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Imagine being a young woman of 17 in the 1890’s in the hills of Kentucky when society saw women’s voice as that of her husband, women’s “place” as in the home and caring for children, and women’s influence and power as whimsy and entertainment.
Imagine you’re approached by a wealthy, powerful, handsome older man, a prominent member of Congress and former Confederate general, on a train.
He’s very flirtatious and even though he’s married, he pursues you and you succumb to a passionate affair that endures over ten years and two children. He forces you to give those children up for adoption to an asylum where they later die from maltreatment. But you adore him anyway and believe his promises to marry you if he could – until his wife dies and he marries another woman.
The mores of the era shunned women’s sexuality while celebrating men’s, and you’re just another young woman discarded by a powerful man when he’s done with you.
Yet, you’re mad as hell and driven by your anger, betrayal and hurt, you decide to get even.
Seeking legal advice, you realize there’s actually a legal statute called “break of promise” for when a man breaks off an engagement to marry. Do you have a case?
Supporters who think how he treated you is disgusting offer the resources you need to pursue your case, knowing that at best it’s a long shot, and at worst your reputation and future could be ruined.
Women testify on your behalf who you didn’t expect, including your suitor’s highly respected and influential own daughter-in-law.
Much to your amazement, the courts rule in your favor, in part based on this daughter-in-law’s testimony that turns out to have been pivotal.
Perhaps even more discrediting to this powerful man, he unexpectedly loses his re-election campaign for Congress, a campaign he had won handily so many times before. This is the true story of Madeline Pollard.
“The Women Triumphant” blazes the headline in the Kentucky Transcript, writes Patricia Miller in her well-researched new book about Pollard and this sensational trial called, “Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age and ‘Powerless’ Woman Who Took On Washington.”
Pollard became a symbol of women’s unsung power, and an indication of the “role that women would play in politics in the coming century,” Miller wrote. We are bearing the fruits to Pollard’s courage today.
“This seemingly powerless woman from a backwater in Kentucky took on one of the nation’s most powerful men – and by extension Washington – and won,” Miller wrote, and in the process demonstrated that “there’s a place for women in politics.”
This weekend I had the privilege of moderating a panel of remarkable women writers who are “Telling Our Stories” Women in History,” including Miller, at the Network Virginia Women’s Summit.
I’m inspired by Pollard’s moxie and by the women (and men) who supported her, believed her, and carried her case over the finish line, and helping to defeat his re-election as truly the final blow to his ego and power – putting him in his “place.”
Pollard’s triumph made a loud and unmistakable statement on behalf of women’s power, showing that times had changed. This is power women are harnessing today, from the Congress to the statehouse, on the road to the White House, and in the boardroom, the newsroom and the assembly plant.
This riveting and ground-breaking case from the Gilded Age also demonstrates the difference women can make when we leverage our courage, the relationships and assets of various sorts we have at our disposal, and find creative ways to succeed – no matter the odds against us.
June 30, 2019 at 09:53PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs