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Why we should remember Abigail Adams this month

Why we should remember Abigail Adams this month
© Wikimedia Commons

"Valiant women of the vote" is the theme of this year's Women's History Month, which began in 1987 as an annual observance every March. This theme highlights women who contributed to women winning the right to vote, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

One of those valiant women is Abigail Adams, who asked her husband to "remember the ladies" on March 31, 1776, as he helped to turn the British colonies into the United States of America. One way to remember Abigail and how far women have come is to compare recent women's achievements to Abigail's life.

In Abigail's day, women were caregivers. When smallpox broke out, Abigail responded in July 1776. "I date from Boston where I yesterday arrived and was with all four of our little ones innoculated for the smallpox."

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As Forbes reported in January 2020, women make up slightly more than half of the workforce than men, occupying 50.04 percent of positions. When the nation began in 1776, women weren't wage earners. This doesn't mean they didn't work, far from it, as Abigail explained. 

"I hope in time to have the reputation of being as good a farmeress as my partner has of being a good statesmen," Abigail Adams, age 32, wrote her husband John Adams, age 41, on April 7, 1776. After he joined the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and the British military occupied the city of Boston, John gave up his Boston law practice. Abigail stepped in to manage their only other income source, their farm. 

"I find it necessary to be the directress of our husbandry and farming. Hands are so scarce, that I have not been able to procure one," she wrote. Trained to run a household, Abigail hadn't been taught to manage a farm or their tenants. As more men joined the Revolutionary War, more women took on the tasks needed to survive.

John heard nothing but praise of Abigail's management. "I begin to be jealous, that our neighbours will think affairs more discreetly conducted in my absence than at any other time. I think you shine as a stateswoman, of late as well as a farmeress. Pray where do you get your maxims of state, they are very apropos," John wrote May 27. Abigail often referred to literature in her letters, revealing her intellect and education.

Today college-educated women have surpassed college-educated men in the workforce. Women make up 29.5 million of the college-educated in the workforce compared to 29.3 million men. 

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In contrast to today, Abigail, like all women, didn't attend school. She had learned to read and write through her father's extensive library, which was her dame school, as homeschooling for girls was called. The desire for women to be able to read the Bible was high. Hence many women learned to read, though fewer could write like Abigail. 

John saw his wife as his intellectual equal. “I want to hear you think, or to see your thoughts,” he wrote, expressing how much he missed her.

No wonder she felt comfortable being candid with him. Abigail wrote some of her most memorable words 244 years ago this month. 

I long to hear that you have declared an independancy — 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 favorable to them than your ancestors,” she wrote John on March 31, 1776. Abigail didn’t hold back. “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could,” she continued. She then became a prophet.

“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.”

Both Abigail and John wanted a new government based on the consent of the governed. At the time, primarily landowners, which was about 16 percent of the population of Massachusetts, were eligible to vote. Of those, only 3.5 percent of the population voted on average in the decade prior to the American Revolution. While she didn't legally own their land, Abigail was running the farm without her husband. 

Though his reply to her was full of teasing, John debated the issue of who should vote a month later with a Massachusetts attorney. His solution was that more people should become landowners. While John didn't remember the ladies in 1776, New Jersey did. 

From 1776 to 1807, women landowners, who were usually widows, in New Jersey were allowed to vote. Politics, however, cost them the right to vote. When members of the Democratic-Republican Party saw that women were largely voting for the Federalist party, they added the word male to their voting laws to prevent a Federalist victory in 1808.   

In the nation's early decades, free working-class men gained the right to vote while girls attended public schools, finishing schools and eventually colleges. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution was designed to give freed African-American males the right to vote but not freed African-American females.

The rebellion that Abigail predicted came true. Women continued Abigail's call to remember the ladies, starting with the first Women's Rights Convention in 1848 and culminating with women suffragists lobbying for the 19th Amendment, which was ratified in 1920.

Now, 100 years later, how many women are voting? Today more women vote than men. Over half of women (55 percent) eligible to vote cast ballots in the 2018 midterms as did 51.8 percent of men, Pew Research Center reported of the consistent trend

Remembering Abigail Adams during Women's History Month is a reminder that whether it's education, the workplace, or voting, women today are living the life that Abigail Adams envisioned. Looking at her life provides a big picture perspective on the progress and promise of America. 

Jane Hampton Cook is the author of “America’s Star-Spangled Story” and “The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812.” She is a former White House webmaster for President George W. Bush.