Wednesday, May 29, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Bringing Down the Colonel. A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age and the "Powerless" Woman Who Took on Washington by Patricia Miller

Bringing Down the Colonel. A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the "Powerless" Woman Who Took on Washington by Patricia Miller is interesting reading (but the title is way too long.)

Colonel W. C. P. (Willie) Breckinridge was a colonel in the Confederate Army from Kentucky who, following the war, entered politics and was elected to Congress. He was from an old, socially prominent, politically active Kentucky family. In 1893, he became embroiled in a sex scandal when his mistress of nine years, Madeline Pollard, sued him for breach of promise. He had promised to marry her if he ever became free, but a year after his wife died, he married a widow with a better pedigree. That woman was more than likely already pregnant with his child, as was Madeline.

Madeline had been a student at the Wesleyan Female College (presumably 17 years old but she may have been as old as 20) when the famous, middle-aged, married-with-children Breckinridge approached her on a train and flattered her with his attention. Soon after, he called on her at her school, took her out riding in a closed carriage after dark, and then, days later, seduced her at a house of assignation.

Breckinridge was one of those church-going, moralizing politicians who lived a lie and continued to lie even when caught out. He was so convinced his privilege and power would protect him from any consequences that he barely prepared any defense – except to slander Madeline. His excuse was simply that if Madeline slept with him, she was immoral and her suit should have no validity. He may have promised to marry her, but he could not be held to that promise because no one would seriously expect him to marry a woman who was compromised, even if he was the one who compromised her.

The book does a good job of describing the sexual mores of the time. Women had to be chaste. Any woman who allowed herself to be seduced, or even one who was raped, was at fault. (Apparently the fact that a woman survived the rape meant she did not fight her attacker strenuously enough to convince anyone the act was not consensual.)

Breckinridge attempted to malign Madeline’s character by claiming she’d been with numerous other men. He tried to say she seduced him and he was powerless to resist or to end the affair. He denied knowing about the babies he fathered with her and forced her to abandon. He showed no remorse, even knowing that they had been sent to infant asylums where the death rates were essentially 100%.

The author does present a balanced picture of Madeline’s difficult life. She was not, by the standards of the day, a sheltered, well-behaved southern daughter. Her father died when she was young. She grew up poor. And she was extremely intelligent and ambitious. So she was "forward" compared to the ideal, all of which was held against her during the trial.

Madeline was unique in that she did not shrink from pressing her suit, admitting her fault, and insisting that all she wanted was for Breckinridge to take his share of the blame. The injustice of a system where the guilty woman was ruined (truly ruined – socially and economically) while the equally guilty man would not even receive a slap on the wrist, was recognized by women and exploited by men. Breckinridge and his cronies were shocked to learn that anyone would even listen to a "fallen woman," let alone take her side in a dispute.

Parallel to Madeline’s story, the reader is presented with the story of Jennie Tucker. Jennie was born to wealth, but after her father’s death her family started slipping down the social ladder. Jennie had to go to work in one of the low-paying, back-breaking office jobs available to women at the time. However, she made an impression on one employer who, it turned out, was one of Breckinridge’s most steadfast supporters. Charles Stoll convinced Breckinridge to hire Jennie to spy on Madeline. He wanted her to "befriend" Madeline and dig up whatever dirt she could. She failed in that endeavor, despite giving it her all. (Her willingness, even eagerness, to take up Breckinridge’s cause makes her a less than sympathetic character.) And then, Breckinridge failed to pay her for her work.

Miller rounds out the narrative with the stories of other involved women, primarily Breckinridge’s politically active sister-in-law and his long-suffering daughter.

It’s a fascinating book to read in this #MeToo era. Women today (as a whole, though not necessarily in individual cases) have a great deal more social freedom and economic security than they did in the 1890s. And yet, privileged men still get away with sexual exploitation. Women who try to hold them to account are still slandered, shamed, and dismissed. This book was about events more than one hundred years ago! It’s depressing to see how far we still have to go.