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Benjamin Franklin Was a Middle-Aged Widow Named Silence Dogood (And a Few Other Women)

The founding father wrote letters in the voice of female pseudonyms throughout his life

Benjamin Franklin's portrait on the 2009 design of the hundred dollar bill. (Ervins Stauhamanis/Flickr)
smithsonian.com

A thousand voices lived in Benjamin Franklin’s pen.

“I have now remained in a State of Widowhood for several Years, but it is a State I never much admir’d, and I am apt to fancy that I could be easily perswaded to marry again, provided I was sure of a good-humour’d, sober, agreeable Companion.” Those words and many others appear in a letter signed “Silence Dogood.” The series of 14 letters published in The New-England Courant appeared in 1772. “The letters really resonated with the community,” writes Amanda Green for Mental Floss, “ a few eligible bachelors even mailed marriage proposals to the fictitious woman!”   

If that name sounds improbable, well, that’s because it’s made up: Silence Dogood — like Martha Careful, Busy Body, Alice Addertongue and Polly Baker — were all Benjamin Franklin, writes PBS. In fact, he wrote believably in the voice of the 40-year-old widow when he was just 16: proof of his talent as a writer.

Born on this day in 1706, Benjamin Franklin was a lot of things in his life: a signatory to the Constitution, a French fashion icon, an inventor and a printer. He was also the author of numerous letters and newspaper articles under male and female pseudonyms. But it’s the female ones that are really interesting.

“When Franklin used a psuedonym,” PBS writes, “he often created an entire persona for the ‘writer.’” In the case of his female pseudonyms, to create a believable woman’s voice — like he did with the Widow Dogood and abused single mother Polly Baker — he stepped into a woman’s shoes.

Historian Jared Calaway studied Franklin’s psuedonyms and found his female and male characters were very different. His male pseudonyms, like Richard Saunders and Anthony Afterwit, wrote as though they believed in “early eighteenth-century female stereotypes of idle, vain, proud, ignorant, deceitful, adulterous, sexually seductive and even diabolical women,” he writes, while female ones “tend to oppose or reinterpret these derogatory preconceptions.”

But although Franklin’s female names are unusual, he writes, it was far from unusual for Enlightenment writers to use psudonyms. And even other men of the time were writing as women: William Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair, once used “The Honorable Wilhelmina Amelia Skeggs,” while Voltaire wrote as Catherine Vade and Daniel Defoe as Miranda Meanwell.  For Franklin, he writes, taking the voice of a woman (even one which was as obviously made up as Silence Dogood) enabled him to talk in a way he wasn’t able to as a man.

“Exploring Franklin’s pseudonymous satires provides a profitable peek into early eighteenth-century ideology, especially pertaining to gender values about the ideal good wife and the stereotypical damned woman,” he writes.

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