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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S
by Janelle Collett

Remembering the Ladies

In 1776, Abigail Adams penned a letter to her husband, congressman John Adams, asking him to please “remember the ladies” in the “new code of laws.” She wrote, “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.” John Adams’ answer was that he could not help but laugh at her “saucy” letter.. (i) What he did not realize was that his wife had become the first in a long line of American women to assert her desire for women’s rights. The words of Abigail Adams would echo through American history, a rallying cry for other activists who believed in the equality of the sexes.

Abigail Adams’ words came at the birth of America. Political turmoil swept over women as well as men, and rhetoric proclaiming liberty, freedom, and equality formed the foundation for the new nation. Yet, these great virtues did not extend to all of America’s residents, and the hypocrisy was felt acutely in the hearts and minds of many women.

For Abigail Adams, familiarity with the language of freedom was a luxury given to her by her station as a middle to upper class, white woman. Other women in her position expressed similar sentiments through poems, essays, letters, and journal entries. Their education, a privilege known to few lower-class women, allowed them to declare their loyalty in literary forms.

However, eloquence in words is not the only way women expressed their patriotism. To show their loyalty to the revolution, American women participated in boycotts and even rioted in protest of unfair British rule. Many notable groups of women organized their patriotism, sometimes calling themselves the Daughters of Liberty. These women held meetings, spun cloth to aid a boycott of British material, and made a public showing of eating only American food and drinking American herbal tea. The importance of these meetings lay not in the amount of cloth they produced or the amount of foodstuffs they consumed, but in the message they sent to other patriots. American women had a valuable contribution to give to their nation, and they would fight just as hard as American men for freedom. Even class issues were temporarily thrown aside, as the Daughters of Liberty made it possible for a wealthy woman to spin her own cloth without disgrace.. (ii)

Though less visible, many other women demonstrated the strength of their convictions from their homes. With their husbands serving in a militia or the Continental Army, wives took over the responsibilities of running the family farm or business. Letters written by these women demonstrate a telling phenomenon: though reluctant at first, by the end of the war the women found themselves able and sometimes even enthusiastic about their new “masculine” duties.. (iii)

A smaller number of women aided the military directly, serving as army cooks, nurses, and laundresses. Their help was often unappreciated, but they served their country as best they could. One particularly dedicated woman, Deborah Sampson, even disguised herself as a man in order to enlist in the army. Under the guise of Private Robert Shurtleff, Sampson fought, slept, and ate side by side with other male soldiers, until an Army physician uncovered her startling secret. Though prohibited from fighting, Sampson received the distinction of an honorable discharge from General George Washington.. (iv)

While Sampson and Adams defended the new nation, other women had a very different perspective on the war and America. For slave women, the revolution meant, at best, an increased possibility of freedom. The number of runaway slaves increased dramatically during the war years, do in part to the British promise of freedom to all who fled to aid their army. Yet, the elusive prize would remain out of reach for most African Americans; the majority of slaves who ran away during the war were eventually returned to bondage. (v)

Native American women, also, found little hope in the revolution. Rhetoric proclaiming the equality of men did not help these women and their communities. Though individual tribes split over which side of the war to support, their decisions made little difference in the end. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 granted the United States government full control over Indian lands, aiding the Americans in their determination to force the Native Americans westward. (vi)

What, then, is the significance of Abigail Adams’ words? The American Revolution did not free slave women, or secure Native American women’s homes. The war did not even guarantee white women equality with their male counterparts. Adams’ words did not have a great impact on America in the late eighteenth century. Her letters did not change her husband’s views on the proper place of women in society, and they did not change the literal meaning of the words “all men are created equal.”

The importance of Abigail Adams’ letters is clear only when we view the larger scope of American history. Although she was, in comparison with other women, in a very privileged position, Abigail Adams had the courage to challenge the society that surrounded her. Furthermore, she challenged the male-dominated world as both a woman and an equal. Though she wrote to her husband as his wife, she also confronted him with his own language, the language of liberty. After receiving John Adams’ mocking reply to her plea for American women, Abigail Adams wrote the following words to her husband, predicting the course of history:

“But you must remember that Arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken – and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to free our selves but to subdue our Masters, and without violence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.”(vi)

i. Mary Beth Norton and Ruth M. Alexander, eds. Major Problems in American Women’s History. (D.C. Heath and Company, Lexington, MA, 1996). p.77.
ii. Mary Beth Norton, “The Positive Impact of the American Revolution on White Women,” in Norton and Alexander. p.96-98.
iii. ibid. p.99-103.
iv. Wilma L. Vaught, “In Defense of America: Women who Serve,” USA Today (March, 1994) pp.87-88.
v. Sara M. Evans Born for Liberty, A History of Women in America. (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997) pp.52-53.
vi. ibid. p.53.
vii. Norton and Alexander. p.78.

1. Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty, A History of Women in America. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997.
2. Norton, Mary Beth and Ruth M. Alexander, eds. Major Problems in American Women’s History. D.C. Heath and Company, Lexington, MA, 1996.
3. Vaught, Wilma L. “In Defense of America: Women who Serve,” USA Today March, 1994.

Questions about this column? Please e-mail me at [email protected].


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