This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we look at a #MeToo incident from the Gilded Age. It involved a powerful congressman and a mistress he kept for ten years. But when he broke his promise to marry her, she did the unthinkable – she sued him for “breach of promise.” The scandal and subsequent trial captivated the nation. To explain how this young women took down a congressman, I speak with Patricia Miller about her new book, Bringing Down The Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the ‘Powerless’ Woman Who Took on Washington.
The #MeToo movement originated in 2007 when civil rights activist Tarana Burke coined the phrase to unite women who were victims of sexual violence. But it really took off in 2017 with revelations in the New York Times and New Yorker magazine about women coming forward to accuse film mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault and rape. It has since gained increased momentum and legitimacy as more and more powerful men have been exposed for their abusive and often criminal behavior towards women.
It’s quite common when stories of this magnitude make the news for journalists to look to the past for historical precedents. Think of the many stories about past financial scams that were written up in the wake of the Bernie Madoff scandal. Or past environmental disasters in the wake of the catastrophic B.P. Oil spill in 2010.
Not surprisingly, the #MeToo movement has likewise elicited stories about sexual predators from the past, including re-examinations of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair and a renewed debate over filmmaker Roman Polansky who in 1977 pled guilty to raping a 13-year old girl and then fled the country to avoid prison. He’s continued to make films, several of which have been honored with Academy Awards.
But as any good historian will tell you, one can always go much further back in time to find individuals and incidents that connect with our present. For example, have you ever heard of Elizabeth Jennings? Well, in 1854 – 101 years before Rosa Parks resisted a racist segregation policy on a Birmingham, Alabama bus, Elizabeth Jennings did much the same on a New York City streetcar. And like Parks, her resistance led to the desegregation of the city’s streetcars.
Well, in this episode we meet Madeline Pollard, a young woman who in the 1890s stood up to the patriarchy and took down an abusive and exploitive congressman. Here to tell us more about it is Patricia Miller, author of the new book, Bringing Down The Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the “Powerless” Woman Who Took on Washington
How women in the Gilded Age began to take on new roles, including the pursuit of higher education, entry into the paid workforce, and participation in a wide array of reform movements.
How a 47-year old Kentucky lawyer and Congressman named Col. William Breckinridge began a sexual relationship with a 17-year old girl named Madeline Pollard. And how this relationship lasted a decade and produced two babies until it was exposed.
Why the woman at the center of this story decided, despite the likelihood that she would be condemned as a gold-digging harlot, to go public in 1894 and sue Col. Breckinridge.
How and why wealthy and socially prominent women supported Pollard in her lawsuit against Col. Breckinridge.
How in the aftermath of the trial, women in Washington, DC and Kentucky successfully mobilized to bring about the political demise the Col. Breckinridge.
Patricia Miller is an award-winning author and journalist. Her work on the interplay of politics and sexual morality has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, The Nation, Huffington Post, and Ms. Magazine. She is with me today to talk about her first book, Bringing Down The Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the “Powerless” Woman Who Took on Washington (Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar Straus and Giroux)
Patricia Miller, Bringing Down The Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the “Powerless” Woman Who Took on Washington (Sarah Crichton Books, 2018).
Jean V. Matthews, The Rise of the New Woman: The Women’s Movement in America, 1875-1930
Edward T. O’Donnell, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age
Martha H. Patterson, Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895-1915
Cecelia Tichi, What Would Mrs. Astor Do?: The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age
Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896
More info about Patricia Miller – website
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Related ITPL podcast episodes:
044 Historian Richard White talks about his book, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age
052, 053, 054 a three-part series on What Was the Gilded Age?
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)
Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)
The Womb, “I Hope It Hurts” (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Discovery” (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
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