Saturday, January 8, 2011

Abigail Adams

I LOVE letters.  I once had a dream of living someplace far away for a year and only communicating with family and friends via hand written letters.  There is something so wonderful about receiving a small envelope in the mail, opening it up, and finding a little bit of creativity from a loved one inside.  A majority of my time and resources used to be spent making little gifts and writing notes to mail.  In the past couple of years however, I seem to have lost my motivation.  My friends, Jenny and Jessa, are still excellent at sending out mail.  It always makes me happy to open the box and see something cute inside from them.  Maybe in 2011 I'll get back into the habit because I want to support the postal system so it continues to exist.  It would be heartbreaking to see personal mail become a thing of the past. 

Felicity! Love her!
I also LOVE colonial and revolutionary war history.  I have always been extremely interested in how our nation was created because it seems so beyond extraordinary that one generation could accomplish so much to change the development of the entire world.  Visiting Monticello (Thomas Jefferson's home, depicted on the back of the nickel) remains one of my favorite childhood vacation memories and I still think I should work at Colonial Williamsburg someday. The American Girl doll I had growing up was Felicity and I remember being completely charmed by the adventurous tales in her books.

Knowing these two little tidbits about me should help illustrate my excitement about the book "First Family: Abigail and John Adams".  It is an account of their relationship based on the letters they exchanged throughout their lifetimes.  Joseph J. Ellis, the author, appears to be an expert on the founding fathers and has written extensively about the history of the formation of the United States.  Kelly, the little library page that could, brought it home for me and I immediately began to read.    

When John and Abigail first met, she was only 15 years old and he was already 24.  They meet in her father's house and the incident isn't much appreciated by either one.  Eventually, they meet again and a bond of love develops between them that remains throughout the entirety of their time together.  Ellis describes John's knowing need for a ballast, someone to give him mental, moral, and political steadiness, and Abigail's determination to create that for her husband.  I read this to mean John was aware he could have emotional outbursts (an affliction that may have been caused by a thyroid condition) and was looking for a partner to help him keep his composure.  Abigail was the only person who was able to do this for him and in the times when they were separated his reputation was tarnished by his lack of control.  

Up until this point, I was reading this book as it was meant to be read.  An account of the intimate relationship between two influential people who greatly impacted the history of America.  However, Ellis created the need for a different mindset when he chose to write this passage:
"She presumed that she would run the household, educate the children at least to a level of literacy, and subsume her own ambitions within the life and work of her husband.  These traditional expectations were always unquestioned presumptions for Abigail, and taken together, they constitute the primary reason that she does not fit comfortably into a modern feminist paradigm."

This declaration about Abigail not fitting into the current feminist label occurs on page 13 of the book and sets the tone for Ms. Adams to be viewed as a traditional, albeit highly educated woman.  Of course, while this is a fair depiction, it is a rather elementary one, certainly from the point of view of a person who clearly has no knowledge or understanding of modern day feminist principles.  Feminism has plenty of room for women who devote themselves to their marriages and families.  It is about equal opportunity between the genders and has little to do with how or where a woman spends her working years.  Abigail Adams, if not the founding author and activist of the American women's liberation movement, was certainly a participant.

Being that Ellis is an accredited historian, his book sites his sources.  Which is great in determining where he has misunderstood his subject.  Luckily, his source for this particular passage, is Edith B. Gelles' paper titled "The Abigail Industry" and it is conveniently available on JSTOR.  (You may only be able to access this article if you are on a university network or have an account with JSTOR.)  Reading through this report makes it clear that many people have decided to tell the masses what Abigail was as a woman.  Gelles dissects each category she has been shoved into by historians, scholars, and those who have read her numerous letters.  There is the saintly Abigail, the romantic Abigail, the flirtatious Abigail, the feminist Abigail, the Freudian Abigail, the political Abigail, and of course, the completely unflattering hidden Abigail (best described as a “matriarchal shrew”).  

The common thread that courses through whatever Abigail you choose to prefer is that she is generally regarded as an extension of John and his career.  Every action she takes seems to be condemned to be seen as a reaction to something her husband did.  If you consider other women who have held the title of first lady in this nation, including Mrs. Barack Obama, history has given, or will give, them the same treatment.  Abigail’s accomplishments can be chopped up to fit into whatever mold any particular scholar prefers, but no matter what, she is usually seen as an accessory to the great man she attached herself to.  This model deems her to have had only one true gift, and that was her choice of husband.

Clearly, this is a complete fallacy.  Give me the name of a woman and I will give you 15 different ways to view her as a person.  We are never allowed to be one complete human.  We must be dissected and figured out.  And if any piece tells a story that is anything less than what the world views as being proper for a woman to contain, it gets cut out and illuminated as the defining trait. 

To say that Abigail could not be saintly, romantic, flirty, feminist, political, and a bit deviant all rolled into one, is to say that those things can’t coexist together in one body, least of all a woman’s.  She must be one thing and that is what the problem is with Ellis’ interpretation that she cannot be a modern feminist role model.  He sees her as a homemaker and wife and therefore she can be nothing else.  This idea, being based off of Gelles’ paper.  I don’t know what he was reading but with statements like this I think he did not get the main thesis of her piece:

“Domesticity and intelligence are not polar opposites: to be wife and mother is not mindless activity…In the 18th century a woman’s primary concerns were domestic and Abigail was no exception.  It was her unique character, intelligence, and talent that distinguished her from other women, not her values or attidudes…
Abigail Adams experienced the domestic and the public spheres as a continuity; by acknowledging the interaction of these spheres we begin to understand her complexity.”

Complexity is the very special word here.  Complexity, defined as the state of being complex, defined as being composed of many interconnected parts.  We would all readily agree that John Adams was a complex individual.  How then does Abigail’s complexity differ?  Oh right, she is female.  Abigail should be viewed as a public figure just like John, with talents that Gelles' refers to, existing outside of the domestic sphere.

We know so much about Abigail, or at least more than other women from her time, because of the letters that she wrote.  She and John seemed to have a unique understanding that they were living through events that would be remembered forever and they did their part to preserve their history as best as they could.  During the formation of the United States, John was living away from home and Abigail.  He was working on creating the new country.  Abigail, while home alone giving birth to children and raising them through a horrific war, was contemplating the role women should have.  Much in the way John was a renegade for the rights of man against the oppression of the monarchy of England, Abigail rallied for rights for women.  We know this because she sent a letter to John and other members of the new government telling them to include women.  

Here is a portion of the text from that most famous passage:
"And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, desire you will remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of 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."
One of Abigail's Letters to John.
This was not a silly letter between lovers, but an official declaration of the equal rights that should be granted to women in the founding of the nation.  Abigail firmly believed that women should have the same access to education and property rights under the new laws.  As Ellis says, she made a direct illumination of the Pandora's box John and his cohorts had opened in regards to individual freedoms in the new republic.  Taking Abigail seriously would mean not only rights for women, but the abolition of slavery and ending the property ownership qualification in order to vote.  The founding fathers agreed that those issues were better left to be dealt with  after the war was won and white men had secured their freedoms.  So while yes, Abigail was viewed by these men to be correct, taking on this societal reformation was considered to be too risky. 

Eminem's "Without Me" lyrics seem to fit nicely here "A visionary, vision is scary, could start a revolution, pollutin' the airwaves, a rebel." Replace "airwaves" with "press" and you have the reason why her declaration wasn't published for the masses.  Once things were settled in the way the founders felt was most beneficial, future generations could extend the freedoms they enjoyed to the greater population.  

 In the present day, one might take this to mean that the founders felt that the constitution was meant to evolve with the nation, Justice Scalia.  The "One" that I refer to is any one with a rational (rational meaning non-romantic) understanding of the intentions of Adams, Jefferson, and the rest of them.  Certainly, this was to be a document that was meant to be molded to fit modern society, and not to remain a stagnant remnant of days gone by.  

Abigail Adams was not a homemaker and mother by her own deliberate choice.  She was a homemaker and mother because the rules of her time gave her no other choice.  Just as a slave born into slavery was denied the same education and rights that were thrown upon and often taken for granted by white men, Abigail was denied certain rights due to society’s rules against women.  (Society’s rules, society’s rules, I sound like a broken record; can I write a post without referencing the rules? Unfortunately, no.)  Had she wanted to study law like John she would have been laughed at.  It was not an option.  

The simple fact that she was even thinking about the rights of women (she was also adamantly anti-slavery, although, self admittedly not free of prejudice) makes her a visionary.  Take into consideration the fact that she ACTED on those thoughts makes her a revolutionary.  She saw more action during the war than John did.  He was safely kept away from the fighting while Abigail harbored children and neighbors, fought for food, participated in an all-female uprising against war profiteers, and eloquently stated her beliefs on what constituted a truly free, by the people, for the people government.  I hate thinking about all the remarkable ideas our country missed out on by excluding her from the formation conversations simply based on her gender. 

But this of course is not only true of Abigail’s story.  Countless women and other oppressed peoples talents throughout history were lost because they were never given the chance to express or develop them.  Mozart’s sister was just as musically gifted as her brother, however, she was not given the same attention or training because she was a female.  If these are the effects of yesterday’s toxic gender restrictions, what makes us think that today’s inequalities are any less negative?  Yes, yes, we are to believe we have transcended gender bias.  I’m pretty sure that in Abigail’s age they thought they were advanced because they were no longer prosecuting and murdering women for witchcraft.  Which, in that day, sadly was progression.  

The Christian Patriarchy Movement is a modern day example of how young girls are being brainwashed to believe that they are here to exist solely as servants to the male population.  Not to get too into this ridiculously terrifying mindset but daughters are being told that they should stay at home and honor their fathers until they are then given away to a man of his choosing.  This is marketed as the right way for them to live.  Their independent rug is being pulled out from under them before they are allowed to even almost develop an understanding that they have their own minds that can form their own beliefs.  They are experiencing a world where they don't have a choice just like Abigail did only their world is in the present day, not some 200+ years ago.  

Ellis has a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the founding fathers which is yes, very impressive.  However, I've seen "The Wire" so I know how that Pulitzer sausage is made and it's as unappealing to me as factory farmed Jimmy Dean links.  Is that harsh?  Fine.  I did cry at the end of the book if you'd like to know because the story that Abigail and John tell through their letters is beautiful.  They were truly in love and truly partners.  John supported his wife and her empowerment in a way that was beyond his time.  Abigail made out a will even though during her final years Massachusetts law regarded all property to belong to the head of the household, the male.  Throughout her lifetime she had amassed land, money from war bonds, and other items that were solely hers.  He never saw her or her property as belonging to him for she was simply the woman he loved, her own being, walking independently beside him.  He always recognized her autonomy even if he didn't work to write it into the constitution that allowed him his own freedom.  

This is a significant point because conservative groups like the Tea Party and the aforementioned Christian Patriarchy Movement are constantly referencing John and other founders as the basis for their governmental beliefs.  THE FOUNDING FATHERS WERE RADICALS.  They may have not been perfect but they were ahead of their time.  John's behavior towards Abigail, their daughter Nabby, and his daughter-in-law Louisa Catherine, shows that he had a great amount of respect for these women as individuals.  Any idea that lessens women's place in society cannot rightfully be claimed as a result of John Adams and his politics.  

Abigail must be seen as a feminist because, outside of the fact that she was, it is important to understand that the "woman as man's helper" model has never existed.  Yes we have been held back by asinine laws and male chauvinist fears, but we have steadfastly questioned our secondary status throughout history.  Each woman bears responsibility to speak out for our rights and to remain vigilant against any attempt to have those rights taken away.  Abigail is a perfect model of how to do this in an intelligent and deliberate way. 

I don't know where this leaves us.  What's my point?  My own personal feelings are that I would categorize most women who are not working directly against the rights of other women as feminists.  However, it seems that the feminist label is the last one that anyone wants to claim or to have placed on them.  I firmly believe that Abigail wouldn't have felt this way.  She established the first documented call for rights for American women.  Her letters, not only to John, but to many other people in her life show that she was a free thinking individual.  I want to look up to her because I want to believe that I too encompass a complex, multi layered, place in this world.  Every woman deserves that and I hope that if Abigail saw the freedoms that I am privileged to experience today, she would feel a certain amount of pride for having helped create them for us.  
Official Portraits of Abigail and John Adams.

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