A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the “Powerless” Woman Who Took on Washington
The latest Nonfiction Book Club book is one I’d been anticipating reading for quite some time and am very curious to see what my fellow book club members think of it!
From the back cover:
Journalist Patricia Miller tells the story of Madeline Pollard, an unlikely nineteenth-century women’s rights crusader. After an affair with a prominent politician left her “ruined,” Pollard brought the man – and the hypocrisy of America’s control of women’s sexuality – to trial. And, surprisingly, she won.
Pollard and the married Colonel W. C. P. Breckenridge began their decade-long affair when she was just a teenager. After the death of his wife, Breckinridge asked for Pollard’s hand – then broke off the engagement to marry another woman. But Pollard struck back, suing Breckenridge for breach of promise in a shockingly public trial. With premarital sex considered irredeemably ruinous for a woman, Pollard was asserting the unthinkable: that the sexual morality of men and women should be judged equally.
Nearly 125 years after the Pollard-Breckinridge scandal, America is still obsessed with women’s sexual morality. And in the age of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, we’ve witnessed fraught public reckonings with a type of sexual exploitation unnervingly similar to that experience by Pollard. Using newspaper articles, personal journals, previously unpublished autobiographies, and letters, Bringing Down the Colonel tells the story of one of the earliest women to publicly fight back.
I’d been excited to read Bringing Down the Colonel for quite some time – since the hardcover was first released, I knew I was going to put it forth for voting for Nonfiction Book Club once it was available in paperback. With an expected date in November 2019 for the paperback, it was overwhelming selected by the members of book club, only to be pushed back to March. And then when self-isolation started, we wound up pushing the meeting back a month, to May. When I no longer had a burning desire to read nonfiction.
I try really hard not to read a book to far ahead of when we’re going to discuss it so that, as book club leader, I can be fully present and engaged in the conversation. Which is hard when I read too soon because my memory for books is very short as I read so many of them and often very quickly. But I wanted to try to finish this one because virtual book club has been one of the few social things I’ve done these past few months.
As a student of history, I thought I wouldn’t be so surprised to find society behaving so cyclically. “History repeats itself” is a phrase I’ve heard time and time again from many sources from teachers, to family members, to friends. Few things that happen are truly novel. This isn’t the first pandemic, this isn’t the first racist president, this isn’t the first cold war, this isn’t the first incidence of corruption, etc. And in Bringing Down the Colonel, it wasn’t the first time a man used his gender to screw over (literally) a young woman.
BUT. It was one of the first times that a woman risked her own reputation to bring suit against said man, received the support of other women rather than being shamed, and won her case against him. I could go on and on about the problems with straight white men, protests are currently being held all over the US because of the downright murderous actions of a straight white man in a position of power, but unfortunately that discussion doesn’t relate directly to the suit at hand in Bringing Down the Colonel.
Gender politics are at the core of Bringing Down the Colonel – the positions of men and women in a Victorian society are the base for the conflict central to the story. Patricia Miller does a terrific job of putting the reader right into the Gilded Age and presenting many sides of society, from family life, to opportunities for education, to how the military and the Civil War continued to influence state and national politics.
She even traces sexual history of Americans back to the Puritans days of bundling (Puritans were more open about pre-marrital sex than Victorians, something I didn’t expect), to the sexual offenses of president Grover Cleveland, to how men viewed women’s “availability” for sex based on their marital status and employment situation, and the roles of sex and gender in the women’s suffrage movement.
The one thing that struck us most about the case, was that Madeline, the woman bringing the lawsuit, was not Wonder Woman. She wasn’t particularly likeable and was very morally gray. But she had enough gumption and strength to her voice to be the perfect person to start a movement for change – she wasn’t perfect, pristine, beautiful, or particularly selfless. But she stood up for herself and used her voice, she refused to be silenced.
We had a very lively discussion of this book and while it was all women at the virtual meeting, I would have honestly liked to get a man’s perspective. Now, whether that perspective would have been entirely honest while discussing the book with a group of feminists, I do not now. But we do have members of multiple generations and the discussion of how gender roles have evolved since the 1950s was probably my favorite part of the discussion.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.