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.