Historian Jill Lepore has an op-ed in the Times comparing the life of Benjamin Franklin with his closest sister, Jane Mecom, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I read something so relevant to my interests in the NYT.
Franklin, who’s on the $100 bill, was the youngest of 10 sons. Nowhere on any legal tender is his sister Jane, the youngest of seven daughters; she never traveled the way to wealth. He was born in 1706, she in 1712. Their father was a Boston candle-maker, scraping by. Massachusetts’ Poor Law required teaching boys to write; the mandate for girls ended at reading. Benny went to school for just two years; Jenny never went at all.
Their lives tell an 18th-century tale of two Americas. Against poverty and ignorance, Franklin prevailed; his sister did not.
At 17, he ran away from home. At 15, she married: she was probably pregnant, as were, at the time, a third of all brides. She and her brother wrote to each other all their lives: they were each other’s dearest friends. (He wrote more letters to her than to anyone.) His letters are learned, warm, funny, delightful; hers are misspelled, fretful and full of sorrow. “Nothing but troble can you her from me,” she warned. It’s extraordinary that she could write at all.
“I have such a Poor Fackulty at making Leters,” she confessed.
He would have none of it. “Is there not a little Affectation in your Apology for the Incorrectness of your Writing?” he teased. “Perhaps it is rather fishing for commendation. You write better, in my Opinion, than most American Women.” He was, sadly, right.
It continues this way, sketching the trajectory of their lives, and the fact that Mecom bore 12 children and buried 11 — something that surely stood in the way of any self-improvement she wished for. Lepore writes, “the story of Jane Mecom is a reminder that, especially for women, escaping poverty has always depended on the opportunity for an education and the ability to control the size of their families.”
There’s nothing I can add to this excellent essay, of course, so I encourage you to read the whole thing.
As an aside, I hit my 20-article limit last week, and the site kindly informed me. But I keep clicking links and have yet to be blocked by a paywall.