Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age & the "Powerless" Woman Who Took on Washington- Patricia Miller
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Release Date: November 13, 2018
Synopsis: In Bringing Down the Colonel, the journalist Patricia Miller tells the story of Madeline Pollard, an unlikely nineteenth-century women’s rights crusader. After an affair with a prominent politician left her “ruined,” Pollard brought the man—and the hypocrisy of America’s control of women’s sexuality—to trial. And, surprisingly, she won.
Pollard and the married Colonel Breckinridge began their decade-long affair when she was just a teenager. After the death of his wife, Breckinridge asked for Pollard’s hand—and then broke off the engagement to marry another woman. But Pollard struck back, suing Breckinridge for breach of promise in a shockingly public trial. With premarital sex considered irredeemably ruinous for a woman, Pollard was asserting the unthinkable: that the sexual morality of men and women should be judged equally.
Nearly 125 years after the Breckinridge-Pollard scandal, America is still obsessed with women’s sexual morality. And in the age of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, we’ve witnessed fraught public reckonings with a type of sexual exploitation unnervingly similar to that experienced by Pollard. Using newspaper articles, personal journals, previously unpublished autobiographies, and letters, Bringing Down the Colonel tells the story of one of the earliest women to publicly fight back.
In the era of the Me Too movement, women are looking towards history and politics and wondering: are we the first to stand up? We know women fought for the right to work, the right to vote, and we earnestly want to know not only what those women went through, but why. Why did society and politics need the push they needed, and why did it succeed sometimes but not others? What were all the unwritten currents for and against these pioneers?
Patricia Miller does an excellent job answering these questions in Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the "Powerless" Woman who Took on Washington. Here she tells the story of Madeline Pollard and Colonel Breckinridge, and the unlikely lawsuit that helped turn of the century America question their double standard of men, women, and sexual morality. Pollard was in a relationship with Breckinridge for at least ten years while he was married to another woman- and always claiming that were it possible, he would marry her. But when his wife died, Breckinridge married another woman instead. Madeline Pollard did what few women of the time were brave enough to do: she publicly admitted the relationship and her "ruin" and sued Breckinridge for breach of promise. The resulting scandal not only forced society to ask questions it had never asked before, but brought down an elected official and brought thousands of Southern women into the political fray.
As fascinating as the story is by itself, Miller fills modern readers in on the backstory- the social norms of the time and those that were changing- to flesh out a complete world for her readers to understand. Women were beginning to enter the workforce in increasingly large numbers. Fathers and brothers were beginning to have to face the idea that a woman unchaperoned in public wasn't announcing her sexual availability, because their own wives, sisters, and daughters were now in those public spheres. It was not 'just' the radical women who were asking for work equality and the right to vote, or to stand up to abuses happening around them. Miller explores the economic and educational environments that had begun to change, and does a solid job of helping the reader to understand why the mid-1890s was a time ripe for the changes Pollard and others pushed for.
Madeline Pollard forced the conversation of sex into public, into politics, and into the home. She forced society to look at foundling orphanages, homes for fallen women, and the manipulations and social conventions that powerful men used to keep an entire class of women vulnerable to them. She inspired the first movement of women who (though they couldn't vote) used their opinions and influence to ensure that a sexual predator was not reelected to a government position. Pollard and the women who financed her battle took on Washington and inspired a generation of women to demand conversations and change in society and politics, morality and ethics. The Pollard trial certainly didn't end the sexual double standard, but it did begin the conversation we still carry on today.
Although occasionally dry and repetitive, Bringing Down the Colonel is an inspiring, well-researched book, and gives readers an excellent understanding of how women have fought the 'battle of the sexes' - and gives an excellent historical reminder of how far we have come, and how equality is always relative. A must read!