The Gilded Age’s #MeToo Moment
IN BRINGING DOWN THE COLONEL PATRICIA MILLER INVESTIGATES A SENSATIONAL SEX TRIAL
How was Madeline Pollard’s 1894
court case unusual? Pollard sued Congressman William Breckinridge for breach of promise. Such suits were not uncommon; they were designed to protect the reputation of respectable women. What was revolutionary was that Pollard admitted she was a “fallen” woman. She had been Breckinridge’s longtime mistress, and when his wife died, he did not marry her as he had promised. In those days, if a woman was “fallen,” she was a social pariah. She couldn’t get a respectable job or live in a respectable home. And she could certainly never make a respectable marriage.
Why was the 1890s the right time
for a lawsuit like this? This was a period when we saw a tremendous influx of women into the workforce, and society needed to rethink men like Breckinridge. At first, the newspapers asked, “Is it blackmail?” But then women started to speak up for her. Breckinridge was older, he was married, he was in a position of power over this young woman—suddenly he was seen as the predator, instead of the woman being seen as trying to corrupt the good husband. By the end of the trial, both men and women broadly approved of the verdict in Pollard’s favor.
What were the social repercussions? Pollard demanded the sexual morality of men and women be judged the same way. Of course, you still see remnants of the Victorian double standard today, but Pollard and her compatriots helped create a new world for women, just as the women speaking up in the #MeToo movement are. It often takes one brave woman to say, “I’m not going to be shamed.” Pollard assumed she was going to be shunned by society. She knew what she was sacrificing, but she refused to be shamed. And after the trial, a lot of well-off women took her under their wing. She lived abroad, traveling all over. It was a very adventurous, interesting life.