Abigail Adams and Why I Eat the 4th of July

8 years ago

"I long to hear that you have declared an Independency - 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...If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation." ---Abigail Adams

Other than the opportunity to overeat at BBQs and getting a paid day off from work, I am not into celebrating the 4th of July. What about independence from Britain changed the way that women (and non-white people) were treated? (I trace a good portion of our nation's problems to the Three-Fifths Compromise, which made the United States possible, but in a way that ensured that super conservative views held extra influence and sway over national politics.) So when I was offered a review copy of The Quotable Abigail Adams edited by John P. Kaminski (available in Fall 2009), I thought, "Hmmmm, perfect for my 4th of July post."

With her (unmet) demand for women's rights in the new Constitution that her husband had a hand in (see quote above), Abigail Adams is heralded as one of the first American feminists. At the same time, she is a woman whose commitment to her religion and raising children makes her a hero to those who espouse "traditional" values.

Last year, Sarah Walston investigated the feminist roots of Adams and concluded:

I shall now refer to myself as Sarah, the Proud Feminist who wants to follow in the footsteps of women such as Abigail Adams! Which means the anti-feminists don’t even have a clue about the very women they esteem as the archetypes of “godly womanhood” !!!!

Apparently, not everyone takes Adams's as seriously as Sarah and I do. In a response to David Mccollough's biography of John Adams, KeshKesh7 at the Feministing community wrote:

Mccullough quickly says that Abigail Adams didn't really mean that she wanted rights for women -- he says that she was joking.

Actually, I've found several websites saying that she was joking. Was she? I don't believe she was... After all, she was a strong, intelligent woman who was literally running a household and a farm at the same time while her husband was away, a husband she wasn't just a wife to, but an equal to in terms of mind?

Abby wasn't joking... By saying she was joking, one can dismiss her intelligence and ferocity, and somehow make her more "feminine" or docile. By saying she was joking, you can undermine how political women were then. By saying she was joking, one gives the upperhand to John Adams in that marriage, when so much evidence points to them considering each other their equal.

I really don't understand why Abigail Adams would mention in so many letters, both to her husband and other people, that women should get a slice of the independance pie. She wasn't a comedian. She wasn't spreading a good joke. She was expressing her (practical) opinions.

As for that equal partnership: Like many smart women today, Abigail's husband had issues with her ability with money, even though he relied upon it. Jennifer 8. Lee wrote about Adams's investment activities at The City Room Blog:

When her husband, John Adams, wanted to buy a neighboring farm, she argued that buying depreciated government bonds was a better investment. She was right. Although all of Abigail’s property legally belonged to John under New England’s coverture laws, she set aside “pin money” to buy the bonds, often through an uncle who acted as a trustee for her.

Adams’s financial acumen — among her other savvy attributes — propelled her husband’s career. However her investment activities were one of the few sore points in the highly documented partnership.

Where I really feel Abigail Adams, though, is in her description of patriotism (p365 in The Quotable Abigail Adams):

Patriotism in the female Sex is the most disinterested of all virtues. Excluded from honours and from offices, we cannot attach ourselves to the State or Government from having a place of Eminence. Even in the freest countrys our property is subject to the control and disposals of our partners, to whom the Laws have given a soveriegn Authority. Deprived of a voice in Legislation, obliged to submit to those Laws which are imposed upon us, is it not sufficient to make us indifferent to the publick Welfare? Yet all History and every age exhibit Instances of patriotick virtue in the female Sex; which considering our situation equals the most Heroick of yours."

My heart stops when I read her words. Yes, I'll celebrate American independence when it is true that all people have the rights prescribed in the Declaration of Independence. Until then, I'll just eat a lot of cheeseburgers.

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants. Her first book, Off the Beaten (Subway) Track, celebrates the wonderful, unusual places and people that make New York City a great place.

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