Monday, August 11, 2014

Jill Lepore's Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin — Men, Women, and Divines in Colonial New England

I've been reading Jill Lepore's history of Benjamin Franklin's sister Jane Franklin Mecom and the interaction of the two siblings: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (NY: Random House, 2013). It's a reminder of the harsh disparity between how the law, religious institutions, and various cultures treated men and women at the period of history in which both Franklins flourished. 

While the sky was the limit for Jane's brilliant brother Benjamin, who overcame their working-class social status to rise to the top echelons of American society, Jane spent her life giving birth, caring for and burying numerous children, dealing with the messes several of her children made of their lives, cleaning house, buying and preparing food, trying to eke out a living for her dependents on a tiny income, making soap, dyeing cloth, plying her needle to sew and earn money for her family through needlework, etc.

And trying, in her "spare" time, to read — something her brother could do at a moment's notice and without hindrance, since the world afforded him from very early in his life the room of his own it never gave to Jennie. Here are some citations from Lepore's book that leap out at me. I detect a common thread running through them.

What do you think?

Here's the eminent New England divine Cotton Mather not scrupling (at all!) to give women the most obtrusive advice about how to carry out the intimate details of their lives. (Did he do the same for men, one wonders? Do divines historically do the same for men?):

"You will Suckle your Infant your Self if you can; Be not such an Ostrich as to Decline it,’ Increase Mathers’s son Cotton preached from his pulpit at Boston’s North Church” (p. 17, citing Cotton Mather, Elizabeth In Her Holy Retirement [Boston: B. Green, 1710], p. 35).

And are things entirely different today, vis-a-vis the disproportionate emphasis many divines give to telling women how to live their lives in even the minutest ways possible, while men remain free of such divine scrutiny?

And then there's this:

Everyone needed to learn to read [in colonial Massachusetts], but there was no need for a girl to learn to write. Massachusetts’s poor laws required that boys be taught to write and girls to read. For most girls, book learning ended there. At home and at school, when boys were taught to write, girls learned to stitch. Boys held quills; girls held needles (p. 26).

More divine advice for women from Cotton Mather (and Rev. John Flavel): 

"A Dead Child is a sight no more surprizing than a broken Pitcher, or a blasted Flower," Cotton Mather preached, in a sermon called Right Thoughts in Sad Hours.  . . . Nor, ministers warned, ought there to be tears. A Token for Mourners; or, the Advice of Christ to a Distressed Mother, bewailing the Death of her Dear and Only Son, published in Boston the year Jane buried her baby [i.e., her first child Josiah, who died in 1730 short of a year old], explained "the boundaries of Sorrow," citing Luke 7:13: "Weep not" (p. 57, citing Cotton Mather, Right Thoughts in Sad Hours [London: James Astwood, 1689], p. 49; and John Flavel, A Token for Mourners; or, the Advice of Christ to a Distressed Mother, bewailing the Death of her Dear and Only Son [Boston: S. Kneeland and T. Green, 1730]). 

And here's the legal framework (inherited from British law) that bolstered the whole edifice according to which gender arrangements were constructed in colonial America — a framework that long obtained in many parts of the United States, and had a strong religious underpinning:

But a married woman couldn’t earn a shilling without her husband’s permission. She could neither own property nor sign a contract. Legally, any money she earned belonged to her husband. As William Blackstone explained in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, "The very being or legal existence of a woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of her husband, under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing." In the eyes of the law, a married woman was feme covert: a woman covered by a man (pp. 74-75, citing William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, A Facsimile of the First Edition 1765-1769 [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979], I: 430).

What do you think? Is this history worth paying any attention to at all? And am I correct to see a common thread running through these passages? 

No comments: