The Reading Room

Abigail and John Adams Disagree Over the Rights of Women

In a letter dated March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams announces to John that spring has lightened her mood. “I feel a gaiety de Coar to which before I was a stranger.” Her light mood did not prevent her from raising heavy topics, however. 
She begins by worrying that Virginia, and by implication all the South, is not truly dedicated to the cause of liberty. “I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Equelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs.”Warm weather is not the only thing that has improved Abigail’s disposition. The departure of British troops from Boston has been a great relief, and she provides John with an account of how the city fared under occupation before broaching her next hot topic. She eases into her real topic by saying she is anxious for the congress to announce the colonies’ independence, and then raises the issue of a new code of law for the newly free states. Her advice is straightforward: “I desire you 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.” Twelve of the colonies had established English common law as the foundation of their legal systems (Connecticut the only exception). Under common law, marriage was understood to be a civil contract in which the couple is treated as a single individual, and the husband controlled all property and had responsibility for decision-making. The law provided little protection to the wife and children of an abusive husband. 
Abigail slyly encourages John to “Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could,” a line John himself had quoted in an unpublished essay. (Of course, John had not used it against the male sex in an argument to achieve gender equity.) He lifted it from a poem Daniel Defoe appended to a pamphlet, The History of the Kentish Petition, published in 1701: “Nature has left this Tincture in the Blood, That all Men wou’d be Tyrants if they cou’d.” Defoe’s original statement hints at the doctrine of original sin, which infects all human beings, not just males. But that does not prevent both John and Abigail using it for their own partisan purposes.
Abigail tweaks John by using the same language rabid patriots are using in the argument for independence from Britain, and suggests “the Laidies . . . will not hold ourselves bound to any Laws in which we have no voice, no Representation.” She concludes on a more somber note: “your Sex are naturally Tyrannical” and pleads for a change in the laws “which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex.”
John shrugs off Abigail’s entreaty in a letter of April 14: “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.” He finds her suggestion of female revolution “saucy.” He concludes by saying that “Masculine systems . . . are little more than Theory” and that repeal of them “would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat.”
Abigail is not amused. She writes to her friend and pen pal, Mercy Otis Warren, on April 27, and recounts the exchange in detail. “He is very saucy to me in return for a List of Female Grievances which I transmitted to him. . . . I ventured to speak a word on behalf of our Sex, who are rather hardly dealt with by the Laws of England which gives such unlimited power to the Husband to use his wife ill.” She adds that she “assured him we would not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we had neither a voice, nor representation.” Abigail provides a reprise of John’s reply, and then jokes that “I have helped the Sex abundantly” and promises to “tell him I have only been making trial of the Disintressedness of his Virtue, and when weigh’d in the balance have found it wanting.” 
She does not write to John again until May 7, and notes the lapse of time from her last letter. “I have not felt a humour to entertain you. If I had taken up my pen perhaps some unbecomeing invective might have fallen from it.” Again, a brilliant rhetorician, she launches into an attack on the slowness with which the individual colonies and the Congress are moving toward independence, a position that John sympathizes with. Only then does she return to her earlier argument. “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 on retaining an absolute power over Wives.”
On May 14 John sends “a Letter wholly Domestick without one word of politicks or anything of the kind." In succeeding letters, he returns to the topic of politics but does not address the question of women. However, he has been mulling over Abigail’s criticisms. On May 26 Adams wrote to James Sullivan concerning his suggestions to Gouverneur Morris about reforming the qualifications of voters. Sullivan does not raise the issue of enfranchising women, but Adams does. While accepting that consent of the people as the foundation for legitimate government, Adams asks, “Shall We Say, that every Individual in the Community, old and young, male and female, as well as rich and poor, must consent, expressly to every Act of Legislation? . . . Whence arises the Right of the Men to govern Women, without their consent?”
Turning from philosophy to voting qualifications, he again asks, “But why exclude women?” He rejects the view that concern for domestic affairs distracts women from public affairs more than men. Sullivan has been arguing for some sort of universal male franchise, and Adams maintains that the same arguments Sullivan uses also show that women and minors should vote. He concludes, “generally Speaking, Women and Children, have as good Judgment, and as independent Minds as those Men who are wholly destitute of Property.” 
Thus, the debate between Abigail and John concluded. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in her address to the New York legislature in 1854, placed before the public the same concern Abigail directed at John: “We, the daughters of the revolutionary heroes of ’76, demand at your hands the redress of grievances—a revision of your state constitution—a new code of laws.”