Let the Excoriation Begin

Jill Lepore (the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker) has a new book out titled Book of Ages: The Life And Opinions of Jane Franklin. Prepare to be outraged after this short summary.

A portrait of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, Jane, draws on correspondences, artifacts and recently discovered portraits to reveal how in spite of obscurity and poverty she was, like her brother, a passionate reader, gifted writer and shrewd political commentator who made insightful observations about an early America (pulled from NPR’s review).

          I haven’t read Book of Ages, but I very much want to. I love brilliant writing that “can lift the obscure out of silence,” as Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan puts it. I also love learning about second-tier people who support and make possible the work of our superstars.
          So what is there to excoriate me for?
          Corrigan ends her well-written review with this:

The brilliance of Lepore’s book is that plain Jane’s story becomes every bit as gripping—and, in its own way, important—as Big Ben’s public triumphs.

          Still not making sense? A bit of background will help. Keep in mind that I haven’t read the book, but my thoughts here have more to do with Corrigan’s statement above than Lepore’s work.
          If what Corrigan says is true, and I have no reason to doubt that it is, then Jane Franklin’s story consists of a life of toil: caring for her twelve children, “lugging pails of night soil, butchering chickens, cooking and scrubbing” (Corrigan). Jane Franklin wrote only one book titled Book of Ages (hence Lepore’s title)—a mere sixteen pages hand-stitched together containing her life’s story and the births and deaths of her children.
          She wrote letters as well, hundreds of them. By all accounts, she was witty, an educated woman (thanks to brother Benny) at a time when only the daughters of gentlemen could write much more than their name. Her husband was perennially broke, so Jane took in boarders even though her home was only four rooms (don’t forget her twelve children). By the time of the Revolutionary War, she was a sixty-three-year-old widow forced to flee before the British army.
          I feel for her. I find it dreadful that a bright, intelligent woman was shackled by the narrow-minded social norms of her time. But I heartily disagree with the closing words of Corrigan’s review. Here they are again:

The brilliance of Lepore’s book is that plain Jane’s story becomes every bit as gripping—and, in its own way, important—as Big Ben’s public triumphs.

          You may now find your ire and get it up high.
          It is an insult to women to say that Jane Franklin’s story is as important as her brother’s public triumphs. Yes, Corrigan does say "in its own way," but still. There is no comparison. Jane lived a hard life and wrote a little book containing the story of her life and a list of her children’s births and deaths as well as letters full of insights on the politics of the day. How in any way can these things be as important as Ben Franklin’s public triumphs?
          Forget her brother’s invention of bifocals and the lightning rod. Set aside that he was the US Ambassador to England and Minister to France. Disallow that he founded the first US hospital, started the first American insurance company, and established the fledgling country’s first circulating library. Let us take instead three of his lesser accomplishments: He mapped the Gulf Stream, originated the idea of matching contributions, and came up with the concept of daylight savings time. Witty letters do not compare even to these.
          I take issue with Corrigan’s parting words because she is doing something fashionable, fashionable because it is comforting. She is saying “women are important too.” But surely there are better ways to say this.
          If the purpose is to say that women are every bit as competent and capable as men, then let us talk about Eleanor Roosevelt’s social activism for women’s suffrage and civil rights or Marie Curie’s pioneering research on radioactivity; let us recount how Queen Elizabeth I of England, Hillary Clinton, Helen Keller, and Joan of Arc changed the world forever.
          But let us not demean women by equating Jane Franklin’s political opinions to her brother Benny’s accomplishments in an act of what I term unconscious feminism—throwing in a bit about the equality of women to men where we can “for good measure” or “just because.” That women are the equal of men in all respects isn’t nor should be treated as a nice sentiment. There are far better ways to lift women up. Women deserve better.
          Women are better.