Ben Franklin’s Backstory as “Herstory”

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Every summer around Independence Day, Benjamin Franklin and his importance to the birth of our nation are popular online searches. But many do not know that a quartet of women related to this founding father had useful, noteworthy lives themselves. We often hear little about the women who supported their more famous kin. Learning about women’s history, or herstory, shouldn’t be a once-a-year celebration, but integral to our curriculum. You may have heard the saying that “history is written by the winners,” but sometimes those winners who are not in the limelight are forgotten. Herstory, coined in the 1970s, looks at history from the perspective of women’s contributions

Let’s find out more about the women relatives of Benjamin Franklin and other resources for herstory. Through primary sources, mostly letters, we have come to know Ben’s family members who were prolific correspondents, giving us a picture of life as a female relative of a famous Revolutionary personage. Much is available about Ben in secondary sources; and through close reading, we learn a lot about his family.

Probably the most well-known woman connected to Ben was Ann Franklin who was married to Ben Franklin’s brother James, the owner of printing businesses in Boston and Rhode Island. When her husband died, Ben’s sister-in-law became the proprietor of their business and a newspaper editor, a profession quite similar to her famous in-law. Born in October 1696 and married in 1723, Ann and James moved to Rhode Island because of the more liberal climate for the press. As a widow, she was selected as the official printer for the colony. When her sons died, she became the sole editor of the newspaper The Newport Mercury on August 22, 1762. She started The Rhode Island Almanack, no doubt inspired by her brother-in-law Ben’s publications. More on Ann at the New England Historical Society and the History of American Women Blog.

Jane Franklin Mecom was Ben’s favorite sister. Although they were together only seven times in their lives after Ben went off to Philadelphia, they wrote letters to each other for sixty-three years which were a source of news, entertainment, and solace to Jane in her difficult life. Learn more about Jane and read some of the letters between her and her brother for a taste of that era. Michelle LeGrow discusses how women, such as Jane, can be sidelined in history books in this post from Brain Pickings. 

Deborah Reed was Franklin’s common-law wife. Previously married to a husband that ran off, Reed settled into the common-law marriage arrangement with Ben which lasted until her death forty-four years later even though Ben spent very little time at home. As a diplomat, Ben Franklin traveled throughout the American colonies, and to England and France. Preferring to remain at home, Deborah was an excellent housekeeper, but even better at running many of the Franklins’ retail businesses. The Franklins’ home often included her daughter, her mother, her grandchildren, plus boarders, servants, and visitors. Thanks to her industry and acumen, Deborah made them wealthy so that Ben retired at age 42. Spending most of their marriage apart, Ben and Deborah mostly discuss in their many letters business matters, yet they are buried together at Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia. More information about Deborah’s life by Nicole Fisher and in this post about how many times Ben was married.

Ben Franklin’s daughter Sarah (Sally) Franklin Bache had a special place in his heart. The only surviving child of his and Deborah, Sally lived all her life near her mother and later with her father, inheriting his house and other valuable property. Their continuous correspondence gives a picture of their relationship and of the times. Read more about Sally’s and Ben’s relationship and this article on Sally and her mother

Now that you have a sampling of some of Ben Franklin’s backstory as herstory, use these additional curated resources from TeachersFirst to find more information.

A few books that will open your eyes to the overlooked contributions of women in history and society are:

About the author: Paula Deal

Retired high school media specialist, Paula Deal, has been a pioneer in many shifts in the library sciences throughout her career. Paula contributes a monthly column on research, digital citizenship and other ways to find and use media resources in the classroom.

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