Gender equality has been a revolutionary topic in the past centuries. As a teenager, Benjamin Franklin used the pseudonym “Silence Dogood” to speak on behalf of a widowed mother and offer some observations regarding women’s rights (Arch 222). In 1722, he published a series of anonymous satirical essays, expressing progressive views regarding politics, the freedom of printed media, and women’s issues (Arch 222).
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Judith Sargent Murray won recognition for her feminist essays after moving to Boston with her second husband (Lewis 616). Her works received some criticism for addressing “the question of women’s political rights” superficially despite demanding more education-related opportunities for her female peers (Lewis 616). Born in 1810, Margaret Fuller realized the hardships of womanhood very early. In the era of inaccessible education for girls, she acquired “wide knowledge” only due to her father’s tutelage (Villalon 81). The Early American authors’ works, including Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes,” Franklin’s “The Speech of Miss Polly Baker,” and Fuller’s “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men. Woman versus Women,” convey the idea that women’s moral and intellectual similarity to men makes the inequality of rights inappropriate.
Feminism and the Equality of Rights
In the three works, the ideas of feminism and women’s rights being equal to men’s rights manifest themselves to a different extent. In Benjamin Franklin’s story, Polly Baker directly objects to the practice of punishing women for giving birth to illegitimate children while placing no blame on these children’s biological fathers (214). The fact that the same government promotes her “Betrayer and Undoer,” the key cause of her pregnancies, to power while punishing her deserves the epithets “unequal” and “unjust” (Franklin 215).
On the one hand, Franklin’s work states the problem of unequal access to justice and legal protection, thus illustrating a pro-feminist stance. On the other hand, Franklin’s fictional narrator primarily focuses on her specific case, which might reduce the recognition of men’s and women’s unequal rights as a systems-level issue. Fuller and Murray express similar views in a more direct manner, which might deal with dissimilarities between the essay and fictional story genres.
In contrast to Franklin’s concentration on one case with limited attempts to argue for the need for equal rights for all men and women, both female authors state the situation with equality and rights explicitly and name the issue. Fuller criticizes inequality between the sexes in terms of wives’ and husbands’ rights, noting that “the man has so much advantage over his wife that she can… be led and directed by him” even though there are many women who are not born to be their partners’ shadows (810).
The unmet need for equal rights, Fuller explains, causes “women rich in genius” to “run their heads so wildly against its [the world’s] laws” 807). Fuller’s discussion might hint at the variety of rights, including managing marital property, whereas Murray explores the topic with attention to knowledge and learning. As she claims, women should “be allowed an equality of acquirement” to achieve the strength men already possess, which demonstrates her concern regarding equal rights to education (Murray 412). Therefore, the female essayists recognize the systemic nature of limitations to women’s rights.
Equality in Areas Other Than Rights
The female authors argue for the sexes’ equality of merit and ability. Fuller is sure that a marriage can be “a pilgrimage towards a common shrine” or an intellectual communion, which would not be possible between two unequally developed minds (809). Also, reflecting on the example of Alessandro Manzoni and his wife, Fuller criticizes the underestimation of women’s creative abilities by stating that the lyre “requires not muscular strength, but the energy of the soul” to create true art (809). In this passage, she illustrates the inadequacy of overusing the difference in physical power to understate women’s creative abilities and merits.
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Similar to Fuller, Murray ridicules the idea of the sexes’ inequality in intelligent abilities and moral qualities and describes women as “intelligent beings… to spend an eternity in contemplating the work of deity” (411). To the author, it is punningly illogical to tell a woman, “a candidate for immortality,” that domestic employment elicits her potential to the maximum extent (Murray 411). The essayists’ perspectives on men’s and women’s equal value are, therefore, present.
Benjamin Franklin’s story is quite different from the two essays. Instead of simply stating the total equality of merit and ability, the author makes his character defame men for irresponsibility and avarice. The speech of Franklin’s character contains ideas that point to women’s greater moral merits compared to men. Specifically, Polly Baker mentions men’s “mean Fear of the Expense of a Family” and its consequences as an “Offence against the Public Good” (Franklin 215). This may imply men’s moral inferiority when it comes to supporting children financially.
The Author with the Most Convincing and Valid Points
Fuller’s points are really convincing as she explains the discrimination of women concerning the denial of the great radical dualism or racial prejudice in determining people’s value. Fuller invites society to stop binding the soul “by the past to man or woman, black or white” (811). In her signature work, the author also believes in the role of fair public representation of women’s interests by women as the first step on the path toward equality (Villalon 77).
The persuasive power of Franklin’s story can be limited by focusing on one person’s case rather than the nation’s tragedy. Polly Baker’s arguments about men’s ability to walk away from unwanted pregnancies “make Franklin sound uncannily like a feminist” (Arch 225). However, the character’s desire “to have a statue erected” to her memory might reduce the story to one person’s self-fulfillment intentions (Franklin 216). Murray’s arguments are similar, but their complexity and references to biblical stories might reduce their chance to be considered convincing by the masses (415). Therefore, Fuller’s points might be the most convincing due to the simplicity and power of comparisons that she makes.
The Author with the Best Writing Style
Despite the abovementioned focus-related issues, Franklin’s unique writing style makes his points the strongest in terms of the emotional aspect of persuasion. Firstly, as a short story in a newspaper, his work uses the format that maximizes the outreach and makes the piece easy to read, thus employing the best style for popularizing pro-equality ideas. Secondly, compared to the female essayists’ rather abstract philosophical reflections, Franklin uses his fantasy to personify the issue of sex-based discrimination. His expressive style also enables female readers to associate themselves with Polly Baker and get inspiration from her ability “to speak truth to power” and expose the system’s inconsistencies (Arch 225). This writing strategy could increase his points’ subjective strength from an average reader’s perspective.
Finally, all three authors express pro-feminist and pro-equality views using a variety of writing techniques. Franklin’s male view is not contradictory to his female contemporaries’ perspectives on equality. However, differences exist in the degree to which the issue’s systematic nature is emphasized. Fuller and Murray are explicit and analytical when it comes to oppression as all women’s common problem. At the same time, Franklin conveys his ideas by creating one character and expressing a women’s anger through her fictional case.
Arch, Stephen Carl. “Benjamin Franklin: Printer, Editor, and Writer.” A Companion to American Literature: Volume 1: Origins to 1820, edited by Susan Belasco, John Wiley & Sons, 2020, pp. 217-232.
Franklin, Benjamin. “The Speech of Miss Polly Baker.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginnings to 1865, edited by Robert Lewine, 9th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 214-216.
Fuller, Margaret. “The Great Lawsuit, Man versus Men, Woman versus Women.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginnings to 1865, edited by Robert Lewine, 9th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 806-814.
Lewis, Paul. ““Lines Written by a Lady”: Judith Sargent Murray and a Mystery of Feminist Authorship.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 92, no. 4, 2019, pp. 615-632. Web.
Murray, Judith Sargent. “On the Equality of the Sexes.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginnings to 1865, edited by Robert Lewine, 9th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 408-415.
Villalon, Jean Paul Lerea. Margaret Fuller: A Proto-Ecofeminist. 2020. Universidad de Alcalá. PhD dissertation. Web.