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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Book Review: Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the "powerless" Woman Who Took on Washington by Patricia Miller

Colonel Breckinridge was a powerful Congressman from Kentucky, the scion of a long legacy of Breckinridges. Madeline Pollard was a teen from a respectable family whose father had died, leaving the family to ruin. She bounced from relative to relative, learning how to claw her way to some funds, trying to   get an education and further her place in life. Madeline had made an arrangement with a much older man wherein if he would pay for her college, at the end of it, she'd marry him. She wanted out of the arrangement but was baffled as to how. When the eminent and knowledgeable Rep Breckinridge introduced himself to her on a train, she saw an opportunity to both get some free advice and indebt herself to a powerful man. He saw a different opportunity, and he took it. She was seventeen at the time, and he was middle-aged. They had an affair for nearly 20 years. He always promised her that if his wife died, he'd marry her. She had at least two pregnancies by him that she had to give up, and probably additional miscarriages.

Then one day, his wife dies! Madeline is excited--they can finally marry! (After a respectable waiting period.) He assures her this is true. and then, he marries someone else! And so, in 1893, Madeline sued him for breach of contract. He was really broke, and it's not like she could sue for enforcement of the promise as he was already remarried. She sued mostly on the principle of the matter. A couple of times in the recent past, other women had been "ruined" by powerful men (one of them later became president!!) and had tried to hold them accountable, to no avail. But the times they were a'changing and it was finally occurring to people that it was patently unfair to hold men and women to wildly different standards when it came to sex, when both were involved. And the first battle in the war against powerful men misusing sex in relationships with vulnerable women was waged.

This would have been a fascinating history at any time, but is even more so now, in the midst of the #metoo movement and the massive pushback against powerful men misusing sex against vulnerable women, 130 years later. Here we can see when women first made a stand and first decided they were fed up with the shockingly hypocritical social morays that created these situations. And we can see how far we've come. And how much stays the same. And we can more clearly see the road ahead, when we learn about the road behind. Madeline may not have been a perfect woman, but she was willing to stand up for herself in the face of disgrace and public humiliation, and it turns out that's exactly what was needed.

This book is published by FSG, a division of Macmillan. my employer.

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