Abigail and John Adams Debate the Rights of Women

As early as March 31, 1776—before Britain's colonies in America became a nation—Abigail Adams urged her husband to "remember the ladies" in the Declaration of Independence (and in the new code of laws that the Founders would create).

Not only did he (and his colleagues) fail to do that, John wrote a retort to his wife (which she did not appreciate):

As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient -- that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent -- that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters.

But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. -- This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.

Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Altho 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. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat... (See Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 14 April 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.)

“Despotism of the Petticoat”—as John Adams viewed it—may have been real or imagined, in 1776, but one thing was sure. If American women were not protected by laws in which they had a say, they were left without civil rights equal to the rights of men. Abigail was not amused by her husband’s position.

Two weeks after John’s letter of April 14, 1776, Abigail wrote to her friend Mercy Otis Warren (a political thinker, playwright and sister of James Otis, Jr.):

He is very sausy to me in return for a List of Female Grievances which I transmitted to him.

Believing that neither John nor his colleagues would, in fact, “remember the ladies,” Abigail told Mercy:

I think I will get you to join me in a petition to Congress. I thought it was very probable our wise Statesmen would erect a New Government and form a new code of Laws. I ventured to speak a word on behalf of our Sex, who are rather hardly dealte with by the Laws of England which gives such unlimited power to the Husband to use his wife Ill.

I requested that our Legislators would consider our case and as all Men of Delicacy and Sentiment are adverse to Exercising the power they possess, yet as there is a natural propensity in Human Nature to domination, I thought the most generous plan was to put it out of the power of the Arbitrary and tyranick to injure us with impunity by Establishing some Laws in favour upon just and Liberal principals.

I believe I even threatened fomenting a Rebellion in case we were not considered and assured him we would not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we had neither a voice nor representation.

In return he tells me he cannot but Laugh at my extraordinary Code of Laws. That he had heard their Struggle had loosened the bands of Government, that children and apprentices were disobedient, that Schools and Colleges had grown turbulent, that Indians slighted their Guardians, and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But my Letter was the first intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a complement, he adds, but that I am so saucy he wont blot it out.

So I have helped the Sex abundantly, but I will tell him I have only been making trial of the Disinterestedness of his Virtue, and when weigh'd in the balance have found it wanting.

It would be bad policy to grant us greater power say they since under all the disadvantages we Labour we have the ascendency over their Hearts.

"Charm by accepting, by submitting sway
Yet have our Humor most when we obey."

 (See Letter from Abigail Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, 27 April 1776, included in Women in American History: A Social, Political, and Cultural Encyclopedia, at page 216.)

In addition to expressing her thoughts to Mercy Warren, Abigail further wrote to her husband:

I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives.

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. (See The Adams Family Correspondence, eds. L. H. Butterfield et al. [Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963), vol. I, 29-31].)

Hundreds of years would have to pass before Abigail Adams' warning was finally heeded (when the 19th Amendment—granting American women the right to vote—took effect on August 26, 1920). 

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5155stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jan 22, 2017

Updated Last Revision: Sep 01, 2017

Media Credits

Pastel-on-paper portraits, of Abigail and John Adans, by Benjamin Blyth (1747-1811). Online via the Library of Congress. Public Domain.


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