Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Remember the Ladies

Greetings, my dears. Some of you may know that my birthday just passed on March 31. I shall refrain from revealing my age, though it is fair to say that I am fast approaching what one might call "maturity." However, I had a lovely celebration with good friends, presents, and of course, a delicious cake prepared by yours truly.

I was very excited to discover this morning that a famous and oft-quoted letter from Abigail Adams to her husband John was written on my birthday in 1776. Abigail and John kept a long correspondence through his years as Congressman in Philadelphia, and John often sought his wife's advice on many matters. As marriages go, theirs was, I believe, one to be envied even by today's standards. The love and friendship they felt for each other is all too apparent in their letters to each other. I am certain her passing, eight years before John's, was very difficult for him to bear.

In the letter in question Abigail makes certain recommendations to her husband (and the Continental Congress as whole) on the treatment of women by this budding American republic. Abigail writes as a woman of the 18th century; she does not argue the idea that females are the weaker sex and require the protection of men. However, she points out that if men abuse their position as protector, the ladies will surely "foment a Rebelion"- and a rebellion in stays would most assuredly be a very sexy one.

Below is an excerpt from the letter:

"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."

[You may note there are some spelling errors in her letter. Keep in mind that there was no standardized spelling in those days, and rest assured that Abigail was an educated, intelligent woman.]

It is often disputed whether Abigail could be considered an early feminist (ah, the hideous F-word). I would argue that, for her time, she most certainly was. It is all too easy to impose modern standards or definitions on events and people of the past, but it is important to ever remember context. Yes, Abigail accepted her societal role as requiring the protection of her husband. However, she went so far as to recommend that men treat their wives as friends (and dare I say, almost equals), rather than "vassals of your Sex." A bold assertion for a woman of her time, and one which, to be honest, we women still assert today. Of course Mrs. Adams was certainly no shining ideal for the feminist movement (I doubt few, if any, women could fill such a role), but she is a figure in American history who had at least the beginnings of the right idea.

I hope you all enjoyed these words from the incomparable Abigail Adams. I'm resolved to write more about her, and her husband, as they are two of my most favorite figures in American history, and I am currently plodding (thanks to grad school, not lack of interest) through David McCullough's biography on John, which is excellently written. For now, I will leave you with a clip of John and Abigail from one of my favorite period films, "1776." While it's far from accurate- the ladies' costumes make me cringe a little, and I doubt very much that John Adams was much of a singer- the songs do in fact take their lyrics from actual letters between John and Abigail. (The line about "Cupid's Grove," however, was actually taken from a diary entry about the girl John courted before Abigail, Hannah Quincy. Ooof. Perhaps it was a favorite turn of phrase for John. I imagine in a age where so much romance was conducted with the written word, one must recycle one's cleverer bits occasionally.) Just as John and Abigail ended their letters, their duets end with the words "Til then."

For those of you who have never seen "1776," there will be a review coming one of these days. And yes, that is Mr. Feeny (William Daniels) of "Boy Meets World" singing his heart out.

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