Abigail Adams – America’s First Feminist

Had there been a National Organization for Women in America in the late 18th Century, Abigail Adams, the wife of our second president, John Adams, would have been a charter member.  The woman who once admonished her husband to “remember the ladies” when considering legislation in the Continental Congress was a firm believer in women’s rights, and she lived a life that proved it.

It was a life defined by the American Revolution, which, because its demands on her husband kept him away from home so often, only strengthened her independence, self sufficiency, and confidence that she was the equal of any man.  It was Abigail who ran the family farm while John was in Congress or representing America abroad.  That meant she was up before dawn, starting the fire, feeding the livestock, cooking the family meals and — because the war had shut down the schools — home schooling their children.

It was Abigail who also managed the family finances, and probably did a better job than John would have done.  Ignoring his advice to invest in land, for example, she bought public securities that eventually turned a fair profit.  Yes, the times being what they were, a man (her uncle) had to execute those financial transactions, but it was Abigail who made the decisions — and kept a share of the profits.

It was Abigail who also saw first-hand America at war, and did what she could to support it.  In her native Massachusetts the fighting was pervasive, with American soldiers regularly afoot, and she often invited them into her home to rest and take a light meal.  She even made musket balls for American rifles by melting pewter spoons in her fireplace.

And then, late at night, her work done, she would sit down and write her husband one of her many letters — the correspondence between John and Abigail was voluminous and touched on a wide range of subjects.  Abigail was a political junkie, constantly craving news of Congress’s activities and freely giving John political advice.   And in her letters to John she also regularly complained about the lack of women’s rights, including a woman’s inability to hold political office (a complaint that, back then, must have astonished John!).

In sum, she considered herself John’s equal partner, as proven by the fact that, years before she died, which she did this week (Oct. 28) in 1818, she wrote a will and testament, even though, technically speaking, she had nothing to bequeath because in those days all property in a marriage was legally the husband’s.

Abigail didn’t care, and it was hardly a surprise that most all of her bequests in that will went to the women in her family.