It was a brief romantic fling that resulted in a landmark legal decision. Feninist Gloria Steinem called the jury's verdict "very important," and the director of the American Civil Liberties Union Women's Rights Project rejoiced in "the human victory." National newspapers covered the trial in Buffalo Bill's hometown of Cody, Wyo.
All the excitment was about the aftermath of a 17-day love affair in 1970 between Washington secretary Margaret Housen and Angier St. George Biddle Duke, son of the former U.S. ambassador to Spain and Denmark and former White House protocol chief. Last month a five-year legal battle face-off that begun when Houser sued Duke for infecting her with gonorrhea.
The unusual case began nine years ago when Housen's brother introduced Duke to Margaret in Alexandria. "Pony," said Duke's friends call him, was charming, fun and rich, and Housen liked him instantly. According to court testimony later, he convinced her to skip secretarial school to drive with him to New York and then cross-country.
A couple of weeks into the affair, Housen testified, Duke told her he had gonorrhea. The romance ended, and Housen was treated by a physician. But three years later she began experiencing severe stomach pains. She filed suit against Duke, charging he knew he had a social disease and that complications arising from her infection caused both her stomach problems and permanent damage to her reproductive system. Duke testified at the trial in Cody-- about an hour's drive from his ranch -- that just prior to meeting Housen a doctor had told him he was cured of gonorrhea.
In a precedent-setting decision, the jury sided with Housen, awarding her $1.3 million. But Duke's lawyer appealed the verdict. Last January the Wyoming Supreme with Court overturned the damage award on grounds the statute of limitations ran out before Housen filed her suit. Last month the Supreme Court refused to consider the case.
"I was in a state of shock last January," Housen says. "But now I really feel free, it's over and done with. One thing that is very important is that the precedent is still there -- all that was taken away from me was the award. I feel very good about it, about myself, and about having had the guts to keep it up."
Today, still living in Alexandria, 38 years old, surrounded by a lawyer's briefs and news clippings, Housen says with a wry smile, "This is my legacy." But she still experiences bursts of pain, and the prospect of having children is dim. Unmarried, Housen is working as a Washington secretary and considering writing a book about the unusual case she says turned a moral point into a legal fact.