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Polly Baker strikes a blow for women’s rights
But who was Polly Baker?
“May it please the honorable bench to indulge me in a few words,” Polly Baker said to an eighteenth-century court in colonial Connecticut. “I am a poor unhappy woman who have no money to fee lawyers to plead for me, being hard put to it to get a tolerable living.”
Polly Baker had been summoned before the court to answer charges of having given birth to a child out of wedlock. She had been there before. “This is the fifth time, gentlemen, that I have been dragged before your court on the same account,” she said. “Twice I have paid heavy fines, and twice have been brought to public punishment for want of money to pay those fines.”
Polly Baker didn’t dispute the facts charged against her. The five children were living evidence. But she thought they were evidence that should count for her rather than against her. “I think this law by which I am punished is both unreasonable in itself and particularly severe with regard to me, who have always lived an inoffensive life in the neighborhood where I was born, and defy my enemies (if I have any) to say I ever wronged man, woman or child,” she said. “Abstracted from the law, I cannot conceive (may it please your honors) what the nature of my offence is. I have brought five fine children into the world, at the risk of my life. I have maintained them well by my own industry, without burthening the township, and would have done it better if it had not been for the heavy charges and fines I have paid. Can it be a crime (in the nature of things I mean) to add to the number of the king’s subjects, in a new country that really wants people? I should think it a praiseworthy rather than a punishable action.”
“I have debauched no other woman’s husband, nor enticed any youth,” Polly continued. “These things I never was charged with, nor has anyone the least cause of complaint against me, unless, perhaps, the minister or justice, because I have had children without being married, by which they have missed a wedding fee. But can ever this be a fault of mine?” She was unmarried not by choice. “I must be stupefied to the last degree not to prefer the honorable state of wedlock to the condition I have lived in. I always was, and still am, willing to enter into it, and doubt not my behaving well in it, having all the industry, frugality, fertility and skill in economy appertaining to a good wife’s character.”
“I defy any person to say I ever refused an offer of that sort,” Polly elaborated. “On the contrary, I readily consented to the only proposal of marriage that ever was made me, which was when I was a virgin. But too easily confiding in the person’s sincerity that made it, I unhappily lost my own honor by trusting to his, for he got me with child and then forsook me.”
Polly didn’t identify her seducer by name; she didn’t have to. “That very person you all know; he is now become a magistrate of this country, and I had hopes he would have appeared this day on the bench and have endeavored to moderate the court in my favor,” she said. “Then I should have scorned to have mentioned it. But I must now complain of it as unjust and unequal that my betrayer and undoer, the first cause of all my faults and miscarriages (if they must be deemed such) should be advanced to honor and power in the government that punishes my misfortunes with stripes and infamy.”
If she should be punished, let heaven do the punishing, Polly said. But she didn’t think heaven considered her actions a crime. “How can it be believed that heaven is angry at my having children, when to the little done by me towards it, God has been pleased to add his divine skill and admirable workmanship in the formation of their bodies, and crowned it by furnishing them with rational and immortal souls. Forgive me, gentlemen, if I talk a little extravagantly on these matters; I am no divine”—that is, minister. “But if you, gentlemen, must be making laws, do not turn natural and useful actions into crimes by your prohibitions.”
The gentlemen of the court should also weigh the other half of the equation. “Take into your wise consideration the great and growing number of bachelors in the country, many of whom from the mean fear of the expenses of a family have never sincerely and honorably courted a woman in their lives, and by their manner of living leave unproduced (which is little better than murder) hundreds of their posterity to the thousandth generation. Is not this a greater offence against the public good than mine? Compel them, then, by law either to marriage or to pay double the fine of fornication every year.”
In this as in so much else, social practice worked against women. “What must poor young women do, whom custom have forbid to solicit the men, and who cannot force themselves upon husbands, when the laws take no care to provide them any, and yet severely punish them if they do their duty without them—the duty of the first and great command of nature, and of nature’s God: Increase and multiply.”
Polly was proud to say she had done her duty—“a duty, from the steady performance of which nothing has been able to deter me; but for its sake I have hazarded the loss of the public esteem and have frequently endured public disgrace and punishment; and therefore ought, in my humble opinion, instead of a whipping, to have a statue erected to my memory.”
The judges did not erect a statue to Polly Baker. But one of them did something more useful. He proposed marriage. And he and Polly were wed the next day.
Or so reported the London General Advertiser on April 15, 1747. And so repeated several other papers and magazines in Britain and America, which likewise printed Polly Baker’s speech.
Polly became famous. Benjamin Franklin encountered her story while in Paris during the Revolutionary War. One of his French friends, the Abbé Raynal, included it in a book on politics, as evidence of rigid laws in New England against fornication.
Franklin thought Raynal made too much of this example, and said so. Raynal defended it as being based on authentic reports; he cited the newspapers and magazines.
Smiling, Franklin explained that he himself was the author of Polly Baker’s speech, and was the creator of Polly Baker. “When I was young and printed a newspaper, it sometimes happened, when I was short of material to fill my sheet, that I amused myself by making up stories, and that of Polly Baker is one of the number,” he said, according to one version of the exchange.
Franklin was too modest. His literary hoaxes were many, and while most were indeed amusing, they always contained a lesson—in this case that the laws of New England on fornication were unfair and hypocritical. The story hit close to home for Franklin, who had fathered a child with a woman to whom he wasn’t married. Franklin behaved better than Polly’s paramours, for although he didn’t marry the woman—being engaged at the time to another woman—he took responsibility for the child, William, and raised him as his acknowledged son.
Raynal conceded Franklin’s point without committing to revise his book. “I would rather have included your tales in my book than many other men’s truths,” he said.