200 Years of Being Female In America

As Much As I Dare

May 18, 2011 by

A couple of weeks ago I happened on two articles, published the same day in the New York Times. Each addressed the challenges, triumphs and failures of being female in America – 200 years apart.

The first, “Poor Jane’s Almanac”, told the story of Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane. It contrasts the lives of these two close siblings.  Benjamin struggled his way out of poverty to international prominence.  Jane, married at fifteen, gave birth to twelve children and buried eleven. Certainly two of her sons, and probably her husband, went mad.

She provided for her waxing and waning family as best she could. Times and circumstances kept her from the education she desired, although, as she wrote to her brother, “I Read as much as I Dare”.  Author Jill Lepore’s message is that “especially for women, escaping poverty has always depended on the opportunity for an education and the ability to control the size of their families.”

In the same issue, Nicholas Kristof’s column carried the shocking headline: “What About American Girls Sold on the Streets?”

Kristof contrasts our sympathy toward the victims of white slavery in far-off lands, with our lip-curling disdain for our own runaways, often teenagers, turned prostitutes. His message: “From johns to judges, Americans often suffer from a profound misunderstanding of how teenage prostitution actually works — and fail to appreciate that it’s one of our country’s biggest human rights problems.”

Kristof goes on to recommend “Girls Like Us” by Rachel Lloyd.  Lloyd, a former runaway and teenage prostitute from Britain, escaped her pimp and came to the U.S. where she founded GEMS, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services. She eventually graduated from college and earned a summa cum laude masters degree.

Girls Like Us” not only tells Lloyd’s story, but fleshes out the picture of human-trafficking in this country, making the point that it is not a ghetto-ized problem affecting only poor immigrants, but also feeds on what Kristof calls “homegrown American runaways.”

As we bemoan daily tribulations such as my broken washing machine that, even now, awaits a repairman’s overdue visit, it is hard to remember that there are and have been much greater challenges facing less-privileged girlfriends around the world and here at home.

About the Author

Tani Wolff Has Written 17 Articles For Us!

I also write for a college admissions blog and create marketing materials. However, my true passion is preparing articles about Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ upcoming festival season. I spend eight to ten months each year researching the composers, librettists, time periods and performance records of our productions (as well as the music) to put together pieces that will enhance the enjoyment of our fabulous and devoted patron community. It is truly a labor of love.
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  1. This post led me to reading more about the topic, (this is my problem with reading blogs, I find something interesting and then have to delve deeper, hence getting no work done!) Jane/Rachel two sides of the same coin two hundred years apart. Both slaves in their own way. This led me to question are the lives of these women tragic or heroic? And can you have the one without the other? One thing is certain, these women both shown they are what makes this ‘the home of the brave.’ Battling their way through life even though it wasn’t easy sometimes, in fact in many cases it was never easy. Then I question where were the people around these women? Didn’t anyone care enough? It reminds me to be a person who cares.

  2. Tani – Thanks for this very powerful post. I think we all knew that women in the 18th century didn’t have the access to education as their brothers. However,to see Jane’s words and know her dreams really personalizes. Then to bring in how women are still treated in the 21st century in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” is a 1-2 punch.

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