Note--a fitting wrap up to Women's History Month.
this date in 1776 as the Revolutionary War was still young and Boston was besieged by George Washington Abigail Adams sent a
letter to her husband John who was
in Philadelphia as a Delegate to the Continental Congress from their home in Braintree, Massachusetts. The
success of the war against the most powerful empire in the world was far from assured and the Declaration
of Independence, of which John was a prime
mover, was yet months away. But
amidst the turmoil Mrs. Adams admonished
her husband not to neglect, as male governors had done from time immemorial, rights and needs of women.
the midst of a lengthy, chatty letter filled with news from home she included one
remarkable passage not even a full paragraph:
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
may have regarded the threat of rebellion with tongue firmly in cheek. For his part John did not seem to take it
seriously, although he frequently relied on his wife’s advice. Certainly neither
he nor Congress did anything about it. To
lawyer Adams, women’s rights and privileges would certainly continue to be constrained by English
Common Law which is to say they hardly existed. Women were and would remain virtual chattel first of their fathers and then of their husbands.
Even widows and spinsters had precious little control of their property or affairs.
Adams was 32 years old that year and the mother
of five children. She was every inch the match of her husband, well read,
keenly intelligent, strong willed,
and independent. She comfortably mastered raising her brood and managing the affairs of
the family and their small stone farm during the long absences—months, even years—while her
husband was away helping to invent
America and serve it interests. In New
England where many wives of merchant
traders, fishermen, and sea farers had to cope with such long absences perhaps women were more used to self-sufficiency than in other regions where they mostly stayed with
their mates on family farms or tended house in villages and towns.
the letter was not a public document,
it roused no movement among women who might have been similarly disposed. It was
not published until 1848 when Abigail’s son
included it in his multi-volume
compendium of his parents’ correspondence.
mostly to serious historians, the
books were not widely read and
little special notice was given to a
single passage which was not echoed anywhere else in the collection of missives.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton took note of the
letter in the first volume of their
epic multi-volume History of Woman Suffrage which was first published in 1886. Slowly the quote spread in the suffrage movement largely to add a connection to the nation’s founders.
it was the second wave feminist movement
of the 1960s and ‘70s that really made the passage famous.
Gloria Steinem featured it proximately
in early issues of MS. Magazine and was featured on t-shirts, bumper stickers,
and demonstration placards. In the 21st Century it has become widely
shared as a meme.
Abigail intended by her passing comment, it certainly has grown legs.