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Constance Alexander: Historian Jill Lepore’s book chronicles life of ‘Anonymous’ woman named Jane


A few days into my brand new job at AT&T, I was called into the Division Manager’s office for a chat. He complimented me on my taste in clothes and my demeanor, assuring me I would do well in the corporate world if I learned to smile more.

He framed his parting words as fatherly advice. “Don’t be one of those women’s libbers.”

That was more than thirty years ago, and I like to think that times have changed. But every so often, I am reminded that women are routinely marginalized. Just the other day, waiting for my vehicle to be serviced, I spotted a startling proclamation painted on the wall:

“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us, we are dependent on him.”

Hmph.

Looking around, I saw three other women and one man waiting for their vehicles.

The male pronoun says it all. The sign has been there for years. No chance that anyone cares enough to get it changed, in spite of the fact that women are customers, but not welcome enough to be included in this value statement.

Apparently, the concept of making the noun and verbs plural – customers – and changing the pronouns to the inclusive “they” and “them” is just not worth the effort.

And so it goes in 2019.

Things could be worse. Consider Jane Franklin, sister of Benjamin Franklin. As children, they were plain old  “Benny and Jenny.”  When he left home to seek his fortune, she stayed, married at fifteen, and experienced life as most women of the era did. He signed the Declaration of Independence while she fretted about bad spelling in her letters to him.

In “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin,” historian Jill Lepore digs deep into the junk drawer of domestic obscurity to create a vibrant chronicle of Jane. A mother of twelve with no education, she was self-taught, a passionate reader and clever writer.

She chronicled her life in her own handwritten “Book of Ages,” cataloging the births and deaths that were the norm for women in colonial America. Her first child died just shy of his first birthday, and there were more such losses along the way.

One in four children did not make it to the age of ten. When they died they were wrapped in linen dipped in melted wax and then tucked into a small pine box. When the mourning bell tolled, the coffin was carried from the home to the burial ground in silence, and ministers warned against tears. No sermon was preached at the grave and Puritans banned prayers for the dead. “There would be no words,” was the dictum.

Ben Franklin had many words, and his eloquence is a distinctive part of American and world history. Jane’s world was more earthy. “Her days were of flesh,” author Lepore remarks in “Book of Ages.”

In one letter to Benny, Jane describes being in the middle of a “grate wash,” using soap she made from an old family recipe. When Benjamin was America’s diplomat to France, he presented cakes of the same soap to his aristocratic hosts, hoping they would make note of his humble origins and underestimate his wily negotiating skills.

On March 24, 1790, Ben Franklin wrote his last letter to his sister. With his death, she summed up her loss saying, “My dear brother supplied all. Every line from him was a pleasure. He while living was to me every enjoyment.”

Her own last years left Jane mostly confined to her bed, where she continued her habit of reading. Lepore conjectures that Jane was likely to have come across the essay “On the Equality of the Sexes,” which traced men’s primacy over women to the differences of education and continued advantages because of it.

“Will it be said that the judgment of a male of two years old is more sage than that of a female’s of the same age?” the essayist asked.  “I believe the reverse is generally observed to be true.”

While Jane felt the sting of her own lack of education, she had no idea that her role in history could be documented from, as one reviewer called it, “scraps and whispers.”

If you’re looking at a book to top off your summer reading, give “Book of Ages” a shot. Jane Franklin deserves all the attention she can muster.

The book is available at the public library, and a review is available at www.kirkusreviews.com.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.


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