The Gilded Age’s #MeToo Mo­ment


Smithsonian Magazine - - Prologue - In­ter­view by Anna Di­a­mond

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.

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