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March 20, 2008

Abigail Adams

Since that new John Adams miniseries is all over HBO this week, we thought we'd talk a little bit about Abigail Adams. A lot of people know that she said "remember the ladies", but she said and did a lot more than that. Yeah, her husband blew her off, but that doesn't mean we should forget what she tried to do for American women.

Here's the famous quote, from a letter to her husband in March of 1776:
I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

And her husband's response:
As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh.

We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters.

But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented.

This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won't blot it out.

Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, in practice, you know we are the subjects.

We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.

His witty commentary on gender roles would be clever and funny and charming except for all of the ways that, in reality, it's really really not. But one point to him for honesty, I guess. And 'Petticoat Despotism' would be a great band name.

Her reply:
I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives. But you must remember that arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken; and, notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, we have it in our power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and without violence, throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.

Smart lady.

Let's all stop and fantasize for a minute about how women's lives might have been different if John Adams (and the rest of the Continental Congress) had taken Abigail's words even the slightest big seriously:

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, equal rights...suffrage...access to education...right to property ownership...not being treated like property........

And we're back. That was a nice moment.

So, it seems like Abigail was a 'feminist' pretty much all of her life. As a child she received no formal education, but her mother taught her and her sisters to read and write, and her father was a minister who emphasized reason and morality over other popular doctrines of the time like predestination. Her lack of formal schooling bothered her later in life, but it does look like at least she was brought up in an environment that allowed her to read widely and think critically. (Although of course everyone knows that women are better suited to activities like baking cookies and sewing and gossiping than to dumb stuff like reading or thinking.) She was always a supporter of increased educational opportunities for women.
If you complain of neglect of Education in sons, what shall I say with regard to daughters, who every day experience the want of it? With regard to the Education of my own children, I find myself soon out of my depth, destitute and deficient in every part of Education.

I most sincerely wish that some more liberal plan might be laid and executed for the Benefit of the rising Generation, and that our new Constitution may be distinguished for encouraging Learning and Virtue. If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen and Philosophers, we should have learned women. The world perhaps would laugh at me and accuse me of vanity, But you I know have a mind too enlarged and liberal to disregard the Sentiment. If much depends as is allowed upon the early education of youth and the first principles which are instill'd take the deepest root, great benefit must arise from literary accomplishments in women.

It is really mortifying, sir, when a woman possessed of a common share of understanding considers the difference of education between the male and female sex, even in those families where education is attended to... Nay why should your sex wish for such a disparity in those whom they one day intend for companions and associates. Pardon me, sir, if I cannot help sometimes suspecting that this neglect arises in some measure from an ungenerous jealousy of rivals near the throne.
John Adams spent a lot of time away from home during his marriage to Abigail in his various jobs as a judge and later with the Continental Congress and in the new government. (She did go abroad with him for awhile when he held diplomatic posts in France and Britain, and took advantage of the opportunity to attend some lectures on science, a topic which was generally closed off to American women, while she was there.) This meant that much of the time, she managed their home, farm, family, and finances on her own.
John did not resent his wife's abilities to manage a farm and raise a family without him during his long absences on the nation's business. Rather, he took considerable pride in her accomplishments. He told her she was so successful in budgeting, planting, managing staff, regulating live-stock, buying provisions, nursing and educating her children, that their neighbors would surely remark on how much better things seemed to go in his absence.
I doubt that he really believed that a woman as smart and capable as his wife wouldn't know what to do with the right to vote or get involved in politics. Abigail believed that women had more than demonstrated their right to be involved in politics by the fact that they showed so much patriotism even while being locked out of full participation.
Patriotism in the female sex is the most disinterested of all virtues. Excluded from honors and from offices, we cannot attach ourselves to the State or Government from having held a place of eminence. Even in the freest countries our property is subject to the control and disposal of our partners, to whom the laws have given a sovereign authority. Deprived of a voice in legislation, obliged to submit to those laws which are imposed upon us, is it not sufficient to make us indifferent to the public welfare? Yet all history and every age exhibit instances of patriotic virtue in the female sex; which considering our situation equals the most heroic of yours.
Abigail and her husband were on the same page when it came to slavery, which they both opposed.
I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in this province. It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me—to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.
In one story, a local slave or former slave came to her asking for help in learning to read and write, and she helped him with his education over the objections of some of her neighbors.

It's interesting that the biography of Abigail Adams on the official White House website talks about her abilities in taking care of her home and family, and in entertaining as the wife of the Vice President and as First Lady. Not so much about her progressive views on abolition and women's rights. Shocking. We think she definitely deserves a lot of credit for being ahead of her time and not being afraid to be outspoken and do everything in her power to make a difference.

"Let each planet shine in their own orbit, God and nature designed it so. If man is Lord, woman is Lordess — that is what I contend for, and if a woman does not hold the Reigns of Government, I see no reason for her not judging how they are conducted."


Anonymous said...

well anyone who goes to this site should be informed that this is not a .gov website and should not be taken seriously REAL medical information comes from .gov websites and unless this information did come from reliable sources e.g. pubmed.gov or cdc.gov then this information is not valid or proven to be true


Damn, you totally caught us pretending to be the U.S. Department of Slutology. And we thought we had everyone fooled.