Ideas & Events: Women’s Rights

On women’s rights, Abigail Adams was decades ahead of her time.

Her famous plea to John–“Remember the Ladies”–was written 72 years before the 1848 founding of the modern women’s rights movement at Seneca Falls, New York. It preceded, by 143 years, the passage of women’s suffrage in the U.S. Yet her voice on the subject is still fresh and compelling.

Inequality that starts in childhood

Abigail—who had no formal education and was embarrassed all her life by her imperfect grammar—recognized that inequality began with schooling. Boys of the era were sent to the best schools their families could afford while girls were educated at home, if at all. Writing to John, she asked, “Why should your sex wish for such a disparity in those whom they one day intend for companions and associates?”

Noting the role mothers play in raising heroes, statesmen and philosophers, she proclaimed, “If much depends, as is allowed, upon the early Education of youth—and the first principals which are instill’d take the deepest root—great benefit must arise from literary accomplishments in women.”

Another tribe, more numerous and powerful

With all his energies consumed by politics, John did not have the time or patience to take up the cause of women’s rights. Exasperated, he complained that the struggle for independence was being blamed for loosening the hold of government to the degree “that Children and Apprentices were disobedient—that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent—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 powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented.”

With her keen eye for irony, Abigail did not let him off the hook so easily. “Whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives,” she chided him. Understanding the importance of the work he was doing, she never let her voice grow harsh or bitter on the topic. However, her trust in women’s eventual emancipation was evident. “You must remember that Arbitrary power is—like most other things which are very hard—very liable to be broken,” she wrote. “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 … throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.”