Abigail Adams is sometimes considered an early feminist for her 'Remember the Ladies' letter to her husband, John Adams. But what did Abigail really have in mind when she wrote these words? To determine this, we must step outside our 21st century mindset and enter her 18th century world.
America's 2nd First Lady
Let's get back to Abigail Adams. She is considered outspoken, but we only think this because she was forced to correspond by letter during years of separation from her husband. In fact, Abigail refused during her lifetime to publish her letters and requested they be burned (as was common at the time), considering them private thoughts rather than public calls to action. As for remembering the ladies, Abigail's plea was for protection rather than equality in a modern sense.
Abigail's 31 March 1776 letter reprimands her husband for not writing more, expresses fear about the outbreak of smallpox, doubts that Southerners' passion for liberty is as strong as those in the north, and wonders how the state of the country will impact spring plantings. Then she states, 'I long to hear that you have declared an independancy - 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 favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.' (Abigail's spelling and punctuation have been retained)
|Portion of Abigail's 31 March 1776|
Remember the Ladies letter to John
Not only poorly treated wives suffered under the legal system then in place. Widows were often forced to remarry in order to avoid poverty for themselves and their children. Even those who were well off might have little of their own, as their husband's estate would be split between them and their children. The dower portion might not be enough for the widow to live on. The estate might be managed by the widow until the children came of age and claimed their share, but that was a temporary situation. Widows did typically have more options than single women. If they could afford not to remarry, they might open a shop or take on boarders if they had not been left with an estate sufficient to support them.
2nd President of the United States
I find Abigail Adams inspiring. She was home with her 'flock of little ones' while John served their country. She learned to do things she never expected to have to do - and managed it all with a war raging so close that 'the constant roar of the cannon is so distressing that we can not Eat, Drink or Sleep.' John had instructed her to 'fly to the Woods with our Children' should the battle reach their doorstep. And all this long before either had any idea how far things would go or how long it would last. She was fiery, brave, and devoted to both her family and her country. As Abigail insists, 'Remember the Ladies,' indeed, but remember what Abigail was saying, not just what we would like to hear.
Letter excerpts from The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family 1762-1784.
Women of the American Revolution by Samantha Wilcoxson available now from Pen & Sword.