|Ben Franklin taught his younger sister Jane to read.|
It's the other way around for these two.
(Photo by Kevin Miller)
“The Prodigal Daughter,” Jill Lepore’s latest piece in the New Yorker*, is a meditation on mothers and their longings. Her own mother yearned for travel and adventure beyond the confines of her New England town. Jane Franklin, sister to Benjamin, wished to correspond with her brother with the fluidity and skill that he possessed. Ben assures his sister that, as a literate woman in eighteenth-century America, she is miracle enough; she continues to feel shame over her misspellings and her obvious exertions to express herself in writing.
When I read Jane’s quote, I immediately teared up. My chest ached with what felt like an ancient injury. Why? I wondered. What was going on here?
The lives of Benjamin and Jane Franklin tell a compact story of the politics of sexism made personal. Lepore sums it up neatly: “No two people in their family were more alike. Their lives could hardly have been more different.... He became a printer, a philosopher, and a statesman. She became a wife, a mother, and a widow. He signed the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, and the Constitution. She strained to form the letters of her name.”
The struggles of feminism, particularly second wave feminism, have been largely to change this narrative, to allow women to fulfill those frustrated longings: go out in the world, gain renown, participate visibly in history’s great events.
As a child growing up in the late 1970s and the 1980s, I benefitted immeasurably from the second wave, but what I knew of feminism during my childhood was mostly this: my mother worked.
My mother taught English and Spanish to middle- and high school students at the K–12 school I attended. She didn’t just work—she had found her calling. In addition to the fundamentals of English and Spanish, she also undertook to instill in them the ability to express themselves fully and accurately in writing and to think critically. She eventually became an English professor at a community college and found her niche, determined to help underprivileged students attain college degrees. Now, not only does she teach classes, but she has become one of the leaders of her college’s Puente Project, a comprehensive program to provide underserved students with mentors, writing instruction, and support to attain academic success.
Over the years, many of her students have fallen into two camps: those who appreciated her unstinting efforts to get them to achieve above and beyond what they thought was possible, and those who found her an immense pain in the ass.
I feel like I absorbed teaching through osmosis. My mother’s passion for her job meant that she has always shared her thoughts and struggles with me, and I sometimes watched her classes. The times in my life I have worked as a teacher—as a teaching assistant for writing during college, as an ESL instructor in Senegal, and a teaching assistant during graduate school—I felt that my joy in it, my comfort with it, and my ability to improvise in the classroom stemmed directly from her. I learned from her that my primary job was not to be my students’ friend, but to goad them to think, sometimes unwillingly, beyond their assumptions and received wisdom.
I think I could have been a teacher, but for my chronic bouts of illness. During my years in graduate school, where we were groomed to become professors at research universities, the manifold ways that I saw how teaching was devalued, how it came at the end of a professor’s to-do list, far below research and the chase for grant money, discouraged me from pursuing a higher degree. (That we, in the United States, hold educators cheap is a discussion for another time.)
What I have now is parenting. Instead of guiding young adults to unpack the cultural and political significance of performance, both artistic and quotidian, I am pushing my preschoolers to find alternative resolutions to their conflicts other than calling each other “Stupid.”
So here I am, a wife and a mother, stitching together scraps of time trimmed from child care, household management, cooking, grocery shopping, finances, and my relationship with my husband to write. Looking at my life—absent my laptop, my preschool, the internet, the empty spaces where extended family and/or servants should be, the car, and my brown self—I ask:
What is this, the Victorian era?
(To be continued in Part 2.)
*Lepore’s piece is like a well-cut jewel: sharp, revealing, finely crafted, beautiful. Go read it.