We’ve all grown up hearing about the achievements of “founding fathers." But what about the heroism of founding mothers?
Abigail Adams struggled with work-life balance and proved to an entire nation that, even in the 18th century, women had the capacity to lead as well as to bring up a family... and that they could do so at the same time!
Like most women of today, Abigail Adams wore many hats. As wife to the second U.S. President, John Adams, she was as dedicated to the domestic sphere as she was to the political. What's more, she practically wrote the book on what it means to be First Lady.
Though they knew each other as children growing up in the colony of Massachusetts, Abigail and John only began their courtship in 1762. Abigail was then seventeen. The two were immediately smitten and soon married. The following years brought them five children, in quick succession. But when John’s skyrocketing legal and political career found him preoccupied with revolutionary affairs, Abigail was forced to hold down the proverbial fort by herself.
She raised their four surviving children – the youngest died soon after birth – nearly single-handedly, and ran the family farm to great success. All the while, she exchanged an estimated 1,200 letters with her husband over the course of three decades that took him from Patriot of the Massachusetts Assembly to First Continental Congress and the signing of the Declaration of Independence to Ambassador to France to the capital of a new nation.
Abigail’s letters to John crackle with revolutionary political ideas penned with sharp, detailed prose, despite her lack of formal education. The writings not only highlight her personal politics, but betray her role as the primary and most trusted confidante to her husband. She was his unofficial advisor, clearly aware that her position afforded her the greatest possible opportunity to affect positive social change.
Abigail encouraged John to follow his passions, which eventually included running for president. He was elected in 1797 after two terms as Vice-President to George Washington. Additionally, she pushed him to consider new angles by which to consider the issues of the day.
She advocated for women's rights well before the founding of any formal movement. She urged her husband to "Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors." She even warned him that if women continued to be ignored, they would mount a revolution against any government that did not give them due representation.
But her passion for politics was not limited to women’s issues. As FLOTUS, from 1797 to 1801, she advised John on foreign relations with France as well as domestic immigration policy. Though her involvement was not always well-received—critics pejoratively called her “Mrs. President" —she refused to abandon her position of influence.
“Abigail Adams was a true progressive. Not only did she help her husband John Adams craft his arguments in favor of the Declaration of Independence, but she was one of the first people to inoculate herself and her family against smallpox—an epidemic that was killing thousands in the late 1700s.”
- Beth Lower
Once John left political office, Abigail refocused on her role as a mother. She made sure that all her children received a proper education and supported the political aspirations of her son, John Quincy. In 1825, he was sworn in as 6th President of the United States, though Abigail would sadly not live to see it.
Abigail Adams may well have been history's original feminist. She also may have remained silenced, the woman behind the man, were it not for her grandson, Charles Francis Adams. He published her famous letters in 1840, ensuring that her contributions to both family and country would never be forgotten. She's remembered today as a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero on the anniversary of the writing of the Star Spangled Banner. Big thanks to Beth Lower of Silver Spring, MD, USA, for nominating her.
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