The feminism of Abigail

I have a bad toothache.  I’ve already been to the dentist but the x-rays don’t clearly indicate the problem.  We are not sure which tooth has to be treated.  I have to call her back tomorrow and I don’t want the wrong tooth to come out.  In the previous blog, John Adams said we should “Know ourselves,” but I don’t even know my teeth.  Maybe some distraction will help, so I get back to reading McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize book.

The year is 1806, and a friend of John and Abigail Adams publishes a scholarly volume analyzing the recent American Revolution.  The author’s name is Mercy Otis Warren, a woman who is also a playwright.  Around the same time, another woman and friend of the family, Mary Wollstonecraft, writes the history of the even more recent revolution in France.  When the American Declaration of Independence was published and the British fleet departed from Boston, Abigail wrote to her husband that he and the other American leaders in the First Congress should now make laws favorable to women, and she emphasized the point with many strong words including the following:

If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are  determined to foment a a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.           (p. 104)

We don’t know how committed she was to her words because she also said, “My pen is always freer than my tongue,” but think of the times.  Abigail Adams wrote this in 1776, not 1976 or later, and as we see from those historical studies published by female Americans shortly thereafter, something akin to feminism was making itself heard so long ago already.  And why then?  Abigail seemed to provide the answer herself in that same letter in which she also described the light heart she felt at knowing that self-government for the colonies was just around the corner: “I think the sun shines brighter, the birds sing more melodiously.”  The same dream of independence that motivated the men to fight, led many of the women to hope for a freedom from various indignities and limitations suffered by their gender.  When America won its independence, the cork was popped and latent talents were inspired to expression.

But what Abigail, who had no shortage of talent, did next may surprise some of us. Though she became very interested and astute in politics, proving to be a reliable adviser to her husband in such matters, she lived most of her life on the family farm, milking the cows, buying and planting the seeds, overseeing the hired help, cooking and cleaning, purchasing property, raising her family and sometimes the children of others as well.  She remained deeply attached to John Adams during many long necessary absences and when he became president, Abigail played hostess and socialite among the higher-ups in government, but when he lost the next election, she returned to her greater happiness on her beloved farm with its many chores.

Complaints she had, but her motto, as she often said, was “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”  Her son said “She had no feelings but of kindness and beneficence; yet her mind was as firm as her temper was gentle.”  Perhaps she had come to know herself and embraced who she was.

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