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While the women’s suffrage movement gained prominence in the mid-1800s, women such as Abigail Adams were advocating for women’s rights during the Revolutionary period and the formation of the new republic. 

Adams became the second First Lady of the United States in 1797, and was married to the second President, John Adams. She is remembered as one of the first outspoken supporters of women’s rights before the main suffrage movement gathered momentum, voicing powerful opinions about the political issues of the time and challenging the traditional role of women. 

 

Adams is often considered the founder of women’s rights activism, as her letters reveal her to be the first woman to speak on women’s issues in a political context. 

 

Her Views 

In an era of revolutionary change, progress and a new republic, Abigail Adams believed it was the perfect opportunity to offer women the chance to gain more rights and better their social position. Adams believed women should have more active marital roles than just supporting their husbands, and she thought female access to education was crucial in helping women nurture their sons to become virtuous citizens of the new republic. Women had been a great asset to the revolutionary war effort, and it seemed to her like the perfect time for women to gain more representation. 

 

Adams believed women should be protected by the new laws enacted by the new government and wanted there to be more opportunities to help them fulfill their lives and roles. It was during this time that women were recognizing the hypocrisy within the new language of liberty, speaking of freedom when women and other minorities did not have a political voice. 

Her Letters to John Adams 

 

The letters between John and Abigail Adams have been preserved in the Massachusetts Historical Society and give historians a more in-depth understanding of political and domestic life during the Revolutionary era. Abigail’s letters also let us explore the female perspective and the role of one of the first First Lady’s of the United States. John and Abigail Adams spent much of their time apart from one another, leading them to communicate through letters. 

 

Adams helped shape her husband’s political thought and was an outspoken adviser in some of her letters. She shows that the desire for women’s rights was entrenched in the minds of women before the main suffrage movement began, and around 150 years before women gained the right to vote.

 

Adam’s position as wife to John Adams allowed her to express her desire for women’s rights to someone in a political role, and make awareness of the limitations of women’s education. During the time that the Second Continental Congress discussed the Declaration of Independence through 1776, Abigail Adams wrote in letters to her husband that the creation of a new government was the perfect chance to enhance women’s legal status to that of men. 

 

“Abigail and John Adams Debate Women’s Rights, 1776”

 

Two particular letters exchanged between the couple are of great historical significance when considering women’s rights. With Abigail believing the Revolutionary period a great opportunity to expand women’s rights, she outright reminded her husband to consider women when creating new laws. Abigail writes: 

 

“I long to hear that you have declared in 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 favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by an Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” (A. Adams, p. 109)

 

John Adams responded to her letter with: 

 

“Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, in practice, you know we are the subjects.” (J. Adams, p. 110)

 

Abigail Adams makes her beliefs clear in her letter, believing some responsibility should be given to women and some laws should protect and enhance their position. As a wife of a Founding Father, she is in a unique place to express her views to a person directly involved in the creation of the republic. 

 

However, John Adams reveals in his reply that revolutionary liberty would be limited in its development, and does not take seriously her demands for female representation. His emphasis on masculinity would be a feature of the governmental structures for many years that followed. 

Legacy

 

No women’s suffrage timeline would be complete without the mentioning of Abigail Adams. While Adams did not successfully change her husband’s opinion or enact change within the government during her time, her letters are important sources for showing that the desire for women’s rights went as far back as the Revolutionary period. 

 

Her letters display courage and her intellectual capability, as well as her interest in the activities of government. Her writings are early political expressions of women’s desire for more rights and representation before the main suffrage movement, making her one of the first women to speak in such a manner and demand better protection for women by the law. 

 

Sources

Abigail Adams, John Adams, “Abigail and John Adams Debate Women’s Rights, 1776,” in Major Problems in American History Volume I: To 1877, eds. Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, Edward J. Blum, Jon Gjerde (Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2007), 109-110.

 

About the Author
Alanah Reid is a history major who spends her days exploring and analyzing old newspapers as a copywriter for Historic Newspapers. She is strongly passionate about women's rights and suffrage.