The Court Case That Inspired the Gilded Age’s #MeToo MomentBreaking News
tags: Gilded Age, MeToo, Patricia Miller, Bringing Down the Colonel
For five weeks in the spring of 1894, a scandalous trial captured Americans’ attention. Crowds formed outside the courthouse, and across the country, readers followed the story in their local newspapers. Madeline Pollard, a woman with little social standing, had sued congressman William C. P. Breckinridge of Kentucky with a “breach of promise” suit that claimed damages of $50,000. As with similar suits filed at the time, Pollard sought compensation for her former lover’s unwillingness to wed, but this case, the subject of journalist Patricia Miller’s new book Bringing Down the Colonel, was different.
Pollard was determined to challenge the different standards set out for men and women. “As chastity became central to the definition of a respectable woman in the nineteenth century, women found it was their sexual conduct, not the actions of men, that was really on trial,” writes Miller.
During her testimony, she recounted a nun admonishing her decision to sue: “‘Why on earth do you want to ruin that poor old man in his old age?’” But she implored the nun, and the jury, to see it from her point of view: “I asked her why should that poor old man have wanted to ruin me in my youth?”
Against the odds, Pollard won her case and, Miller argues, helped usher the “transition to a more realistic sexual ethic that flowered in the twentieth century.” Although Pollard chipped away at the sexual double standard, recent news makes clear that women’s behavior is still judged more harshly than men’s. Miller spoke with Smithsonian about her timely assessment of the Breckinridge-Pollard case.