Women’s history: American equality and Abigail Adams

Women’s history: American equality and Abigail Adams

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SAN JOSE, March 1, 2014 – The month of March is presently designated to remember American women’s history. The designation provides numerous opportunities to reflect upon women in American history who did much in their own ways to pioneer and promote women’s freedom and women’s rights in the United States.

One such pioneer, who helped to plant the seeds of the feminist movement, was Abigail Adams. Although she may have had little idea that her words would have such a powerful effect on future generations of women, Abigail Adams’ attitude expressed in her letters to her husband would generate just such seeds of sentiment.

Around 1200 letters have survived of this extensive correspondence between Abigail and John, and through their written words, despite the sometimes questionable grammar and inconsistent spelling, the American people have an opportunity to come to know more deeply this extraordinary couple. The well-known historian, Joseph Ellis, in his book Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1993), commented that these letters “constituted a treasure trove of unexpected intimacy and candor, more revealing than any other correspondence between a prominent American husband and wife in American history.”

This is a fairly strong statement regarding the vitality of the relationship evidenced in such written records. The correspondence from Abigail, although she was primarily self-educated, reveals that she could hold her own in the intellectual exchanges with her Harvard-educated husband over government, politics, and philosophy. While Joseph Ellis respects John Adams as one of the better letter-writers of his time, he views Abigail as a better and more colorful letter-writer than Mr. Adams.

These letters from Abigail covered issues such as the harsh New England weather, word-of-mouth and eyewitness accounts of events in the revolutionary climate of Boston, comments and concerns about the current politics of the day (especially ideas on the new form of government being created) as well as Abigail’s personal or political philosophy. She also offered her practical advice to her husband as John often sought the advice of his partner on various matters and their long distance discussions could be playful, yet earnest.

Abigail once admitted, in a letter she wrote to John 1775, “My pen is always freer than my tongue; I have wrote many things to you that I suppose I never would have talked.” Such an admission leads one to believe that without the lengthy periods of necessary separation, the world would never have learned Mrs. Adams’ innermost thoughts. In addition, maybe John would have missed the opportunity to know his wife more completely. It is also highly likely that unless Abigail felt such freedom to share her innermost thoughts and sentiments with John, the world would have missed the opportunity to know this remarkable woman.

By the same measure though, it is also entirely understandable that Abigail would not have felt free to write such stinging sentiments to another man, for example, someone like Thomas Jefferson with whom she did correspond. For instance, Abigail Adams’ views on the tyranny of men were directed mainly to the man she felt she could trust with her innermost thoughts, the man she considered her dearest friend:

“That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth also thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend.”

While it is true that Abigail was one who dared to express her issues with the tyrannical nature of men and her strong belief in the rights of women, these views were likely written absent the anticipation that others would someday read her words. It is reported that Abigail and John instructed others who received their letters to burn them, as Martha Washington did with her letters from George. Many did not follow the Adams’ instructions, and now people around the world have access to her views.

Historian Ellis in a more recent book, First Family: Abigail and John (2011), revisited these revealing letters and flushed out the fullness of this relationship between the two passionately patriotic Americans. He explains that “no other couple left a documentary record of their mutual thoughts and feelings even remotely comparable to Abigail’s and John’s.

Abigail Adam’s views were quite potent, and they carried even more weight since she was also once the First Lady of the United States of America. Her perspective and courage in sharing her mind was far ahead of her time. Certainly, it would be no easy task to now determine whether many other women of her generation were of the same opinions or framework of mind. Nevertheless, the building of the critical mass for the feminist movement developed years later.

Mrs. Adam’s ideas would provide a foundation for the women who would use her words as inspiration and guidance for the creation of the Women’s Suffrage movement. Abigail’s letter to John on March 31, 1776, has usually been the one most often quoted with regard to women’s rights as it expressed a strong and serious admonition to her husband, but also directed to John as a representative of the Second Continental Congress:

“…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.”

In this powerful statement, Abigail Adams planted the seeds of thought for those of her sex, long after she passed away. However, it is important to note that her words flowed forth freely because she felt the genuine freedom to express what was inside of her heart and mind – even when she criticized him. She lived the equality within her relationship with John on a personal level that women struggled with during the history of the women’s rights movements.

The relationship between John and Abigail was special. This relationship permitted her greater freedom of expression, and she had much to express regarding the freedom of women in the newly forming nation. If John had been an ogre of a husband, she may have stifled her genuine sentiments and future generations would have never had access to this special relationship and would not have known Abigail’s true heart.

American history usually only takes serious note of the Founding Fathers, but it is long overdue that Americans fully acknowledge the old maxim that “behind every great  man is a great woman,” and acknowledge Abigail Adams as the great woman in the shadows behind her husband. Certainly her son, John Quincy, who went on to become the sixth president of the developing United States, had a wee bit of support from his mother as well. His own expression of praise of his mother’s relationship to his father serves as a proper tribute to her:

“There is not a virtue that can abide in the female heart but it was the ornament of hers. She had been fifty-four years the delight of my father’s heart, the sweetener of all his toils, the comforter of all his sorrows, the sharer and heightener of all his joys. It was but the last time when I saw my father that he told me… [that] through all the good report and evil report of the world, in all his struggles and in all his sorrows, the affectionate participation and cheering encouragement of his wife had been his never-failing support, without which he was sure he should never have lived through them.”

Abigail and John Adams serve as a great example of an American couple in unity working for the greater good and sacrificing for a higher purpose. If John Adams is one of the original Founding Fathers of the nation, Abigail Adams should be more than qualified to be one of the Founding Mothers. Especially Abigail Adams set a good example for women today. Each of these incredible Americans, in their own way, planted the seeds of freedom which would ultimately be harvested by future generations of Americans.

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