Watching the results of the primary elections in many American states over the past few months, I’ve been struck by the number of women running for office. We’ve watched ads and heard speeches about policies supported or opposed by a wide range of women. It makes me wonder how government functioned back in the days when women, supposedly, did not participate in elections at all.
One of the unacknowledged stories about the history of American is that it was not only the famous “founding fathers” who set up the basic structure of government. Hovering in the background were a number of women some of whom contributed important ideas. Among them the three Smith sisters of Massachusetts. Their stories have been told by Diane Jacobs in her book Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters (2014).
Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, was the best known of the sisters. She is famous for writing to John in 1776 while he was helping to prepare the Declaration of Independence: “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.”
Those were brave words, but Abigail did not persuade her husband or any of the other men who were writing the basic documents on which the United States still depends. Although considered very outspoken women for their times, Abigail and her sisters accepted the role of women as helpers to their husbands rather than leaders. I wonder what they would think of the women in politics today.
Abigail Smith Adams was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1744, the middle sister of three girls in a clerical family. Although at the time girls were barred from the colleges where their brothers and future husbands were being educated, the Smith girls were lucky. All three sisters were well educated by their mother and had access to large book collections. All three had high ambitions. Abigail’s life is much better documented than the lives of her sisters, but in Jacobs’ book we learn more about the lives of all three of the women.
Unlike most history books, which focus on the meetings, battles, and speeches of prominent figures, Jacobs also tells the story of what was going on among family and friends of the politicians. While John Adams was traveling to Europe to negotiate with Great Britain, for example, Abigail was at home keeping their family going. She was the one who maintained the farm and household. She hired workers, supervised the building and repair of several houses, educated their children, and handled the family’s investments.
Women’s lives were filled with endless labor. Because there were few doctors, women were the main providers of medical care to their families. It is surprising to learn about the number of illnesses that occurred routinely—from yellow fever in Philadelphia when Congress was meeting there, to tuberculosis for which no cure was known, as well as long periods of depression which several family members endured. Some of the men in the family also developed alcoholism. This is the first history book I have read that mentions the tragedy of spousal abuse that alcoholism sometimes causes, but it was a problem that was not recognized or discussed.
Abigail was her husband’s most important adviser during his long career in politics. He relied on her help while he served in diplomatic posts abroad and later when he served as Vice President and later President of the young country.
Despite being aware of how important their contributions to public life were, Abigail and her sisters were apparently willing to accept the fact that they were never allowed to vote, much less run for election. All of their work and all of their ideas were accepted as normal gifts that women ought to give to their husbands and families without expecting acknowledgements or rewards. It would be more than a century before women’s contributions were recognized as important enough to earn her the right to vote. And it took several generations of more confrontational women to win that right.
Now, at a time when women are losing some of the rights they have long enjoyed, is a good time to remember that rights are seldom gained by asking patiently for them. They must be won by actions, arguments and a refusal to take “no” for an answer.