Revelations and Reckonings in a Sex Scandal From Long Before #MeToo

Revelations and Reckonings in a Sex Scandal From Long Before #MeToo

Part of what made the case so striking was the outpouring of public support Pollard received. Women who took on powerful men didn’t typically fare well. Miller devotes a chapter to the terrible story of Maria Halpin, who accused a suitor of raping her in 1873. He enlisted his friends to cover up the birth of their child by having the baby taken away to be raised by acquaintances, and he later had Halpin institutionalized. The following decade, this man — Grover Cleveland — would be elected president.

Breckinridge, by contrast, didn’t seem to have the sociopathic cruelty or cunning required to destroy Pollard. He certainly tried to win the case, but he was so confident in his station and the sturdiness of double standards that he became complacent, assuming that a desultory smearing of Pollard as a “wanton” and “experienced woman” would be enough. He emerges from these pages less as a formidable colonel than as a bumbling philanderer and entitled hypocrite who promised marriage to two women at once without thinking either one would call his bluff.

Strangely, Pollard remains more elusive in this book. Early on, Miller seems determined to cast her as a selfless feminist revolutionary. “The suit,” she writes, “wasn’t about a ruined woman looking to even the score. It was about challenging the double standard that created ruined women in the first place.”

Why couldn’t it have been about both? It wouldn’t detract from the merits of Pollard’s case to entertain the possibility that she was motivated by something more complicated and personal than abstract justice.

Besides, Pollard showed little interest in overturning the system. After filing her suit, she entered the House of Mercy, a home for “fallen women,” pledging herself to “educating and uplifting” its residents. The House of Mercy functioned like a punitive rehab facility. The women who lived there were inculcated with a “middle-class sexual morality through plain living,…

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