“Remember the Ladies”

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“Remember the Ladies”

Edith Gelles on the incomparable letters of Abigail Adams

by permission of the Library of America on Thursday, June 2, 2016 - 5:01pm

Library of America’s Founding Era Collection expands dramatically this spring with the publication of "Abigail Adams: Letters," an unprecedented edition presenting 430 letters by the First Lady who was an incisive and witty commentator on the American Revolution and the early republic. The most comprehensive collection to date of Adams’s correspondence, the book sheds new light on her relationships with husband John and son John Quincy and on her advocacy for the rights of women.

The volume’s editor is Edith Gelles, Senior Scholar at Stanford’s Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the author of "Abigail & John: Portrait of a Marriage" in addition to the biographies "Abigail Adams: A Writing Life" and "Portia: The World of Abigail Adams."

LOA: Library of America has published many volumes collecting the essential texts of the Founding Era, but this is the first devoted to writing by a woman. What makes the letters of Abigail Adams so significant? What do they add to our understanding of the American Revolution?

Edith GellesGelles: Abigail Adams’s letters are the best record we have of the American Revolution from a woman’s point of view. No other Founding family has left such a trove of family letters as the Adamses. Both Washington and Jefferson destroyed their personal correspondence. Only the Adamses preserved their papers with such consideration for their value to history. Abigail’s letters describe her personal experiences on the home front during the war, including days of terror when the British bombardment of Boston threatened to expand to their coastal village and days of exhaustion as she opened the family home to refugees from Boston. They further describe the impact of epidemics of both diphtheria and smallpox. She also assumed her husband’s family role in his absence, managing the farm, earning an income from small merchandizing enterprises, and handling their finances. Abigail’s life was transformed—as were the lives of all women—in wartime.

Following the war, she traveled to Europe to join her diplomat husband, then returned to witness the founding of the new nation—as the wife of the vice president and then president. Her letters tell stories that are unique in their presentation of the history of an era as observed through the eyes, then the pen, of an astute, sensitive, perceptive, and eloquent participant and witness.

LOA: In probably her most famous letter, written on March 31, 1776, Adams urged her husband and his fellow delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to “Remember the Ladies” as they prepared to establish new and independent governments. What specifically did she have in mind—and what was John Adams’s response?

Abigail Smith Adams

Gelles: Abigail lived in a patriarchal world that was neither unique in history or to America. In most respects she accepted patriarchy as the normal state of the human condition. That means she accepted a traditionally “essentialist” worldview in which male power prevailed over most institutions, including religion, government, the economy, and the family, and women and men were meant to operate in “separate spheres” of the home and the wider world. The Revolution, as is the case with all wars, transformed that perspective, because when men left home to participate in the war, women had to take over their roles.

One of the qualities that I have most admired about Abigail Adams and that drew me to her in the first place, was her fundamental pride in being a woman. She valued being female and insisted that women’s roles, work, perspective—women’s domestic lives—were equally valuable as those of men. She did not believe that men’s minds were superior to women’s minds or that women were any less capable of learning than men. She encouraged her daughter to study Latin along with her sons and she educated herself over her lifetime in literature, history, and politics. She became a very erudite woman. And as she assumed more and more responsibility in the masculine sphere of work during John’s absences, she grew more confident about herself and her abilities.

Still, she experienced many constraints and observed many more. There were economic restrictions that limited her actions. She could not legally purchase or own land, though she speculated on property near home and in Vermont (her uncle Cotton Tufts negotiated and purchased in John’s name). She objected to the limitations placed on women’s education. She saw that women who were abused had little recourse...

(Originally published on the Library of America website. Reprinted with permission. For the remainder of the article, please visit the Library of America. )

Edith Gelles
Senior Scholar