The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.
Shakespeare’s famous words about Julius Caesar are true for many people but it seems to me that it more often applies to women than to men. Or perhaps we should say that rather than evil, women are more often remembered for their romantic attachments than for their accomplishments. Shakespeare may have started the trend when he wrote Caesar and Cleopatra, which reduces a powerful ruler of Egypt into merely another lovesick woman. As Cleopatra’s biographer Stacy Schiff writes: “It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life.”
Another woman to whom this has happened is Lady Annabella Byron, wife of the wildly popular 19th century poet George Gordon (Lord) Byron and mother of Ada Lovelace who is often credited with writing the world’s first computer program. I have blogged about Ada Lovelace before, but only recently discovered what an interesting and productive life her mother, Lady Byron, led.
Born in 1792 to parents who had worried that they were too old to have a child, Annabella Byron was raised in luxury and provided with all the attention that could be given by doting parents, servants and tutors.(One thing that Annabella Byron had in abundance was names—she inherited several titles from various branches of the family—so for convenience I will just call her Lady Byron, the name by which she is best known and the one she preferred.) She grew into a beautiful and intelligent girl who was sought after by the sons of aristocratic families looking for a wealthy and pleasing wife. For several years she lingered in the marriage market turning down eligible suitors that she deemed dull.
When she met Lord Byron, she did not find him dull. He was already a famous poet, and not only for his writing but also for his love affairs and his flamboyant lifestyle. Because of the limited contact that Annabella had with him, she probably did not know that among his friends he was also known for his hot temper, his heavy drinking, and his gambling. Like so many sheltered young women of the time, Annabella probably thought she could bring peace and serenity into his life.
Their marriage was brief. By the end of the first year, Byron’s erratic behavior, his continued infidelities, and his rudeness to Annabella and her parents, led the young bride to flee to her parents’ home. She gave birth to their only child, Ada, a daughter Byron never saw.
Their separation led to a scandal that dominated the rest of Lady Byron’s life and had serious repercussions on her daughter and the rest of the family. Lord Byron left England for the continent, but he lived only six more years, dying in Greece in 1824 at the age of 36. His poetry and his reputation, however, kept his fame alive for the rest of the century.
The aristocrats of English society at this time seemed to be a small circle with many overlapping relationships. Lady Byron was able to raise her daughter in this circle where she was tutored by famous mathematicians and scientists. And Lady Byron herself decided to spend the rest of her life doing good for society. She became a fervent anti-slavery advocate and also expended much of her energy on establishing schools for children of the working class.
During the first half of the 19th century, more than half the women in England were not literate enough to sign their names to a wedding contract, and only about 70 percent of men could. As a committed Unitarian, Lady Byron supported an education based on science and rational thinking rather than on the dogma of the established church, so she set out to establish a network of schools. Her work was influential and caused more support for public education that would prepare working class children for jobs in factories and workshops.
Lady Byron’s social activism was recognized widely enough to earn her a place as one of the few women listed on the Reformers Memorial at Kensal Green. although she did not live long enough to know that. Her work to improve society continued until the end of her life, but she is still remembered by most people only for her short marriage to Lord Byron. For a more balanced picture of her life, I highly recommend Miranda Seymour’s new biography In Byron’s Wake, a double biography of Annabella and her daughter, Ada Lovelace. It is a fascinating book and gives us a new perspective on several well-known figures.
Sexism is alive and well in America. We all know that.
Just this week President Trump’s nominee for a post on the Federal Reserve Board had to withdraw his candidacy because of nasty remarks he has made about women over the years. The only surprise is not what he said, but the fact that he was called out for those remarks. Over the years, over the centuries really, powerful men, including our current President have suffered no penalty at all for insulting women.
When did things start to change? If you depend on the media to tell you, the story will probably be about the Me-too movement of the last few years. The backlash against powerful men who thought they could exploit women has been much publicized since the first accusations surfaced a few years ago. But it turns out that women’s power has been an important factor in American political life for more than 100 years.
I know this now because I just finished reading Patricia Miller’s 2018 book Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the “Powerless” Woman Who Took On Washington. Miller tells the story of Madeline Pollard who in 1893 sued a prominent Kentucky Congressman for breach of promise of marriage. Such cases were not unknown, because marriage was almost the only chance women had to obtain a secure life. But things were changing. It was a time when more and more women had to find a way to make a living, even though most jobs and professions were closed to them. Unfortunately, many men, including some of the most prominent citizens, found it easy to take advantage of women and girls who were trying to build their own lives.
Madeline Pollard was an ambitious young woman in her late teens or early twenties (there are still many unanswered questions about her life) who was trying to get an education. She met Congressman William Breckenridge, member of one of Kentucky’s most prominent families and a veteran of the Confederate Army, while she was travelling on a train to her school. He introduced himself to her, she asked him for advice, one thing led to another and soon she became his mistress. This was no short affair. It lasted for eleven years and through the birth of two babies (both of whom died) before his wife died.
Unfortunately, by the time he became a widower, Breckinridge was very short of money and needed a marriage to a wealthy, socially prominent woman to move ahead in his political career. But he had reckoned without Madeline. Unlike most women in her position, she was unwilling to give up and be silent about what he had promised.
Miller tells the story of how Madeline gradually found supporters and brought her suit against Breckenridge. Up until the very end, the Congressman did not seem to realize that he could be held responsible. When he lost the suit, he confidently announced that he would run for Congress again and gathered his usual team of supporters around him.
To the amazement of the politicians, it was the women of Kentucky who finally defeated Breckenridge. Scores of women marched in protest against him. Even though they could not vote, they warned their husbands, brothers, and sons not to give Breckenridge another term in office. And they won! He never again served in Congress.
One final mystery that Miller clears up in her book was the source of money that made it possible for Pollard to pay the cost of going to court. It appears that there were several wealthy widows who financed the trial. They never announced their support, but they provided the resources needed to eventually bring down the Colonel.
That certainly sounds to me like a good message for women today. It will be women standing up for other women that will finally succeed in combatting the double standards that have for so long limited women’s participation in society And if you need some encouragement along the way, you might want to read Bringing Down the Colonel and cheer on Madeline Pollard and her supporters who were among the first to enlist for the cause.