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Friday, February 25, 2011

Benjamin Franklin, Our National Treasure: Feminist or Womanizer?

When Benjamin Franklin is mentioned, I cannot help but think of the movie National Treasure, which portrays Franklin playing a vital role in creating a map to a historic treasure of gold and jewels. While viewing Franklin as a masterful creator of treasure maps is entertaining, Franklin’s legacy and perspectives should be regarded as our national treasure. Franklin has had a profound effect on so many aspects of American life. He helped America become what it is today through his writings, his influence in colonial society, and his ingenious inventions (Click here to see some of Franklin's contributions). While his widespread influence permeates American society and culture, some might ask why Franklin should be placed on a pedestal in light of his many supposed intimate relationships with the opposite sex. Franklin even writes a letter to a “friend” providing reasons why an older woman is “preferred” as a mistress, which raises the question of whether Franklin took his own advice in his affairs. Was Franklin really a womanizer, or is there more to the story than meets the eye?

In spite of his many questionable relationships with women, Benjamin Franklin thought very highly of women and could even be considered somewhat of a feminist. J.A. Leo Lemay and P.M. Zall lend support to Franklin as an advocate for women by stating that “[Benjamin Franklin] argued for the natural equality of women throughout his life” (11 n.4). Franklin describes one such instance in his autobiography when he writes of a debate he had with John Collins over the “Propriety of educating the Female Sex in Learning, and their Abilities for Study” (11). Franklin describes the debate in the following manner: “[Collins] was of Opinion that it was improper; and that they were naturally unequal to it. I took the contrary Side, perhaps a little for Dispute sake” (11). Here, Franklin provides evidence that he did indeed argue for the rights of women in obtaining an education. By stating that he “took the contrary Side” to women being “unequal to [education],” Franklin suggests that he regarded women as capable of intellectual endeavors. While he claims he took this position “perhaps a little for Dispute sake,” which introduces doubt to whether he really felt highly about women, a deeper look into his life and autobiography suggests that Franklin may very well have been a practicing feminist.

While Franklin’s motives in arguing for women are called into question in the statement above, his praise of Elizabeth Timothée in his autobiography lends further support to Franklin being a proponent for the rights of women. Franklin originally had a business partnership with Elizabeth’s husband but started working with her after her husband died (Franklin 81). In relating this experience, Franklin sets up a comparison between the capabilities of the husband and wife. In discussing his business with Elizabeth’s husband, Franklin states: “He was a Man of Learning and honest, but ignorant in Matters of Account; and tho’ he sometimes made me Remittances, I could get no Account from him, nor any satisfactory State of our Partnership while he lived” (81). In this statement, Franklin sets up Elizabeth’s husband as inept in his work. On the other hand, Franklin argues for Elizabeth’s capacity for high achievement in taking over the job: “[Elizabeth] not only sent me as clear a State as she could find of the Transactions past, but continu’d to account with the greatest Regularity and Exactitude every Quarter afterwards” (81). Franklin continues to praise the skill and aptitude of this particular woman by saying that Elizabeth “manag’d the Business with such Success that she not only brought up reputably a Family of Children, but at the Expiration of the Term was able to purchase of me the Printing-House and establish her Son in it” (81). By demonstrating the success of the wife in comparison to the failure of the husband, Franklin suggests that he finds Elizabeth highly competent. Franklin seems to extend this comparison to men and women in general. He explains his purpose in relating this story by saying, “I mention this Affair chiefly for the Sake of recommending that Branch of Education for our young Females” (81). In other words, Franklin believes that other women would thrive in accounting, just as Elizabeth did.

While Franklin advocates for women and their potential for learning, he also imposes limitations on that potential. Franklin continually implies that women have the ability to take part in intellectual spheres, but he also maintains the view that women’s rightful place is in the home. Jill K. Conway states: “Franklin was willing to abandon the Christian view of the female—as a lesser creation marked by greater impulsiveness and less able to use reason in control of the emotions than men—and to put in its place a view of the female as a rational being engaged in the pursuit of happiness” (2). Here, Conway supports the idea that Franklin views women as intelligent and proficient. However, she later suggests that Franklin falls short in his praise of women. She explains: "A women’s education, [Franklin] thought, should develop in her those qualities which would ensure her happiness in marriage since marriage and reproduction were her natural destiny. It was axiomatic for him that women’s happiness was to be found in marriage and reason therefore decreed that women should be educated to use their rational powers in the role of wife and mother" (Conway 2-3). Franklin’s argument that women’s education should improve their role in the home is demonstrated in his explanation for sharing the experience with Elizabeth Timothée. He expounds on his “recommendation” to “young Females” by saying that an education in accounting is “likely to be more Use to them and their Children in Case of Widowhood than either Music or Dancing” (81). Franklin’s clarification suggests the view that while women are able to learn in various fields and be successful, they should only do so in order to have a safety net in the event that their husbands can no longer provide for them. Even though Franklin confines women’s role to the home, we see through his writings and accounts of others that Franklin believed women could be just as intellectually accomplished as men and that in doing so, women would benefit those around them, particularly their families. Womanizer or not, Franklin’s life experiences, detailed in his autobiography, demonstrate his great respect and admiration for women.

Check out this interesting article: “Why He Was a Babe Magnet” to find out more about Benjamin Franklin’s relationships with women.

Conway, Jill K. “Perspectives on the History of Women’s Education in the United States.” History of Education Quarterly 14.1 (1974): 1-12. Web. 24 Feb. 2011. (Access through JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/367602).

Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 11 & 81. Print.

Lemay, J.A. Leo & P.M. Zall, eds. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. By Benjamin Franklin. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 11. Print.

Photo obtained through Google images.

Word Count: 1,093


  1. It seems like Franklin was way ahead of his time with regards to feminism.

  2. I'm not sure I agree with Travis. The eighteenth century could be considered the beginning of modern feminism. After all, Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Woman" was published in 1792. What better time to realize the intellectual abilities of women than in the Enlightenment. It's also important to be wary of the connotations of the word "feminism." What termed feminist in Franklin's time (intellectually equal marriage, right to own property, etc.) are not what term feminist today (lesbianism, presidency, abolition of marriage). Overall, however, I think that Franklin's intellectual view of women was on the forward moving path that his whole life seemed to be based on.

  3. I agree, that while Franklin may not have been way ahead of his time, it is very refreshing to hear that there were intellectual men who were willing to see women as equals instead of "angles of the house." This was a big step in the rights for women and I am sure because he was such a famous man he influence others views on women as well.

  4. The thing is, most people thought that Wollstonecraft was an extremist. The thing that puts Franklin ahead of his time is the fact that he had forward thinking thoughts and still held a respectable and extremely important place in society. That's hard to do, so props to him.

  5. I couldn't help but come back to comment on this post. It seems to me that the intellectual liberties Franklin encouraged women to take were a direct result of the moral liberties he took with them. His familiarity with women's intellectual capabilities resulted from his womanizing; however, his womanizing kept him from fully valuing women as well. Marion Rust explains how Franklin's womanizing kept him from allowing women to rewrite their errata, the very thing that would allow them to be equal with men in the public sphere. She explains this by first quoting Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac," which says, "'Women are Books, and Men the Readers be, / Who sometimes in those books Erratas see." This joke ends with the suggestion that, since the 'errata' [or essentially pregnancies] are more or less permanent in women's case, it should be the text itself that is changed" or one woman when used should be exchanged for another (Rust 53). This insight really brings the point home that while Franklin afforded women certain "liberties," he was far from the progressive that we make him out to be.

    Rust, Marion. Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson’s Early American Women. The University of North Carolina Press (2008): 53. Print.