Ann Smith Franklin, born in 1696, was America’s first female newspaper editor, almanac writer, and inductee into the Journalism Hall of Fame at the University of Rhode Island. You might recognize her by her last name – she was the wife of James Franklin, older brother of founding father Benjamin Franklin.
Ann’s husband was the publisher of The New England Courant, and faced frequent persecution for the publication of controversial articles that criticized church and government officials. In fact, one of these articles, written by Benjamin under a pseudonym, led to James’ brief imprisonment after he refused to reveal the author.
After his release from jail, James Franklin was ordered to cease printing The New England Courant. James and Ann moved from Boston to the more liberal atmosphere of Rhode Island, where together they started the colony’s first printing press and its first newspaper, the Rhode Island Gazette. Aside from acting as her husband’s assistant in the business, Ann Franklin also raised their children and took care of the common duties of the household. When James died in 1735, Ann was left with the responsibility of supporting several children alone.
Worried about the family business, Ann reached out to the General Assembly of Rhode Island, obtaining a contract to publish their official materials – including ballots, currency, and legal forms. She also printed sermons for ministers, advertisements for merchants, broadsides for townspeople to voice complaints, and British novels. Then, in 1739, she revived the Rhode Island Almanac that James had begun over a decade ago, and later sold her brother-in-law’s famous Poor Richard’s Almanac. Almanacs were extremely popular and profitable at the time, including vast arrays of useful information such as weather forecasts, celestial figures, religious festivals, tide tables, and farmers’ planting schedules.
Later in life, Ann and her son, James Jr., who had returned from apprenticing for his uncle Benjamin in Philadelphia, began the newspaper the Newport Mercury. The paper is still active today, reminding Rhode Island residents on its website that it has been “taking your temperature since 1758.”
Ann gradually began to lessen her time spent in the printing business, delegating more responsibility to her children, Mary, Elizabeth, and James Jr. Tragically, however, both daughters and her son had passed away by 1762, and Ann returned to her business full-time. Pushing past her age and poor health, she didn’t miss a single print until she herself passed away on April 16, 1763.
Despite early hardships and her struggles as a single mother, Ann Franklin persevered as a publisher, writer, and editor. She established steady contacts, circulated news and information, and expanded her printing business greatly. Similar to several other women CEOs or business leaders in history, she had inherited her role from the passing of a male figure in her life – which, given the restrictions placed upon women at the time, was once one of the few ways for a woman to land such responsibilities and autonomy in the first place – but like many of those same women, Franklin worked hard and shrewdly to make her business bigger and better than it ever was before.
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