“I’ll take my share of the blame. I only ask that he take his.”
In Bringing Down the Colonel, the 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 Breckinridge began their decade-long affair when she was just a teenager. After the death of his wife, Breckinridge asked for Pollard’s hand—and then broke off the engagement to marry another woman. But Pollard struck back, suing Breckinridge 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 Breckinridge-Pollard 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 experienced 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 Using newspaper articles, personal journals, previously unpublished autobiographies, and letters, Bringing Down the Colonel tells the story of one of the earliest women to publicly fight back.
In her full-length debut, journalist Miller dusts off a long-forgotten scandal that gripped the nation's capital in the late 19th century, expertly revealing it as "an important chapter in the history of the social, political, and sexual emancipation of women." Madeline Pollard, a young woman with no social standing, sued prominent Kentucky congressman William Breckinridge in 1894 for breach of promise. At a time when women's security was linked to well-chosen spouses, women could instigate lawsuits against men who reneged on matrimonial proposals, though few women chose to endure such public scrutiny. Due to the pervasive sexual double standard, the certain revelation that Pollard had been Breckinridge's mistress made this a risky venture. Yet she brought suit after Breckinridge, who had repeatedly promised to marry her if he ever became free, wed someone else. Miller seamlessly weaves in the stories of other unmarried women connected to the case, illuminating how and why, by the 1890s, attitudes about women and sexuality were changing enough to give Pollard a chance at victory. The story's momentum slows when Miller recounts the trial, though she pops in enough courtroom surprises and insightful analyses to keep it from collapsing. This book will enthrall readers interested in women's and political history.