Madeline Pollard’s breach-of-promise lawsuit against famous Kentucky Congressman William Breckinridge was the talk of Washington, D.C., in 1894. When close to 20 women arrived at the courtroom as spectators to the buzzy trial, the judge politely threw them out—the testimony was far too indelicate for ladies to hear. But women had the last laugh: Representative Breckinridge, an eloquent political superstar, couldn’t escape the women who testified against him, the wealthy female activists who publicly backed Pollard and the ordinary women of central Kentucky who campaigned against his re-election, decades before they obtained suffrage.
Patricia Miller’s marvelous Bringing Down the Colonel recounts Pollard’s sensational claim that Breckinridge had seduced her when she was 17, engaged in a years-long adulterous affair with her, then reneged on his marriage pledge when his wife died. Miller also tells a riveting broader story of the changing social mores in late 19th-century America, driven by the mass entry of women into the office workplace and a female-led movement to eliminate the “double standard” that penalized women for their sexuality.
Miller illustrates this time in America through the lives of three women key to the case: Pollard, who had a more complicated backstory than she revealed; Jennie Turner, a working woman recruited by Breckinridge’s backers to spy on Pollard; and Nisba Breckinridge, the congressman’s daughter. All were intelligent, educated, ambitious women, held back (at least initially) by sexism and straitened finances. All ultimately built independent lives; Nisba became a prominent social scientist.
This book comes at the perfect moment, as the #MeToo movement highlights sexual harassment and assault. Women in the 19th century faced the same challenges and more. Through cases like Pollard’s, Gilded Age social reformers advanced women’s rights in the voting booth, office and bedroom. Their example continues to resonate.