'Bringing Down The Colonel': Book covers women who took on male predation

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LENOX — Madeline Pollard refused to politely disappear when her lover took another woman as his wife.

Instead, she sued him for $50,000 for breach of promise to marry.

In 1893, a lawsuit of this type wasn't unusual. What made Pollard's case extraordinary was the man she named, Col. W.C.P. Breckinridge, who was a recently widowed and well-respected five-term Democratic congressman from Kentucky.

What made the suit scandalous was that she revealed that not only had she and Breckinridge had an illicit relationship for the last nine years, but also, that she had given birth to two children by him. And in doing so, Pollard exposed herself as a "fallen woman" — a woman who had been ruined by having sex outside of marriage — when she could have walked away with no one knowing about any of it.

But, perhaps, the most shocking detail of the lawsuit is that Pollard — a woman who by society's standards should have been an outcast — won her case.

Pollard's story was not unique. She claimed that Breckinridge had seduced her when she was 17 and that she remained unmarried at his request, carrying on the relationship under the promise that he would marry her when "he could." But no proposal came, even after the death of Breckinridge's wife in 1892. Following the announcement of his engagement to another woman, she filed suit.

The outcome of Pollard's case could have been much worse. For instance, in 1874, Marie Halpin, a widow, was raped by upcoming politician, Grover Cleveland. The rape resulted in pregnancy. Ten years later, in 1884, when Cleveland was running for president, Halpin revealed to the press that she had sought out Cleveland when she became pregnant. But the help she received from him at that time was not financial support. Instead, when Halpin gave birth, her child was taken from her and she was committed to a local asylum for the insane. The child was adopted by a family friend of the Clevelands.

Patricia Miller, author of "Bringing Down The Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age and the 'Powerless' Woman who took on Washington," will speak about Pollard and the other women involved in the case at The Mount at 4 p.m. Monday and 11 a.m. Tuesday. In a recent interview with The Eagle, she said she believes Pollard's suit was successful for myriad reasons.

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"She really, kind of, was an extraordinary person. Part of it was that it was an extraordinary period of time and the other part was she was able to personify the abuse and the way men both used and discarded women when they were done with them, which was really easy in those days. [Men] just had to say a woman was 'ruined' and she had no recourse. I think, people questioned what would keep this from happening to their own daughters, sisters and nieces," she said.

Another factor, Miller said, was "the willingness" of a group women, from all different walks of life, who came together around her story.

"They were really able to move beyond politics and make a statement as women looking out for women," she said.

Some of those women supported Pollard financially, while others put their own reputations on the line for her. Still others launched campaigns against Breckinridge, who was in the middle of a reelection bid.

Breckinridge's lawyers responded to the suit by hiring a woman named Jennie Tucker to befriend Pollard, who had entered "The House of Mercy," a house for fallen women and become inaccessible by traditional means. The idea was to attack Pollard's character when the suit went to trial. Pollard, they would point out, had only obtained her education at Wesleyan because she had promised to marry an older man in exchange for his paying her college bills. And that, she herself, had committed a breach of contract when she later declined to marry the gentleman.

"That was the usual playbook," Miller said. "But it just drove home how desperate she was for an education," Miller said. "It was rare for women to even go to high school at a time when there were very few public schools. How many families were going to pay for there daughters to go to secondary school, never mind college. That's what makes it so sad that they tried to introduce this as evidence as her being disreputable and conniving. I think that really had to move people."

And, it surely resonated with the growing population of women who no longer had the luxury to or desire to wait at home for a marriage proposal. This group, dubbed "surplus women" by The New York Times, moved into urban areas, seeking out low-level clerical jobs. It was this group of women who were often targeted by certain groups of men, who took advantage of their circumstances and then discarded them, often leaving them pregnant and destitute in a society that punished women who were viewed as promiscuous.

"I think this [suit] made it possible for people to have a conversation, a societal conversation, about women being in public spaces, in offices, in colleges. It gave them space to talk about this in a way that they never had before, to not only say, 'Yes, Madeline Pollard should have brought him to trial,' but to also just talk about sex. Ten years later, you see it is much more commonplace to talk about sex as a societal problem; about male predation as a societal problem," Miller said. "It really opened eyes to this underworld. That's what Madeline showed them, this underbelly of assignation houses and orphan asylums that kept all this stuff secret. She really spilled the beans on this whole system."


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