The Women Behind Ben Franklin

Members of the Founding Father’s inner circle step out of the shadows in a new history

You’re probably familiar with Benjamin Franklin, the quick-witted American scientist-statesman known for his experiments with lightning. But much has been left out of the history books, according to Nancy Rubin Stuart, J66, author of Poor Richard’s Women: Deborah Read Franklin and the Other Women Behind the Founding Father.

Stuart’s project began with a question. “Ben Franklin and his wife, Deborah, had a presumably happy marriage for 43 years—but he lived apart from her in England, first for five years and then for almost 10,” she said. “What was that about? Who was she, and what was their marriage really like?”

To find answers, Stuart delved into the letters written to and by Deborah, as well as the many women in Franklin’s life. Their correspondence confirmed the popular image of Franklin as a successful inventor, diplomat, editor, and printer who became wealthy publishing newspapers and the annual Poor Richard’s Almanack, which he wrote under a pseudonym. “His correspondence reveals a man whose primary goal is to improve society, which he did in dozens of ways,” said Stuart.

But the women’s letters also reveal a man whom few have known—passionate to the point of obsession, often perplexed, and surprisingly graceful in defeat. Stuart’s book based on those letters “exposes the personal side of Ben Franklin, which has rarely been publicized,” Stuart said. “The book reveals the man behind the glow of his achievements, one who is a human being with frailties like the rest of us.”

Stuart’s book also offers portraits of partners, friendly adversaries, caretakers, and confidantes who were extraordinary in their own right—women who inspired, challenged, and transformed Franklin, and whose creative talents and determination to live life on their own terms rivaled those of the man who made history.

“These 18th-century women are supposed to be subservient, but in their own ways, each of them declared their independence,” Stuart said.

Many stories of colonial-era women have been lost, she pointed out—mainly because few women had the time, opportunity, or education to write, as their time was spent on the daily chores essential for survival.. Fortunately, some of their stories have been preserved, and she hopes to bring them out of academic and scholarly circles and into the public eye.

Stuart has also published books on the wives of famous Revolutionary figures Henry Knox and Benedict Arnold; pioneering playwright and historian Mercy Otis Warren; Maggie Fox, the teenage cofounder of spiritualism; heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post; and Queen Isabella of Castile.

"If we don’t research and write women’s history, and we don’t preserve it in books, it’s going to disappear and nobody’s going to know about those figures,” said Stuart. “I’m devoted to researching and documenting women who mattered—women who have been marginalized ,  misunderstood or forgotten..”

Meet five of those women.

A partner and political force

A carpenter’s daughter who married Franklin at 22, Deborah Read Franklin was traditionally dismissed by historians for her lack of formal education, according to Stuart.

Nevertheless, she describes Deborah Franklin as “a shrewd businesswoman” who was “socially savvy and capable.” She managed and expanded her husband’s stationery store, assisted him in his role as postmaster, and took care of the family’s complex finances—all while raising three children and running a household.

An “independent political force” of her own, Deborah Franklin received important guests and procured documents for acquaintances in her husband’s absence. Spirited, resilient, and stubborn, she even picked up a gun and stood guard against an angry mob threatening to burn down the family home.

A surrogate daughter

At twenty-three years old, Catharine Ray—or Katy, as Franklin called her—met the 48-year-old Franklin through relatives. She playful and flirtatious, engaging her older friend in long conversations and letter exchanges and making him sugar plums. The two spent intimate time together, even traveling from Boston to Rhode Island and staying overnight at a roadside tavern. But their correspondence shows she rejected his physical advances, and they ended up lifelong friends, with Franklin declaring himself her father figure.

A London wife

A sociable and forthright English widow, Margaret Stevenson, rented Benjamin Franklin a room in her London townhouse. She soon became more than a landlady, nursing him when he became ill, instructing him in English fashion, and accompanying him to dinners, parties, concerts, and plays. The two are believed to have become romantically involved—in any case, they were treated as a couple in London. Franklin also developed a close, affectionate relationship with Stevenson’s teenage daughter, Polly, and continued his correspondence with his “second family” until Stevenson’s death. He later reflected that some of his happiest times had been with them.

A brilliant musician

Trapped in a loveless marriage, the celebrated 33-year-old pianist and composer Anne-Louise Boyvin d’Hardancourt—also known as Madame Brillon—fell madly in love with the widowed Franklin soon after his arrival in France. For months they regularly visited each other, played music and chess, and flirted passionately. But when Franklin begged for intimacy, she refused, prompting him to seek out other women.

A regal renegade

Nicknamed “Minette” or “Pussycat” for her charm and independence, the French widow of philosopher Claude Helvétius crafted a life that flouted convention. Rather than remarry, Anne-Catherine Helvétius chose to share her home with two abbots and a male medical student, 18 cats, and many birds. Franklin eventually met Madame Helvétius at one of her salons near Paris and jokingly dubbed her Notre Dame d’Auteuil, after a regal and revered cathedral. He persistently pursued and eventually proposed to her, even writing a piece invoking her dead husband to persuade her. Frightened by his insistent proposals, Madame Helvétius rejected him and fled to Tours. Franklin fell into despair—but the two ended up close friends.

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