Thursday, March 31, 2022

Abigail’s Dear John Letter Laid Down Early Demands for the Ladies

Abigail Adams, painted here as the first mistress of the Executive Mansion in Washington D.C., kept up a frequent and detailed correspondence with her husband John while he was in Philadelphia attending the Continental Congress.

On 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.  

In 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 representation.

Abigail 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.

Abigail's noted comment was contained in a short passage of the lengthy three page letter.

Mrs. 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.

Since 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 grandson Charles Francis Adams included it in his multi-volume compendium of their correspondence.  Of interest 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, above, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton cited Abigail's phrases in the first volume of their monumental History of Woman Suffrage more than 100 years after she wrote it.

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.

But it was the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s and ‘70s that really made the passage famousGloria 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.

Dozens of widely circulated memes keep Abigail's words alive on the internet.

Whatever Abigail intended by her passing comment, it certainly has grown legs.  

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