Abigail Adams and Women's Rights

"… in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies."

 

Fictional letter by Abigail Adams explaining to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 why women's rights should be included in the new Constitution. 

 

Abigail Adams (1744-1818) was the wife of John Adams, second president of the United States, and mother of John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the nation. Like most women of her time, Abigail Adams had a relatively limited education; despite this she became one of the most influential women of her day. Throughout her husband’s frequent and lengthy absences serving the budding nation, they corresponded through extensive letters.

 

 

These letters provide a window into her personality and beliefs and reveal a kind, spirited and politically minded women with ideas beyond her time. The correspondences tell of her daily battles to run a farm and raise four children while struggling with her loneliness in her husband’s absence. Abigail Adams’ letters provide important insight into the attitudes of one of the nations foremost leading ladies and provide a vivid picture of daily life in one of the most important eras in our nation’s history. Throughout her narratives, she frequently spoke of her opinions on current politics. If Abigail Adams could have influenced the 1787 Constitutional Convention regarding the future status of women’s rights in the new Constitution, she might have written the following:

 

  *FICTIONAL LETTER*

Braintree , May 14th, 1787

Dear Sirs,

I write to you today in anticipation of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in hopes that, as you draft the new constitution for this great nation, you will include the rights of the ladies that you left at home.  As my husband, John Adams, says, “A Pen is certainly an excellent Instrument, to fix a Mans Attention and to inflame his Ambition.”1 So I use my pen to implore you to remember the wives who are running your households, farms and businesses and raising your children while you are absent from them for these many years while you build our new nation.

‘I can not say that I think you 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 Arbitary 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 voilence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.’2  The most pressing problem facing women of this day is our legal subordination to, and the unlimited power of our husbands.  Husbands have control over the wife, the children, the property and any inherited money; married women cannot sue or be sued, they cannot draft contracts, make wills or independently buy or sell property.  With the frequent or total absences of our husbands during these trying times, these restrictions impair us in the solitary running of your family and homesteads.  I do not desire the constitutional equality of women, but I do ask that you allow us to independently own businesses, to earn and keep wages that would allow us to support our family and ourselves when necessary.  Grant us the right to independently buy, own and sell property even after marriage, allow us to hold inheritance, personal estate, and real estate that would customarily be placed under our spouse’s sole supervision after marriage.  I do not ask for these legal rights in order for women to become powerful and independent or as an opportunity for us to plunge into the business world, but to give us the legal means to better maintain the family income and homestead during out husbands’ absences.

Furthermore, you will recall that the plight of the ladies has deteriorated in the past few years; in 1777 we lost the right to vote in New York and in 1780 women lost the right to vote in my home state of Massachusetts , then in 1784 New Hampshire followed suit.  It is rumored that the Constitutional Convention is planning to place voting qualifications in the hands of the states which would be disastrous for the ladies considering the previously mentioned states’ actions.  It appears that only the ladies in New Jersey will be able to vote.  As you recall the hardships that you have placed on the wives so that you might travel and exert your influence on the drafting of this constitution, I ask that you include the rights of these women in the constitution so that they have more opportunities to participate in this new nation’s development. 

You will bear in mind that my husband, John Adams has courageously served this country, that we both love, for these many years as delegate to the Continental Congress, envoy abroad, and elected officer under the Constitution. For the first 10 years of my married life, I was the wife of a provincial lawyer, but at the onset of our American Revolution our world changed drastically.  My husband set off from Boston to Philadelphia as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774 when my youngest child was less than two years old and my oldest barely nine, leaving me with 5 children and an estate in Braintree , Massachusetts to run during his ten year absence.  His departure marked the end of my typical domestic existence; when my husband left, the management of our farm fell directly to me and I had no choice but to assume my new duties and responsibilities. 

During Mr. Adams’ absence I have taken over the household, Mr. Adams’ businesses and the management of the farm.  I purchased the farm stock, bred the cattle, dealt with farm tenets, hired workers and handled the distressed war refugees on our land; independently I bought valuable property, as it became available, I paid the bills and greatly increased our holdings.  ‘I find it necessary to be the directress of our Husbandery and farming . . . I hope in time to have the Reputation of being as good a Farmeress as my partner has of being a good Statesmen . . . Retirement, Rural quiet, Domestick pleasure, all must give place to the weighty cares of State.’3

Moreover, I ask that you consider allowing women to pursue an education and provide the institutions so that they can do so.  While Mr. Adams is a graduate of Harvard and has a career in law, I lack formal education, a plight of many of our ladies.  I am an avid reader of any books at hand, and would consider myself educated in a non-traditional sense.  During Mr. Adams’ absences, I have been supervising our children’s education and their rearing.  My ‘Little ones’ who are ‘recommend to my care and instruction shall not be deficient in virtue or probity if the precepts of a Mother have their desired Effect, but they would be doubly inforced could they be indulged with the example of a Father [John Adams] constantly before them; I often point them to their Sire "engaged in a corrupted State Wrestling with vice and faction."’4  Mr. Adams has often counseled me via our extensive written correspondence and has instilled his values in his children through me. 

Although it was a busy time in April 1776, only months before our great country declared our independence, Mr. Adams took the time to write, “Reproaches of my Children. I will tell them that I studied and laboured to procure a free Constitution of Government for them to solace themselves under, and if they do not prefer this to ample Fortune, to Ease and Elegance, they are not my Children, and I care not what becomes of them. They shall live upon thin Diet, wear mean Cloaths, and work hard, with Chearfull Hearts and free Spirits or they may be the Children of the Earth or of no one, for me . . . Take Care that they dont go astray. Cultivate their Minds, inspire their little Hearts, raise their Wishes. Fix their Attention upon great and glorious Objects, root out every little Thing, weed out every Meanness, make them great and manly. Teach them to scorn Injustice, Ingratitude, Cowardice, and Falshood. Let them revere nothing but Religion, Morality and Liberty .”5

Therefore, ‘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… 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 Learning and Virtue. If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen and Philosophers, we should have learned women . . . If much depends as is allowed upon the early Education of youth and the first principals which are instilled take the deepest root, great benefit must arise from literary accomplishments in women.'6  Because mothers exercise the greatest influence over their children at a young and impressionable age, the successful careers of men depend on learned women as mothers.  I do not ask for education for women so that they might exert power over their husbands, but instead to benefit the men of our society.  I believe that the ladies of this new nation are entirely capable of these intellectual challenges and therefore deserve the opportunity to have an equal education as their husbands. I do not support the advancement of female education so that women might pursue or assume typically male offices and positions, but only to serve as stimulation for the individual and to benefit the men in society, as educated women become better-educated wives and mothers. 

 ‘I can hear of the Brilliant accomplishments of any of my Sex with pleasure and rejoice in that Liberality of Sentiment which acknowledges them. At the same time I regret the trifling narrow contracted Education of the Females of my own country… you need not be told how much female Education is neglected, nor how fashonable it has been to ridicule Female learning, tho I acknowledge it my happiness to be connected with a person [John Adams] of a more generous mind and liberal Sentiments.  I cannot forbear transcribing a few Generous Sentiments which I lately met with upon this Subject… “Nature is seldom observed to be niggardly of her choisest Gifts to the Sex [women], their Senses are generally as quick as ours [men’s], their Reason as nervious, their judgment as mature and solid. Add but to these natural perfections the advantages of acquired learning what polite and charming creatures would they [women] prove whilst their external Beauty does the office of a Crystal to the Lamp not shrowding but discloseing their Brighter intellects. Nor need we fear to loose our Empire over them by thus improveing their native abilities since where there is most abilities Learning, Sence and knowledge there is always observed to be the most modesty and Rectitude of manners.” ’7

By the bye, I do not write to you about my individual circumstances, although the ‘cruel Seperation to which I am necessatated cuts of half the enjoyments of life, the other half are comprised in the hope I have that what I do and what I suffer may be serviceable to you [John Adams], to our Little ones and our Country.’8   You should know that after several tedious years of my vigorous farm management, I also became an accomplished merchant. In spite of the fact that we ladies have very few legal rights, I have succeeded in making the money that has allowed Mr. Adams to be away from our home and to continue in the politics of our nation.  While Mr. Adams was on his first diplomatic assignment in Europe in early 1778, he sent me European goods including calico dresses, ribbons, handkerchiefs and spices so that I could sell them locally and acquire sufficient revenue to continue to support our family.  After the war I have continued to run the our farm in Braintree , I am active in the buying of livestock and the repair and construction of new buildings, I have saved our family from financial ruin and made the money that allowed my husband to continue in politics.  Many of the household and financial decisions that I make are without my husband’s advice or knowledge, not because I have ignored the submissive position of a wife in a proper marriage, but because I understand that he is engaged with his own affairs for our country. My successful farm management is not an attempt to expand my role beyond the confines of the home nor a quest for a more powerful and independent role as a woman, but a role assumed out of social and financial obligation to my family and my husband, as well as a vital and necessary responsibility to maintain the family income. In fact, I often feel uncomfortable with my new role as manager of the farm and household, I would have gladly relinquished my responsibilities to my husband had he been able to return home. 

I do however, speak to you in regard to the plight of so many wives like me.  I write to you for the women who are separated from their husbands and that are now forced to become involved in non-domestic affairs; I write to you for the women who were widowed or whose husbands are still absent from the Revolutionary War and who continue to run their homesteads and families themselves.  It is for these women, who unwillingly have assumed the roles of their absent husbands that I write to you today.  As the economic burden of supplementing the family income and running the household is shifted to them, these women continue to assume the non-domestic affairs from which they were previously excluded, and undertake typically male roles in management decisions without the advice, knowledge or consent of their spouses.  Initially our husbands instructed us to depend on male friends and relatives for advice and assistance, but as time went on and their absence ensued, wives and daughters learned more about the family’s finances and businesses while their husband’s knowledge became increasingly remote and outdated. As the years have passed, I have become quite successful, so much so that my “wise and prudent Management” initiated my husband to lament, “I begin to be jealous, that our Neighbours will think Affairs more discreetly conducted in my Absence than at any other Time.”9

It is for this reason that I implore you to think of the ladies and the burden that we are amiably carrying at the expense of your absence, and give us the tools that we need to carry these burdens. Include in this new constitution more legal and property ownership rights for ladies and expanded opportunities for females and daughters to receive the education that we need to run our businesses, farms and families.  Please reconsider the Constitutional Convention’s plan to place voting qualifications in the hands of the states, which we already know will be disastrous for the ladies in light of several states’ actions these past few years.

Furthermore, I ask that you consider allowing women to pursue an education and provide the institutions necessary. I believe that our daughters are entirely capable of intellectual challenges and therefore deserve the opportunity to have an equal education as our sons.  I do not support the advancement of female education so that women might pursue or assume typically male offices and positions, but only to serve as stimulation for the individual and to benefit the men in society, as educated women become better-educated wives and mothers. 

Finally, as you draft this new constitution, ‘… 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 favourable 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 perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.  That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so 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. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.’10  Allow women to have more legal and property ownership rights, and permit us to further our opportunities for the education that we need to run our businesses, farms and families.  Remember, I do not ask for these rights so that women might assume a new powerful and independent role in society, but so that women may support your business and your family’s needs during your travels. I ask for these rights out of concern for our families and our households, in hopes that we might better serve our husbands.  These new rights would be regarded as a means of sustaining and helping our families, not as an opportunity to plunge into a new powerful and independent lifestyle. 

Take note, ‘nor am I a little Gratified when I reflect that a person so nearly connected with me [John Adams] has had the Honour of being a principal actor, in laying a foundation for its future Greatness. May the foundation of our new constitution, be justice, Truth and Righteousness. Like the wise Mans house may it be founded upon those Rocks and then neither storms or temptests will overthrow it.’11 Therefore, I implore you to consider my entreaty to include the rights of the ladies in the new constitution, not as frivolous request, but as a necessity for our nation.

Sincerely,

Abigail Smith Adams


Copyright ©2003 Victoriana.Com Internet 
Author: Christine Haug
[Not for reproduction without permission of the author]

Bibliography

Shingleton, Jennifer. “Abigail Adams: the Feminist Myth” The Concord Review.  Retrieved on November 15, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.tcr.org/abigailadams.html

Rothschild, Mary Logan. “De-centering Men as the Measure: Or, What Were Women Doing During the Continental Congress?” Retrieved on November 15, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://crm.cr.nps.gov/archive/20-3/20-3-26.pdf

 Footnotes:
[1] John Adams, 14 November 1760. From John Adams diary 4, October 1759 - 20 November 1761, 21 November 1772 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston , Mass. : Massachusetts Historical Society, 2002.  http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams
[2] Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 7 - 9 May 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston , Mass. : Massachusetts Historical Society, 2002. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/  
[3] Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 7 - 11 April 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston , Mass. : Massachusetts Historical Society, 2002. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/
[4] Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 7 - 9 May 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston , Mass. : Massachusetts Historical Society, 2002. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/
[5] Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 15 April 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston , Mass. : Massachusetts Historical Society, 2002. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/  
[6] Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 14 August 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston , Mass. : Massachusetts Historical Society, 2002. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/
[7] Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 30 June 1778, draft [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston , Mass. : Massachusetts Historical Society, 2002. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/
[8] Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 21 - 22 July 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston , Mass. : Massachusetts Historical Society, 2002. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/
[9] Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 27 May 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston , Mass. : Massachusetts Historical Society, 2002. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/
[10] Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March - 5 April 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston , Mass. : Massachusetts Historical Society, 2002. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/  
[11] Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 13 - 14 July 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston , Mass. : Massachusetts Historical Society, 2002. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/