Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, 1909

November 13, 2017

Facing each other at last, the girl white, shaking, her eyes aflame, frontispiece for The Winning Chance, by Elizabeth Dejeans (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1909). Gayle Porter Hoskins (1887–1962). Oil on canvas, 36 x 24 1/2 inches. Acquired by exchange, 1971.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. — Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808–1890)

In 1909, Gayle Hoskins created the frontispiece for Elizabeth Dejeans’ novel The Winning Chance. The story centers on 19-year-old Janet Carew (left), who must work to support her impoverished family. She becomes a typist for older, prosperous, married stockbroker Leo Varek (left). Before long, he makes his predatory advance, telling her that if she succumbs he will ensure her family’s welfare. Janet has already resigned other positions after resisting similar abuse. She had hoped that this job would be different.

Hoskins captures Janet’s fear after she has rebuffed Leo’s demand. She shrinks back as her enraged employer thrusts out his chest in a threat just short of a physical attack. The tiger rug with the animal’s bared fangs is a perfect symbol for the sinister boss. The center point of the composition is two clenched fists, hers in fear and his in anger, almost meeting at the juncture of her white sleeve and his white shirt in the darkened room.

Eventually, to save her family from ruin, the worn-down Janet enters into a loveless relationship as Leo’s mistress, until she leaves to marry a man of her choosing. In a moralistic ending typical of early 20th-century popular novels, her departure causes Leo a crisis of conscience and he commits suicide. The now happy and secure Janet forgives him on his deathbed.

Dejeans (born Elizabeth Janes) considered the subject of The Winning Chance, her first novel, sufficiently controversial that she published it under a pen name. At a time when sexual matters were rarely alluded to, much less discussed, one reviewer explained her choice: “the radical character of [the book made it] probable that staid relatives might be discomforted to find themselves allied to the author.”[1]

When Lippincott, the book’s publisher, advertised the novel with the phrase “the big problem of the American girl,” a writer in the American Journal of Nursing, published primarily by and for women professionals, noted that the subject was more properly “the problem of the American man.” Leo believes “in his monumental selfishness…in his right to sacrifice the girl because she is defenseless and in his power.” Janet’s final escape gives her “the privilege which has universally been accorded to men but thitherto denied to women.” The review closes with regret that the book “will not be read by business men” who might be pressed to examine and explain their own behavior in such situations.[2]

Other reviewers ranged from forceful to pleasant. Edwin Markham, the poet and voice for labor justice, noted that the plot “involves one of the deepest and darkest tragedies of civilization—a tragedy that should arouse a nation to action.”[3] Some commentators praised the human interest aspects of the book. Unsympathetic authors believed that Janet should have resisted Leo at all costs. Others regarded her with compassion. Some felt that Leo’s ultimate suffering redeemed him somewhat.

Hoskins chose to illustrate a pivotal scene, one that exemplifies the turning point of the novel. A casual viewer—even one just glancing at the cover in a bookstore—would apprehend the plot. Intense emotions, telling poses, and dramatic lighting crystallize the fateful confrontation. It’s no wonder that Lippincott promoted Hoskins’ “colored frontispiece” in its advertising for the book. The image also appeared on the cover of some editions.

Mary F. Holahan
Curator of Illustration

[1] “Book Reviews and Notes,” The Oriental Economic Review, vol. III (July–August 1913), 629.

[2] The American Journal of Nursing. vol. 10 (November 1909), 138–139.

[3] Advertising section in The Far Triumph by Elizabeth Dejeans (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1909), 377.



Share This: