Benjamin Franklin and Women24 Sep 2014, Posted by The Franklin You Thought You Knew in
As I portray and interpret Benjamin Franklin to all sorts of people and groups, one aspect of Dr. Franklin’s life and work almost always rears its head. People want to talk about his relationships with, and conduct toward women. Franklin did, of course, interact with a number of women over the course of his life, and they played an important role in that life. It seems, though, that all too often the interest is in what is perceived as salacious or inappropriate activity. Americans, after all, like a good scandal, and if they can’t find one they will create one.
The most humorous thing about these comments is that they are almost always referring to the time that Franklin spent in Paris. The term “ladies’ man”, or worse, “womanizer” is frequently used. What makes this humorous is that Benjamin Franklin was seventy-one years of age when he arrived in France, and nearly eighty when he left. And those are eighteenth century years. He was also a widower, which removes the adulterous aspect that these folks believe exists. Yes, Franklin loved women. More than most eighteenth century men, he loved their company. He appreciated intelligent, interesting women, and would discuss those subjects which were usually relegated to the boys’ club.
The most telling thing to me is that we don’t read these accusations of improper behavior in Franklin’s own time, and believe me we would have. Not until the Puritan John Adams arrived in France and began to view Franklin and the French through his Protestant ethic lens do we see Franklin excoriated in this manner. And not until Hollywood and the media of our time focus on Franklin do we hear so much about this. (Walter Isaacson, the popular biographer of Franklin, is a mass-media journalist by trade, not a historian.)
I would be happy to discuss this at greater length, but I just want to encourage you to look at the real accomplishments of Benjamin Franklin’s mission to France, creating an alliance which helped our cause of independence, and giving the United States real credibility on the world stage. I recommend for your reading Stacey Schiff’s A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America, and Claude-Anne Lopez’s Mon Cher Papa: Benjamin Franklin and the Ladies of France.