Of all the words that spilled from Abigail Adams' pen, none are more famous than those of March 31, 1776. With her husband at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia arguing the case for American independence, she implored him to "remember the ladies" in the "new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make. ..."
If the legal lot of women was not improved, Abigail continued, "... we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation." Her language was the language of revolution — the very rhetoric of John Adams and his compatriots who were leading the charge against Great Britain.
A Feminist Point of View?
It is difficult to know exactly, but it is safe to say that Abigail was not a feminist in the contemporary sense, nor was she advocating women's suffrage, although many historians have ascribed that meaning to her words. Her letter, however, remains remarkable. Abigail was an outspoken, intelligent woman concerned with the state of her country and its citizens. Of particular interest to her was the status of women and its improvement within the domestic sphere.
A Man's World
During John's long absences, Abigail often performed "man's work." She hired farmhands, conducted business transactions, and even purchased land (in John's name, as it was illegal for women to own property). She hadn't sought this work, but had it thrust upon her. As historian Edith Gelles writes: "[S]he believed her performance was extraordinary, aberrant, expedient, and unnatural. She continually referred to her new situation as a patriotic sacrifice for her country."
Equality in Education
Abigail, however, strongly believed that girls should receive the same education as boys. Always regretful at her lack of formal schooling, and that she had not learned Latin, Abigail made sure that her daughter Nabby studied the language. Equality in education would "enhance [women's] works as wives and mothers," according to biographer Lynne Withey. After all, those entrusted with molding future generations must be molded well themselves.
Feminism from Afar
While Abigail did not seek a public forum to express her views, she admired women who did. For many years she was close to Mercy Otis Warren, the sister and wife of prominent revolutionary figures. Warren herself was a public figure, a playwright and later a historian who published political, satirical plays — under a male pen name, naturally.
A New Tribe Arises
As John noted in his response to Abigail's March 31 missive: "We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; ... that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented." There was an element of seriousness in John's reply. Slavery was a much-discussed topic, a logical offshoot of calls for national independence. Women's rights were barely discussed at all. That Abigail tied the subject so eloquently to the American revolutionary struggle gives this letter its tremendous power and significance.