Ben Franklin’s sister: when women were an afterthought

Ben Franklin's sister Jane has a lesson for us todayToday is Benjamin Franklin’s birthday. This fact was drilled into me from a young age—long story. But let’s look past the Great Man and pay some attention instead to Ben Franklin’s sister Jane.

I first encountered her in the pages of The New Yorker, in an article by Jill Lepore that combined personal reminiscences of her childhood with stories of Jane Franklin Mecom, a woman all but forgotten by history. And she might have remained forgotten were it not for her relationship to one of our country’s founders.

Lepore notes:

“No two people in their family were more alike. Their lives could hardly have been more different. Boys were taught to read and write, girls to read and stitch. Three in five women in New England couldn’t even sign their names, and those who could sign usually couldn’t actually write.”

Jane owed her above-average skills to brother Ben:

“Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write with wit and force and style. His sister never learned how to spell. What she did learn, he taught her. It was a little cruel, in its kindness, because when he left the lessons ended.”

Ben ran away from home when Jane was 11; four years later, she married a man named Mecom and began the work of having and raising children. She would bear an even dozen altogether, with 11 surviving to adulthood—a far smaller brood than the one she and Ben grew up in, the two youngest children in a family of 17.

“If his life is an allegory, so is hers.”—Jill Lepore

We know remarkably little about the life of Ben Franklin’s sister. She recorded the births of her children in a “Book of Ages” and we also see her handwriting on a copy of one of Ben’s books that he gave her. Other than that, she exists in her correspondence with her brother. Or, rather, in his correspondence with her—her letters did not survive.

As Annette Gordon-Reed wrote in an article about Lepore’s book:

“The very thing that tethered Jane and Benjamin then—their letters to one another—gives the greatest evidence of the gender-based chasm between them. Benjamin’s letters show his erudition and ease with the pen. Jane’s letters show the physical struggles of putting pen to paper and forming letters.”

What Ben Franklin’s sister has to teach us today

Jane Franklin Mecom was unusual in her time—not because she lacked education but because she had a brother, seven years older, who took care to teach her the rudiments of literacy.

How unusual would she be today? Gordon-Reed reminds us:

“Universal public education—amazingly enough, reviled in some quarters—has given girls the same educational opportunities as boys. Who knows? Had she lived today, Jane Mecom could have been a printer, scientist, revolutionary, ambassador and all around-know-it all. Her brother could still have been all these things, too.”

We take “universal public education” for granted in this country. But will we keep making the investments required to make sure it’s good education? I’m not willing to bet on it.

And certain elements around our incoming administration (dear God, I hope they’re fringe elements) seem to want to remove women from the workforce and consign us to the kitchen and bedroom again. How many generations does it take to transform a nation in which women receive more graduate degrees than men to a nation of 21st century Jane Mecoms?

That’s a question I hope we never answer.

Lepore reminds us of one of Jane’s brother’s famous quotations:

“’One Half the World does not know how the other Half lives,’” he once wrote. Jane Franklin was his other half. If his life is an allegory, so is hers.”

Many women around the world remain just as illiterate today as Ben Franklin’s sister was 300 years ago. That’s why my 5×15 Writing Challenge benefits Room to Read, a global nonprofit supporting girls’ literacy. The next challenge starts Monday January 23rd. Join us.

Scientific management theory meets creativity

Ah, the lure of scientific management theory. It’s scientific—it says so right up front. And it’s about management, something no business should be without. But can it—should it—apply to creative pursuits?

My esteemed cyber-colleague Guy Bergstrom, author of the blog Red Pen of Doom, seems to believe that writers should be able to create as fast as we type. Using the average person’s typing speed of 50 words per minute, he reckons an average scribe ought to turn out 24,000 words in an eight-hour day.

I type much faster than average—I had an entry-level job transcribing audio tapes, so I learned to type almost as fast as a person can talk, if that person is not a New Yorker. But I don’t write anywhere near 100 words per minute.

The monster project I did for my client in July clocked in at 60,040 words (but who’s counting?). That’s a decent-sized nonfiction book right there, folks. And I wrote it in just nine days, working a total of 87 hours. I was exhausted at the end, and rightly so.

But if it were a typing test, I would have failed miserably. All that work boils down to about 11 words a minute. A first-grader with an oversized pencil probably writes faster than that. But good luck getting the kid to analyze and incorporate the reams of data and background material that went into my essays.

And that’s the point, of course. “Writing” is not just the physical act of pounding a keyboard. It’s a thought process—or a bunch of processes—culminating in the keyboard-pounding. And those thought processes can begin anywhere: when I’m walking the dog, taking a shower, driving the car. To be clear, I don’t bill my clients for that time. But it’s definitely a part of my idea-generation cycle.

Back when I was transcribing, I found the key to typing quickly was to remove my brain from the process. I just hit the letters that corresponded to the sounds coming through my headphones. If I stopped to think about what those sounds meant, I slowed down.

I doubt anyone wants a writer who removes her brain from the process. The brain is the point of the process. It’s why people hire me…if they’re smart.

Scientific management: it started with a stopwatch

Back in the early days of the 20th century, a guy named Frederick Winslow Taylor decided to time laborers to see how quickly they worked. At the Bethlehem Steel Company, employees loaded iron onto freight cars at the rate of 12.5 tons per man per day. But Taylor found that a “first-class man” could load 47.5 tons  a day—380% more! If one guy could do it that fast, why shouldn’t everyone? Why would a company expect anything but “first-class” work from each of its people?

Check his tombstone and you’ll find that many people called Taylor the “Father of Scientific Management.” I suspect other people, freight-loaders included, called him something less printable. For more on Taylor, his disciple Frank Gilbreth, and the equally remarkable Lillian Gilbreth, read “Not So Fast” by Jill Lepore, in the October 12, 2009 issue of The New Yorker. And, yes, if those names ring a bell you’ve likely met the Gilbreths before: two of their children wrote Cheaper By the Dozen.

As for Scientific Management: If you want a freight car full of words loaded as quickly as possible, hire someone to transcribe your thoughts. But if you want a “first-class” writer, hire someone who doesn’t just pound a keyboard. You need someone who can think, too.