When I saw this on the new book shelves at the library, I assumed from "A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age" in the subtitle that it was about the Woodhull sisters, whom I do find fascinating. I had never heard of Madeline Pollard, the "powerless" woman on the cover, but I found her story equally fascinating. It is one that played out in the newspapers across the country in 1893 and 1894, but has since been forgotten. Patricia Miller, a journalist, spent more than a decade researching and writing it. It has a particular resonance in 2019, particularly with the "MeToo" movement.
In June of 1893, Madeline Pollard took the unusual step of announcing her engagement to Col. Willie Breckinridge, a Confederate veteran and member of Congress whose wife had died the previous year. A month later Breckinridge, part of a powerful Kentucky political dynasty, married another woman in Louisville. In August, he was served with papers for a breach of promise suit that Pollard had filed. It wasn't just the suit, though, it was the explosive details that made the story front-page news. Pollard claimed that Breckinridge seduced her when she was a seventeen-year-old school girl, that she had been his mistress for more than ten years, that she had borne him two children, and that he had frequently promised to marry her when his wife died. He had even introduced her to a prominent Washington hostess, asking her to chaperone Pollard as his fiancée. Her suit demanded $50,000 in damages (well over a million dollars in today's rates - a fabulous amount in 1893).
Pollard was far from the first to make such claims. But she was the first to publish the details, and to appear publicly as a "Fallen Woman" who had broken the strict code of purity that late 19th century women were held to (white women at least, as Miller acknowledges). "I'll take my share of the blame. I only ask that he take his," Pollard said. That was a revolutionary statement: as Miller explains, the prevailing double-standard meant that women in cases like this bore all the blame, and they never prevailed in legal cases. In fact, women weren't allowed to even attend the trials, nor were the cases discussed in detail in news reports, to protect their delicacy and their purity. I had no idea that the future president Grover Cleveland was accused of sexually assaulting a woman, Maria Halpin, who then became pregnant. He was also accused to taking the child from her and having her committed to an asylum, while refusing her any other support or assistance. His supporters painted her as a wanton woman, blaming her pregnancy on other men. Miller also instances the senator and former member of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, Simon Cameron, who was sued for breach of promise by Mary Oliver. Because Oliver had had other lovers, and was therefore a "bad woman," Cameron was under no obligation to marry her and her suit was dismissed.
Breckinridge and his supporters expected that Pollard's suit would be dealt with as easily. However, as Miller writes,
the emergence of Madeline Pollard "startled the whole country." This seemingly powerless woman from a backwater in Kentucky took on one of the nation's most powerful men - and by extension much of Washington - and won. By having the nerve to tell her story in public, she broke the conspiracy of silence that allowed powerful men like Breckinridge to prey on younger and less powerful women. She led Victorian America on a front-row tour of the various subterfuges - the lying-in homes, the orphan asylums, the homes for fallen women - that men used to maintain an underclass of "ruined" women. She showed how men like Breckinridge manipulated their power and social conventions to ensure that it was women, and their unwanted children, who took the fall for men's behavior. In doing so, Madeline inspired a generation of women to demand change and presaged conversations about powerful men and sexual privilege that resonate into the twenty-first century.According to Miller, Pollard's case had a major impact on women in the South, where white men had been exploiting black women for centuries. White women had chosen to ignore it in their own families, as the diarist Mary Chestnut and others pointed out. This case broke that silence. It also started a conversation about women's rights that finally moved southern women to the suffragist cause.
Miller's account is filled with fascinating women: journalists, activists, society leaders, doctors, servants, nuns, and women running "assignation houses." The testimony of Sarah Guess, a former slave who kept one in Lexington that Breckinridge and Pollard used, was particularly damaging to his case. I was especially interested in Breckinridge's daughter Nisba, who managed a college degree but couldn't study law as she wanted. For white women of her class, who didn't marry, the only acceptable jobs were teaching and working in the new department stores. She wanted more, and it took her years to break free from family obligations. Towards the end of her long life, she began making notes for an autobiography that she never completed. That's too bad, I'd be interested to read more about her.