that men form obstacles, which is logical in that all these expectations of women stem from a patriarchal value system. However, women also (and especially) form these obstacles in societies and make it difficult for many women to develop themselves, for example. Edith Wharton, among others, takes up this theme in her works while using “stereotypes of women purposefully to highlight the falsity of such categorising and to suggest the many deceptions and incongruities involved in accepting such ready-made conceptions of a woman's role in society” (McDowell 529-530).

The House of Mirth is about Lily Bart, who tries in vain to re-establish herself in upper-class society after the death of her financially ruined parents. But as an unmarried and non-wealthy woman, this is not possible without a wealthy husband, which is why she must set out in search of a suitable man, but unfortunately a number of obstacles come in the way, mainly posed by women. Lidoff aptly summarizes Lily’s end, “Lily dies at the novel’s end, destroyed by the tyranny of social manners” (Lidoff 520). Lily’s social relegation has several causes, but among them are (internalized) sexism and misogyny, which especially tempt other women to come between Lily and her goals. The aim of this essay is to show what social roles women had in the upper class society at the end of the 19th century and what a major role (internalized) sexism and misogyny play in Edith Wharton’s novel. First, the terms internalized sexism and misogyny are clarified, followed by the presentation of the social role of women with the help of passages from the novel and the sacrifices they have to make. This is followed by the treatment of Lily by other women, in which misogyny is once again placed as the main focus of the women’s actions.


Sexism is “the systematic inequitable treatment of girls and women by men and by the society as a whole” (Bearman et al. 11). Contrary to what is assumed, it does not only originate from men, but also from women. Sexism is based on the patriarchal constructs of a society. Gender-dependent attributes and roles are ascribed to each sex, which are consciously as well as unconsciously passed on in the upbringing of children, making it difficult to dissuade a society from thinking and/or acting in terms of such constructs, because “[i]nternalised sexism refers [also] to women’s incorporation of sexist practices, and to the circulation of those practices among women, even in the absence of men”. While sexism can be intentional, such as explicit insults to a woman or sexual assault, as well as the overt oppression of women by depriving them of rights not taken away from men, there is also unintentional sexism where “the agents and targets ... are often unaware of the sexism in their interactions” (11).

Bearman, Korobov and Thorne divide internalized sexism into four categories in their study: competition between women, the construction of women as objects, assertion of incompetence, and the invalidation or derogation of women (10). In my analysis, the first two categories will play an important role in the following subsections.

However, the concept of misogyny is also of great importance in the analysis because misogyny is a form of sexism. Again, it is the case that misogyny does not only come from men but also from women and this can be unconscious, called internalized misogyny. According to Piggot, “[m]isogyny is a cultural practice that serves to maintain power of the dominant male group through the subordination of women” (Piggot in Szymanski et al. 102). It serves not only to oppress the female sex, but also to control women. Because women are an active part of misogyny as well, they “reinforce the central male culture of devaluing women through acts of horizontal oppression and omission” (Piggot in Szymanski et al. 103).


With this novel of manners, Edith Wharton has shown how women in the upper class in the 19th century were bound to socially strictly regulated and patriarchal structures. Although these women lacked nothing financially, they lacked in some other areas. Women from this social class had to take care in certain ways to remain in this social class, to maintain their reputation and in return to renounce their own will and especially their own identity. In the following, the social role of women and their tasks are discussed, followed by the topic of marriage and the (self-)objectification of women.

The Social Role and Tasks of Women. Before the tasks and role of women in the end of the 19th century upper class are explained using examples from the novel, the term leisure class is explained. According to Maureen Montgomery, “[T]he very notion of leisure implied that certain people had time in which to pursue activities that conferred gentility. It also signified that such people did not have to engage in manual labour and that their time was not regulated by the demands of remunerative labour” (Montgomery 6). The leisure class developed especially through industrialization and the steady growth of the stock market, which made some people richer and richer (6). The main aim of this social class was simply to display their wealth and prosperity “which was mainly manifested through the care of the interior décor of their homes, the celebration of luxurious parties and the planning of expensive forms of entertainment” (Verza 40). For the upper class, there was more to it than just the mentioned, such as attendance at galas and other social events, theatre performances, travelling and dining in restaurants. All with the aim of publicly displaying one’s wealth. These are all events that we find again in the novel: for example, the evening of the tableaux vivants or the trip of the Dorsets and Lily to Europe, as well as several festivities that are organized.

For women in this social class, it was not necessary (nor was it permitted, or it was rather frowned upon) to work. Quite the opposite, because “productive labour is regarded as ‘intrinsically base’” (Flohr 1). The husbands earned money, and the main task of the wives was to spend this money on expensive clothes, valuable jewelry, expensive interior decoration and above all through large and expensive festivities organized by the wives. Not only was this permitted by their husbands, but it was also desired, because only in this way was their wealth visible to outsiders. The function of women as “displayers of their men’s wealth, thereby sustaining the men’s reputation as superior member of the society” (3) ultimately benefits the men in social terms. It is noteworthy that working women are portrayed negatively and as ‘ugly’ in the novel, such as the char-woman, who is described with a “sallow face, slightly pitted with small-pox, and thin straw-coloured hair through which her scalp shone unpleasantly” (Wharton 13) showing a sexist and also misogynous way of thinking that only upper class women are supposed to be beautiful while working class women don’t.

Money and wealth were therefore important and how to handle it was naturally passed on from mothers to their daughters. This was also the case with Lily. The way Lily was brought up to deal with money, as well as her perceived disgust with poverty and labor, does not disappear even after the ruin of her family and the death of her parents. Lily does not handle money responsibly. She loves luxury because “she was not made for mean and shabby surroundings for the squalid compromises of poverty” (25-26). After all, it was also her mother’s last will that Lily should make it back to wealth. And this is what she tries to do, which she is not able to do so on her own as a female person.

The (Financial) Dependence on a Man. It was not possible for a woman from the late 19th century in the upper class to work her way up to be able to afford a living, unlike today, without ruining her reputation or losing her position in the upper class. Thus, there was no financial independence. Women were financially tied first to their own family and later to their husband. Charlotte Perkins Gilman writes in Women and Economics, “[T]he economic status of the human race ... is governed mainly by the activities of the male: the female obtains her share in the racial advance only through him” (Perkins Gilman 9). Lily also must face this problem. Her parents died early without leaving her anything, she was taken in by her aunt Mrs. Peniston, and she has no husband in sight, although she is already 29 years old (a very advanced age for an unmarried woman in the 19th century). Marriage for Lily is as important as it is urgent, something Lily is clearly aware of, “I’ve been about too long - people are getting tired of me; they are beginning to say I ought to marry” (Wharton 9). Since she has no wealth, her only option is to marry rich to regain wealth and prosperity, because if a woman “can’t keep it up alone, … [she has] to go into partnership” (12). The only assets a woman can bring to a marriage are wealth and her beauty and youth. She is thus left with only the latter attributes, but time is running out, “and it seemed an added injustice [the small wrinkles] that petty cares [her money problems] should leave a trace on the beauty which was her only defence against them” (28). Thus, the issue of marriage was “judged to be the central fact of a woman’s life: enabled her to express her ‘natural’ femininity, since it stabilized her necessarily dependent relationship to men; not trivially, it also afforded her security and a clear, unimpeachable public identity - her only reliable means of achieving social stability” (Griffin Wolff 78).

But Lily is not only plagued by financial pressures, but also by pressures from society, because “[m]arriage is in fact conceived as a vocation for women” (Verza 47). Marriage is the main goal in a woman’s life. In the case of this social class, especially a rich marriage. Selden also asks Lily at the beginning of the novel, ”Isn’t marriage your vocation? Isn't it what you're all brought up for?” (Wharton 9). But Selden is in a privileged position here, because while it is a social duty for women to marry, for men it is merely an option, “[T]here's the difference - a girl must [marry], a man chooses” (12). Griffin Wolff adds that “he can linger at the peripheries of commitment – taking pleasure in the perquisites of empowered masculinity and titillated by the aesthetic spectacle of dependent femininity seemingly displayed for his benefit” (Griffin Wolff 80). While Lily must choose exactly whom she can marry to be able to finance her expensive habits, and thus has to forgo a love marriage, Selden can do without all these criteria. Lily – and women of the late 19th century and social class in general – is “a victim of the civilisation which had produced her” (Wharton 7).

These two examples illustrate the extent to which women have been oppressed and how sexism and misogyny play a central role here. The inequality between men and women becomes clear: while men are allowed to work, and this is even portrayed positively, for women it is a negative characteristic; men are allowed to accumulate wealth and prosperity, but women are not and can only get there through a man (their husband or father); men are allowed to marry (regardless of their age) only if they want to, women have to marry (and as soon as possible) to be able to remain a part of society.

Wharton, on the other hand, emancipates her heroine in the novel from these constructs. Despite her advanced age, Lily takes her time choosing a potential husband and she is very selective, rejecting several marriage proposals from several men. She sabotages the marriage of Mr. Gryce, who is a good match financially, but she considers him boring, so “she intentionally misses church service with him, loosing thus the possibility to further develop their relationship” (Verza 48). She also refuses to marry Mr. Rosedale “because marrying a Jew would diminish her social status” (49), only to propose to him later, but this time he refuses because her reputation has been damaged by alleged affairs. Selden, whom she loves and who loves her, she does not want to marry because he is not wealthy enough, because “her obsession with wealth prevents her from accepting his love” (49).


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Internalized Sexism and Misogyny in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. The Social Role and the Treatment of Women
University of Stuttgart
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Feminism, Mysogyny, Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth, Sexism, Women
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Djenisa Osmani (Author), 2021, Internalized Sexism and Misogyny in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. The Social Role and the Treatment of Women, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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