Abigail Adams’ advice to her husband at the Continental Congress has resonated with women searching for equality everywhere, including in the workplace, before the law, and in the household. Learn more about this daring First Lady and the loving husband who supported her. ￼
In 1776 Abigail Adams wrote to her husband at the Continental Congress asking that in forging this new American government he would “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable 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 particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” John Adams responded to Abigail’s request with humor but perhaps should have taken her advice more seriously.Abigail Adams had seen the need for greater equality in marriage through her brother who abused his wife. She knew many more women who were not adequately supported by their husbands but who were also not allowed control over their income or land. Abigail voiced her dissent on the “unlimited power” of husbands to many of her other correspondents and even published an attack on a particularly obnoxious misogynist in a Boston newspaper.
Though Abigail knew of injustice in many marriages, her own marriage was loving. She wrote that some men who “wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend.” Abigail never perceived her own husband as a harsh master, but instead as her “Dearest Friend.” The couple exchanged over 1,110 letters, and Abigail served as John’s unofficial advisor in many things including his presidential aspirations. Though Abigail was aligned with her husband politically she felt comfortable disagreeing with him on many other issues. For instance, she independently earned money during the Revolutionary War, and deposited this money, not with John, but with an unknown friend and invested it in ways John disapproved of.
Despite these disagreements, John was proud of his smart wife, and allowed her the independence she desired, even in her greatest act of rebellion.In January 1816 Abigail Adams drafted a will while her husband was still living. By completing this simple act, Abigail was defying hundreds of years of precedent and statutes. According to the law, husband and wife were one person, and all of the wife’s property and any future income were transferred to her husband at marriage. Despite these laws, Abigail felt confident enough to dispose of the money and possessions which she considered hers independently. In her will, she remembered those who needed her generosity, mainly her poor female relatives who she had helped to support for 30 years.
Perhaps most impressively, Abigail begins her will, “I Abigail Adams wife to the honorable John Adams of Quincy in the county of Norfolk, by and with his consent, do dispose of the following property,” but only Abigail signs the document. John demonstrated his love for his wife in one of two ways. He either allowed his wife to dispose of the possessions she considered hers without even needing to sign the will, or he honored his wife’s requests when he saw the will after her death.
Read Abigail Adams’ letter yourself at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
For more information see Woody Holton’s Abigail Adams, published in 2009.