by Madeleine Kando
I read somewhere that only three percent of the most illustrious figures of history are women. Ben Franklin, Einstein, William the Conqueror and Freud do not have female counterparts. It is as if the genius gene only gets passed on to sons, carefully skipping over daughters.
Famous men of history often had more sisters than brothers; Benjamin Franklin had seven sisters, Freud had five and Darwin had four. What happened to them? They all lived their lives, side by side with their famous brothers, only to vanish without a trace, almost as if they never existed. Were they less talented? Or did they have a different role to play, a different destiny?
Looking at the size of the families that these famous men grew up in, one wonders how anyone of the female sex could find the time to do anything but pop out babies. Women were baby factories, not much else. Josiah Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s father, had seventeen children. His first wife died giving birth to their 7th child, so he didn’t waste time and married Abigail Folger that same year, who bore him ten more children. She started at age 23 and had her last child at age 45. Josiah Franklin, 'made sure that each of his sons learned a trade', a noble endeavor, to be sure, but there is no mention of his many daughters being included in these paternal ambitions.
This incredible silence throughout history of the female voice is an accepted fact. If you look at the ratio of sons to daughters, it is about the same in most famous men’s families, but usually the sons were given special treatment, especially by their mothers. Freud had his own room, while his many sisters had to share one and both Hitler and Picasso were their mother's 'favorite'.
The many sisters were there to be married off and pop out babies of their own. They barely had time to catch their breath between deliveries, let alone learn how to read and write, study or create opportunities to become people in their own right.
Napoleon's mother Letizia Ramolino, had her first child at fourteen. The baby promptly died and so did the second one. Only eight of her thirteen children survived. She is described as 'a hard, austere woman, toughened by war, who punished her children to teach them sacrifice and discipline.' She actually died at the ripe old age of 86, having had her 13 children before the age of 35. Many women these days haven't even started a family at that age!
The few sisters that survived oblivion did so at the expense of their offspring. Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon's favorite younger sister, had only one child who died at the age of eight. Pauline was considered the most beautiful woman in Europe at the time. This, combined with her frivolous character, her enormous sexual appetite and her fondness for intrigue, guaranteed her a well-deserved, albeit notorious place in history. She would be a perfect candidate for a write-up in the National Enquirer. Some historians even suspect that she had an incestuous relationship with Napoleon himself.
Some sisters survived oblivion simply be being born famous. Octavia Minor or simply Octavia, was Augustus' sister. She was one of the most prominent women in Roman history, respected and admired for her loyalty, nobility and humanity. She married Mark Antony, who cheated on her with Cleopatra and she had the misfortune of being Caligula's mother.
Some sisters deserve to be forgotten just by being unsavory characters, unworthy of being remembered. Paula Hitler, Adolf Hitler's younger sister, had a clean slate, until it was discovered that she was engaged to Erwin Jekelius, who was responsible for gassing 4000 people during the war.
Of all the sisters that I did my limited research on, none speaks to me more, than Jane Franklin Mecom, Benjamin Franklin's younger sister. As historian Jill Lepore observes in the New York Times, 'by looking at the divergent paths of these two siblings, we can learn a lot about history, about gender disparity, and about luck. The two had a similarly modest background, but he, alone, transcended it.'
Benjamin Franklin wrote more letters to Jane than to anyone else. His literary legacy is legendary, brilliant, entertaining, hers is full of spelling errors, awkwardly written and she constantly apologies for her own writing style.
While Benjamin wrote his famous biography, Jane wrote what she calls her “Book of Ages", a 14 page description of the deaths of her children. She had twelve, eleven of them died. She was trapped in poverty, trying to take care of a mentally ill husband, having babies who died one after the other, keenly aware of the 'what might have beens', had she not been a sister but a brother. She was thirsting for knowledge, for the education she never had.
Have we made any progress? Are sisters still in danger of living out their lives in obscurity, motherhood forcing them to give up on greatness? The social pressure on women to have children is still strong.
London School of Psychology's Satoshi Kanazawa, found that maternal urges drop 25% with every increased 15 IQ point. He finds smart women's reproductive choice 'dumb', because 'If there is one thing that humans are decisively not designed for, it is voluntary childlessness. Reproductive success is the ultimate end of all biological existence.'
Well, Mr. Kanazawa, if women choose to remain childless, it is a reflection of society’s failure to provide the support they need to raise children. Forcing women, especially smart ones, to choose between greatness and obscurity, between career and kids and then lecturing them on their 'duty' towards our species, is hypocritical. We need those women's voices to fill the historical void. Then, maybe, perhaps, eventually they can also have children. If you ask them nicely. leave comment here
Monday, August 19, 2013
by Madeleine Kando