19th Amendment at 100: Abigail Adams

The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, but this landmark event was neither the beginning nor the end of the story for women and their struggle for the right to vote. Join us in 2020 as we commemorate this centennial year with 12 stories from our holdings for you to save, print, or share. June’s quote comes from First Lady Abigail Adams.

Want to hear more from Abigail Adams? Join us on Facebook on July 9 as Abigail, portrayed by a re-enactor, tells us about her response to hearing that independence had been declared.

While Abigail Adams’s reminder to her husband to “remember the ladies” is often mentioned, her full thoughts on the matter were rather more fiery.

On March 1776, while staying in Braintree, MA, Abigail wrote to her husband John Adams. The two maintained a voluminous correspondence during their 54-year marriage. When Abigail wrote this letter to John, he was in Philadelphia, attending the Continental Congress.

While Abigail hoped to hear that independence would be declared, but she knew that a new government–created by white men with laws that benefited them–would not most likely bring much in the way of change for women.

Her concerns were well founded. Women of the time had no legal identity apart from their husbands. They could not vote, they could not own property, or gain custody of their children if divorced.

As an eighteenth-century woman, Abigail had not received a formal education, but was expected to raise and educate her own children and manage the family farm in her husband’s absence. While Abigail’s own marriage was a happy one, she was aware of the situation of woman overall, and she urged her husband to think carefully about the needs of women in forming the new government.

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 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 any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.

Read the full letter on Founders Online.

Several years later, Abigail’s roles in the new government would be as wife of the Vice President, then First Lady, and then mother of President Quincy Adams–all roles that held no actual power beyond their proximity to power.

But despite the constraints of her time, she was influential. While her obituary of October 28, 1818, frames her life by “the refinement of her sex,” one notable paragraph pulls the curtain aside to show her influence on the development of the new country born within her lifetime.

To her husband–who served as Secretary of State, ambassador, Vice President, and President during his lifetime–Abigail Adams had many virtues as a wife and mother, but she also “was a friend, whom it was his delight to consult, in every perplexity of public affairs; and whose councils never failed to partake of that happy harmony, which prevailed in her character; in which intuitive judgment was blended with consummate prudence…”

When the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, the world was a very different one from the Revolutionary era, but women were still struggling against legal and societal constraints that Abigail would have immediately recognized. But one imagines she would have been pleased at this change in legal status as a result of the ladies determined to foment a rebellion.

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