At the close of the Constitutional Convention (in 1787), a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what type of government the Constitution was bringing into existence. Franklin replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

How often have we read or heard the above quote, which was purportedly recorded by Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Convention? And why haven’t we ever questioned it?

Here are some problems with it:

1. The most obvious issue is the admonition: A republic, if you can keep it. What the heck is that supposed to mean? Is Franklin referring to the woman on a personal level – as in, it’s up to HER to keep it? And keep what? Keep it together? Keep it cool? Keep it real? Keep the peace?

2. Was Franklin in a bad mood when he said this? Seems like such a huffy statement. In fact, he might have been a bit peeved, since Franklin opened his mouth a lot during those hot Philly days, warning that people will “drift into so deep a corruption that only despots will rules them.” He was told to shut up and was shadowed by a guard to make sure he stayed shut up. (Morris, American History Revisited).

3. But the most pressing problem with this is the “fact” that a woman asked the question in this little story. Seriously? A woman? Women had no role in the infant government – none, nada, zilch – and the words woman, women, she, or her aren’t even mentioned in the Constitution or the subsequent 10 Bill of Rights. But the word “he” is in there a lot, like, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years…”

Oh, rats, here’s a horrible thought: If a woman is ever elected president, do we have to amend the Constitution????

I’m thinking that if a woman said anything to ol’ Franklin, it would have been something like, “Why the f didn’t you give women the vote, you debauched, syphilitic, French-whore-loving bastard?” With a polite little curtsy.

Or something like that.

Let’s not forget this is the guy who wrote a few years earlier, “Let thy maidservant be faithful, strong, and homely.” (Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1736).

So now our eyes turn to the gentle sex….

Almost every museum I have visited has a display of women’s dresses thru the centuries. Not men’s garb, mind you, but women’s garb. I don’t know why, but surely it has something to do with corsets, lace, and the stunning variety of colored fabrics. We seem to be fascinated by that, and it’s interesting to note that a number of dresses for all occasions are passed down generation to generation, and many end up in local museums. Until the early 20th century, most of these dresses were “hand made” – no machines since the electric grid hadn’t been invented yet, but they really, really have stood the various tests of time.

Each museum exhibit is different, of course, but there is one over-lying question that has to be asked: Good grief, how did women for the last 7,000 years or whatever endure those long skirts while:

  • Clearing fields
  • Birthin’ babies**
  • Putting up supplies for winter
  • Mucking out the mud after a storm
  • Washin’ laundry at the creek
  • Driving wagons, pushing carts, or carrying loads of whatever
  • Stepping lady-like over what passed as “streets” filled with mud, blood, and beer.


In the New World, these tasks took on new urgencies, since bad weather was always coming, ships from home were always late, and there was never enough food put away.

“With refrigeration and [commercial] canning yet unknown, the colonial housewife depended upon other expedients to keep her food supplies edible. Meat, the most important element in the Virginia diet, posed special problems because it spoiled quickly in the warm climate. The practice of preserving it with salt was so universal that guests in private homes and public taverns found salted meat on the menu at nearly every meal. One of Rochambeau’s officers, for example, observed that Virginians ate a great deal of it because ‘the summer heat here restricts them to this dies, for fresh-killed meat must be consumed within twenty-four hours or else it will spoil.’
(Colonial Virginia Cookery, Jane Carson.)

“The roles of women were dramatically changed by the plantation society. First of all, since most indentured servants were male, there were far fewer women in the colonial South. In the Chesapeake during the 1600s, men entered the colony at a rate of seven to one. From one perspective, this increased women’s power. They were highly sought after by the overwhelming number of eager men. The high death rate in the region resulted in a typical marriage being dissolved by death within seven years. Consequently there was a good deal of remarriage, and a complex web of half-brothers and half-sisters evolved. Women needed to administer the property in the absence of the male. Consequently many developed managerial skills. However, being a minority had its downside. Like in New England, women were completely excluded from the political process. Female slaves and indentured servants were often the victims of aggressive male masters.”  (US

As we now know, men in the New World were testing the limits of their Old World loyalties almost from the get-go, but women, not so much. Zinn has one of the most comprehensive analyses of this, as he writes about the framer’s of the Constitution: “The use of the phrase all men are created equal was probably not a deliberate attempt to make a statement about women. It was just that women were beyond consideration as worthy of inclusion.” Ouch.

From the early 1600s, women were brought to the New World as conscript wives and servants, many of these ousted from England for one reason or another: perhaps they were found guilty of being miscreants (a favorite word in the archives) or even sold by families who just needed a few less mouths to feed. These women found mean lives: “They were poorly paid and often treated rudely and harshly, deprived of good food and privacy…” (America’s Working Women, Baxandall, Gordon and Reverby).

Legally, women had little or no say in pretty much anything. A man owned his wife and children as if they were tables or chairs. If a poor man chose to send his children into servitude or as an aprentis, the mother was legally defenseless to object. “Some communities, however, modified the common law to allow women to act as lawyers in the courts, to sue for property, and to own property in their own names IF their husbands agreed.” (Women’s International Center). Note the word IF is enhanced by me.

Women had it really, really hard. Not nearly as hard as black women, not even going there, but their life was not one of frilly bonnets and sewing circles. Not even. Mortality rates of women of child-bearing age was so bad that pregnancy was regarded with understandable dread. Anne Bradstreet, a New England poet of the time, wrote a poem called Before the Birth of One of Her Children:

How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend.

Women, black and white, were sexually exploited at unimaginable levels. Court records in Virginia and other colonies record masters being brought into court for sexual abuse against serving girls, but how many were not brought into such public display? (Zinn, p. 105). For a taste of what it was like for one unfortunate woman, click here.

So more than 400 years later, how are we doing, ladies? We finally got the vote – less than 100 years ago, in 1920, but here we are and we’re about 51 percent of the population Yet, many boards and commissions only have the 1 or 2 token women – if any. Go ahead, check in your local community, or your state. Men, men, men, everywhere.

Now, don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are men, but think about this: there are only 20 women in the U.S. Senate. That’s 20%, for the math-challenged. In the House, there are … wait, I’m checking. When you use dagoogle for “How many women are in the U.S. House of Representatives” you’re sent to, scroll down a loooooong ways, to the Question, How many women are serving in Congress, then you’re linked to History, Art & Archives, and….well, good luck finding any kind of current number.

We’re our own worst enemy, aren’t we.

Anyway, finally found the number. Live website work going on here! There are currently (2015) 85 women reps, out of 435 total, that means we have a 20 percent minority, coincidentally, the same as the Senate!

A modern-day twist:

Feb. 17, 2012 – The Commonwealth of Virginia has just passed a law that requires a woman to have an invasive ultrasound before she has an abortion. Insurance probably won’t pay for this, so the victim, I mean, woman, has to, and that could be several hundred dollars.

*OK, I’m going to go where I rarely go here, but I have to note that even many native women in other continents, from the Americas to Africa, wear non-pants type of clothing, wraps and tunics and saris and such. Is it because it’s so much easier to perform certain bodily functions whilst wearing a skirt? Really? Is that the reason? Really? Or, as a friend of mine suggested…skirts made it easier for the menfolk to “have their ways” with the womenfolk whenever and wherever they, well, felt like it. THAT has a ring of truthiness, doesn’t it?

**February, 2015 – Certain (expletive deleted) MALE members of Congress and certain MALE presidential wanna-bes are dissing birth control? Seriously? Seriously? Hard to understand, since I don’t know of one man who hasn’t directly benefitted from birth control (no paternity suits, no child support…and etc. etc. etc.).