Journalist Miller (Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church, 2014) unearths a juicy 19th-century sex scandal.
For years, Willie Breckenridge, a beloved congressman from Kentucky, carried on a long-term extramarital affair with Madeline Pollard, a women of modest origins—and then was sued for breach of contract when, after his wife died, he married a well-connected widow rather than his mistress. Adultery, of course, was not uncommon. What was new was Pollard’s insistence that having behaved less-than-virtuously did not mean she should be treated like trash—and her demand that the powerful man she'd slept with not get off scot-free. The press went wild, reporting on every breath drawn in court and dissecting the meaning of the suit after the jury found for the plaintiff. Miller, a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches, argues that the Breckenridge-Pollard drama was a turning point of sorts. She credits the case and its attendant publicity with “making it acceptable to talk openly about sex” and with eroding the double standard whereby men could stray sexually without damaging their reputations, but women who transgressed norms of chastity and fidelity were ruined. Even the (male) editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal responded to the case by criticizing “a code of morality” that burdened women with “all the responsibility for purity and all the penalty for wrong-doing.” As engaging as Miller’s central story are the minor characters, including Jennie Tucker, a young secretary hired by the Breckenridge team to spy on Pollard; and Breckenridge’s daughter, Nisba, who, after the scandal receded, became the first woman to be admitted to the Kentucky bar and the first woman to receive a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago. Nisba's and Jennie’s stories, far from being filler, transform what might have been merely an account of a racy scandal into a panoramic examination of women’s changing roles and of women’s efforts to provide for themselves and make their way in the largely male public sphere.
Good, timely history for the #MeToo moment.