From the first, Franklin could also conceive the schooling of females. He took up the topic in his very next Silence Dogood Paper. Two weeks after he disparaged Harvard, he decried “one of the most barbarous customs in the world ... that we deny the advantages of learning to women.” Why, he demanded, were girls taught only “to stitch and sew, or make baubles”? Why was it “the height of a woman’s education” to read and “perhaps” to write her name? “What has the woman done to forfeit the privilege of being taught? Does she plague us with her pride and impertinence? Why did we not let her learn, that she might have had more wit?” Barely advanced beyond his 16th birthday, Franklin already felt that the denial of more liberal instruction to girls accounted for much of the “folly” with which “we reproach the sex.” Had they “the advantages of education equal to us, they would be guilty of less [folly] than ourselves.”

In all his life, Jefferson never approached the appreciation of female intellectual potential, or the value of cultivating it, that Franklin had already achieved in his adolescence. For Jefferson, women were always “the weaker sex.” Nature had marked them merely for “protection.” As he told Nathaniel Burwell near the end of his life, “a plan of female education” had never been “a subject of [his] systematic contemplation.” The education of girls “occupied my attention only as the education of my own daughters occasionally required.”

Jefferson did not speak carelessly or casually when he confessed that even the education of his own daughters engaged him only occasionally. In 1783, he wrote to his eldest, 11-year-old Martha, presenting her with a schedule for “the distribution of her time.” From eight to 10 in the morning, she was to “practice music.” From 10 to one in the afternoon, she was to “draw one day and dance another.” From one to two, she was to draw on the day she danced and “write a letter” on the other. From three to four she was to “read French,” from four to five “exercise [her] self in music,” and from five to bedtime “read English, write, &c.” In short, she was to read, write, and otherwise occupy herself with the very trifles of decorative femininity that Franklin, barely beyond boyhood, already recognized as a dismaying waste of female intellect.

As a father himself, Franklin did not push his beloved daughter Sally toward strenuous learning much more than Jefferson pushed Martha, though he did urge her “to acquire those useful accomplishments arithmetic and book-keeping.” But as an older brother and especially as a faux father to younger females, he was a more demanding—and encouraging—mentor. He discussed theology with his sister Jane and begged her to read Jonathan Edwards. He sent books to his friend Catharine Ray. He assumed as ambitious a responsibility for the advanced education of Mary Stevenson, the daughter of his landlady in London, as any 18th-century parent did for the tutelage of a son.

Take the letter he wrote to Mary Stevenson on September 13, 1760. In it, he ranged over the theory of heat, scientific method, river tides and wave motions, gravity, currents, and more. At the end of it, he thought to finish his letter “in the mode” by concluding with a compliment. And then he thought better of it. “6 folio pages of philosophy to a young girl” was, he decided, “of itself a compliment.” It said that she had “a mind thirsty after knowledge, and capable of receiving it, and that the most agreeable things one can write to her are those that tend to the improvement of her understanding.”

The simple truth of the matter was that Franklin enjoyed the company of women as Jefferson never did. He engaged them flirtatiously, as Jefferson scarcely dared to do, and he engaged them intellectually, as Jefferson scarcely dreamed of doing. As Walter Isaacson noted in his 2003 biography, Franklin formed few intimate bonds with his male friends but “relished being with women” and “formed deep and lasting relationships with many.” Over the course of his life, he lost many male friends but “never ... a female one.”

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