Abigail Adams and the role of women in early United States history Essay

Abigail Adams and the role of women in early United States history

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            Abigail Adams was born Abigail Smith in the British Colony of Massachusetts in November 1744.  Because at her time formal education was limited for girls, she and her two sisters learned at home under the guidance of their parents.  Her father was a gifted reader who owned a whole library of books and because Abigail showed a keen interest in reading he encouraged her and allowed her to read about any subject or topic that interested her.  She developed such a passion for reading that her father’s library became the place where she spent most of her time in the early years of her life before marriage. She pursued other courses like letter writing, hosting, music and sewing at the encouragement of her family. 

During the lifetime of this great woman the United States was going through serious struggle to become a nation and the letters that she wrote throughout her life give us a glimpse of the type of life people lived in that era.  The letters also reflect the nature of a woman who had a clear picture about the running of the country.  Her writings also give indication of a woman whose lack of formal education did not hinder her pursuit for education a move that has been considered as very brave for a woman of that time.  It is her passion for reading that ushered her into a world full of ideas that she was later to openly express to others through her writing (Akers, 1980).

            At the tender age of 16 years, a young lawyer by name John Adams started visiting their home and Abigail soon learned that he too had a passion for books.  He also gave good attention to what she had to say about things and soon a relationship developed between the two that was expressed through letters to one another when they would not be able to meet.  Abigail and John got married in 1764 and settled in nearby Braintree where John owned a farmhouse.  The next year, they were blessed with their first child, a girl they named Abigail but referred to by her nickname, Nabby and two years later, their son John Quincy was born.  Within a duration of 8 years, the couple had been blessed with eight children, the rest of them being Susanna, Charles and Thomas.  In the first ten years of her marriage she was preoccupied with taking care of her young family and the farm especially because her husband was often away from home dealing with national matters.  Her first stint away from her home in Braintree was in 1768 when her husband took her and the children to join him in Boston where he was busy with protests against the tough taxes imposed by the British colonial masters.  She later on returned to Braintree where she was to raise up her family and run the home while John pursued his political ambitions (Belle 1992).

            Abigail and John Adams were great friends, lovers, counselors and they also mentored one another for all the life they lived together.  John Adams took pride in the abilities displayed by his wife to raise their family and mange the farm during the long durations that he would be away from home dealing with state affairs.  He complimented her for being a successful manger, budgeter, farmer and teacher and mother to their children.  Abigail was also very supportive to her husband in tackling the issues that came up in the course of his presidency.  In 1798 for example she was so concerned about a looming invasion of America by France that she urged President John Adams to declare war on the French state.  War was not declared though but the sedition and Alien acts were established that subject3ed to trail, anyone that criticized the president’s policies.  Abigail approved this move although reluctantly and this led people to have a strong view that she had overwhelming influence on the president a type of influence that earned the title “Her Majesty” According to Abigail, it was a wife’s duty to support the aspiration of her husband instead of being a hindrance to his ambitions and as a result she made no complaints about his continued absence from home on duty (Schloesser 2001).

            Throughout their life, their relationship was strongly bonded with Abigail referring to John as her best friend and John relying heavily on the advice that she had to offer in the course of his career.  Abigail hated the absence of her husband in his pursuit of his career and they kept in touch with ach other through a series of letters that displayed a lot of frankness and intimacy.  Her letters to John were addressed to “My dearest Friend” and signed out as “Portia” a name that she had adopted for their communication.  She influenced him to have the roles of women recognized in the people’s government and resented anyone who was opposed to John’s policies.  Both Abigail and Adams resented slavery and saw it as threatening any experimentation of American democracy.  In 1791 for example, Abigail took in a black slave boy who yearned to learn how to read and write and wrote to her husband about it.  Though there were serious objections towards such a move, no one would stop her from pursuing what she believed was a worthy cause (Mays 2004).

            Abigail Adams was very conscious of the shortcomings that a lack of formal education posed to her life such as the inability to write proper grammar or read and write French.  But she did not allow such a hindrance to stop her from speaking what was on her mind, wiring and also educating herself.  She was so passionate about improving her education status that in the late 1780s while living with John in England, she enrolled for science lectures in which she studied magnetism, pneumatics, electricity, optics and hydrostatics.  Throughout her life she engaged in letter writing, which had become her way of sharing with others on such issues as political and domestic concerns.  Through this forum of letter writing, she would also share her intellectual, opinions as well as express her ideas to her husband, family members and friends.  In the course of her life, she shared her opinions with other prominent persons like John Lovell and Thomas Jefferson through letter writing.  Her letters reflect a very sharp insightful and self-confident woman who took deep interest in the affairs of her time.  The letters also give an impression of a woman who seems to have resented those who did not agree to her views or opinion and someone who was unable to tolerate people with low standards of character (Aker 1980).

            It is Abigail Adams who planted the seed on the roles and rights of women in USA in the early years of the nation’s history and she has been described as the first crusader for women’s rights in America.  She pioneered the American woman’s path to women’s right, independence and education because she had an insight that women at that time had limitations in the role they had to play in the nation’s affairs.  Abigail was in agreement with other women that they had to have formal education if they were to continue playing the role of mentor in their children’s education.  She also believed that given the right opportunity and such rights as education, women would be able to live fuller lives. This courageous and determined woman was so committed to promoting women’s education that in famous letter that she wrote to John Adams on 31, March 1776 she persuaded him to have the issue of women’s rights incorporated into the laws that were being drafted at the time.  She was among the first women in America to question the roles and rights of women in a free society and she got the following of other women who together with her started working towards lasting and real change Mays 2004).

            Her campaigns for the rights of women included property rights for married women. She advocated that women be given a right to education and that their roles as household managers and moral guides for their children be recognized in society.  Though women played a more domestic role, their husbands would not make it without them in their careers. This is evident in her letter to Adams in March 1776.  Abigail believed that a true society would only be realized if both men and women worked in partnership, supporting each other in their different spheres.  She however recognized and deeply respected the role of the woman at home, a position that she never neglected in her life.  This woman has been described as an early feminist because of her unusual awareness of gender issues in the 18th century.  She insisted that women were equally important as men through the roles they played in both family and society.  Although Abigail Adams was not able to bring about immediate change to the status of women in the society of her time, her insight in the subject opened up the issue in other women like her, who also began working tirelessly towards real and lasting change for the American woman (Belle 2004).

            During most of the time when John Adams was Vice President, Abigail lived in Massachusetts and only went back to Philadelphia at her husband’s persuasion when he took over office as president.  As first lady, she followed the footsteps of Martha Washington and kept out of the public fare of politics.  Privately though she shared Adam’s federalist position.  When Adams took office, Abigail did not take an active stand in the political scenario but played the role of entertaining politicians who surrounded her husband’s life.  She hated the Democratic Republicans for the same type of radical ideologies that she had previously adopted in 1776. Abigail strongly defended her husband in his choice of staff during his office as president and openly referred to such men as truly American honorable and professional. Her political writings reflect a woman who was deeply concerned about her reputation her husband got.  Besides pursuing her own interests in the shadow of her husband’s position Abigail had great influence on others in the way she exercised her powers over them.   Even though she could not vote for example, she enjoyed the freedom to direct those under her authority like the servants or slaves.  She may have missed the opportunity to run for a public office but she availed herself to other politicians who may not have taken any interest in her, by supporting Adams in his career (Schloesser 2001).

            Although Abigail Adams tested the limits to femininity, she was always very careful never to go beyond the boundaries that defined proper femininity at the time.  Any views that went beyond mainstream majority were kept to herself and those closest to her and during her lifetime, she never published anything using her name.  Abigail displayed excellence in the way she would take not of a political situation and handle it within the boundaries of the political environment, being very careful not to go overboard.  She always changed those views that threatened to cause conflict so as to remain in close relation with those in the hierarchy of power around her.  Her relationship on such political figures like Jefferson for example depended so much on the kind of relationship that existed between her husband and such a person.  Because of the strong support she had for John Adams, she was bound to be critical about anyone who opposed his policies.  When John Adams and Jefferson fell out with each other, she too went silent and only renewed her correspondence with him when the two men started communicating again.  Jefferson is said to have had a very strong admiration for her strong character.  As long as she was around her husband, this strong woman shelved her political views and ambitions may be because she did not wish to out shadow him in his political life (Schloesser 2001).  Between 1783-1788 she accompanied John Adams to England and France on diplomatic missions but was always delighted to get back to their Braintree farm.  Her life in England helped her appreciate the United States in a way she had never thought of before especially because of the high level of poverty she witnessed among the population in England.

            Abigail and John Adams were active members of the first parish church at Quincy and were actively involved in church affairs when they left public life in 1800 and retired to their Braintree farm.  They took great pride in the rise to political prominence of their son, John Quincy Adams, who later became American’s 6th President.  She has been described as the first woman in the history of America to be referred to as fully liberated, a mother to the most prominent American family, a woman talented in letter writing and a great supporter of John Adams throughout his civic career.  Her stay in the newly established white House at Washington DC was very brief (1800, November -1801 March).  Abigail Adams died in 1818 seven years before her son John Quincy Adams became the sixth president of USA and was buried in the church cemetery at Braintree (Bella 1992).


            Abigail Adams may not have made any accomplishment through her crusades but at least she managed to plant the ideas about her objectives and goals into other people’s minds.  Her efforts helped women to have formal education and they were therefore very lucky to have her.  She steered a women’s course from the shadow of John Adam’s distinguished political career as a politician and was at the same time able to develop a voice for women in the early revolutionary years of the nation of America. She earned a name in American history for being the wife to the second president of USA and mother to the sixth.(Akers 1980).

Works Cited Page

Akers, Charles W. Abigail Adams: An American Woman. Little Brown & Company, 1980.

Belle, Edith. The World of Abigail Adams. Indiana University Press, 1992.

Mays, Dorothy A. Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World.

ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Schloesser, Pauline E. The Fairer Sex: White Women and Racial Patriarchy in the Early

American. NYU Press, 2001.

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