Abigail Adams & the Female Influence During the Revolutionary War

Portrait of First Lady Abigail Smith Adams | Painted by Gilbert Stuart | Courtesy of The Library of Congress Digital Collections

Too often in society women are belittled because of their gender, despite their numerous abilities and achievements. Women all over the world fall victims, and struggle to become survivors, of inequality against their male counterparts. Although some improvements have been made over time, there is still much progress to be done in order to establish an equality between men and women in all aspects of life, not just in a few token areas. During the eighteenth century, a few women became advocates for women’s rights and fought for individual freedoms that were attainable for men but rarely for women. One of these advocates was Abigail Adams, first lady to the second President, John Adams. Abigail, a devout wife and American citizen, was more than just a first lady to the president. She was an early feminist voice who refused to stand by and allow women to be suppressed of their capabilities and their rights.

In order to comprehend why Abigail felt so strongly and fought so vigorously for her beliefs, it is important first to understand how her beliefs became rooted. Abigail was the second out of four children from William Smith and Elizabeth Quincy. Her father was a minister of North Parish Congregational Church of Weymouth in Massachusetts colony; her mother Elizabeth was a typical housewife and mother. Abigail was fortunate enough to be born into such an eminent family in New England with a prosperous lineage of statesman, ministers, and merchants. She was raised in a household that wholeheartedly affirmed the beliefs of rational Puritanism, a solid Christian faith, and a strong education.1

The Old Kitchen in Cottage of John & Abigail Adams | owned by Quincy Historical Society | courtesy of the Library of Congress Digital Collections
The Old Kitchen in Cottage of John & Abigail Adams | Owned by Quincy Historical Society | Courtesy of the Library of Congress Digital Collections

From an early age, Abigail was introduced to the limitations of women by being unable to attend school. Growing up in the eighteenth century, education was highly sought after; however, education was primarily for boys, not girls. Boys had the opportunity to study various subjects, such as Latin, math, French, literature, and Greek. Elite families often prepared their boys to receive a higher education, either at Harvard College or abroad. Since girls were not permitted to attend school, Abigail was educated at home. Though her education did include some rudimentary training in academic areas such as reading and writing, most of her education focused on becoming a traditional housewife and mother. She observed her mother in common domestic skills such as sewing, cooking, and home maintenance.2

Her most significant influence occurred around the time of the Revolutionary War, which was a time of extreme stress and chaos for the young republic. This was a time when participation of every American became absolutely imperative in order to win not only the war, but also to restructure the country afterwards. Despite the circumstances, the social conditions for women went largely unchanged. During the Revolutionary War, while many of the men were away serving the war effort, the women were left in charge of the businesses and farms. The towns and cities were left with impoverished women who were often driven to lead protests and riots against price increases, as well as resorting to looting for food. In other parts of the country, women began to fight back against British troops, whom they were forced to quarter during the war. Some women either by choice, force, or desperation, traveled to the Patriot army camps to live with their male relatives.3

After the women began migrating to the camps, many men became hostile and voiced brutal complaints against the women. One man even expressed a barbarous comment about women, claiming “their falling, their brows beady with the heat, their belongings, slung over one shoulder, chattering and yelling in sluttish shrills as they went.”4 George Washington himself even believed the females to be disruptive and a distraction to the troops. In reality, women were actually a great asset and made major contributions towards the war effort. Most women performed domestic duties such as cooking, laundry, nursing, and even boosting the morale of the soldiers. Some women went beyond the normal expectations and became involved in the combat.5

By the end of the war, the views and standards of women had remained the same as at the outset. Many women began to question their place in society, including Abigail Adams. As early as March 31, 1776, while her husband was in Philadelphia forming a new government, Abigail wrote a letter to her husband, John, imploring him to expand women’s rights to become equal with the rights of men:

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.6

Abigail was making her purpose clear and made sure it was known that women would no longer stand for unfair and unjust treatment.

Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776 | "Remember the Ladies" | Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society - Adams Family Papers
Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776 | “Remember the Ladies” | Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society – Adams Family Papers

Abigail continued to fight for the rights of women for the rest of her life. Although she was most known for her strong tone in her letters, she was also a major advocate for the right of education for women. Abigail became one of the most literate and politically-powerful women of her time.7 Her ideals, courage to voice her intellectual opinions, and ability to stand up for her beliefs is what established the main attraction between her and John. Abigail was able to maintain the perfect image of the domestic housewife, mother, and First Lady to the President of the United States. Abigail tread a path for women which is still being followed today. Hopefully her beliefs and visions for the equality of women will one day come true.

  1. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2016, s.v. “Abigail Adams” by Mary E. Virginia.
  2.  Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2016, s.v. “Abigail Adams” by Mary E. Virginia.
  3. Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 1, 15 edition (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015), 147.
  4. Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past, 147.
  5. Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past, 147.
  6.  Abigail Adams, “Abigail Adams’ Letters to John Adams March 31, 1776,” Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/.
  7.  Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2016, s.v. “Abigail Adams” by Mary E. Virginia.

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65 Responses

  1. This is an excellent article on the beginning of women’s rights in the US and one of its founders Abigail Adams. She used the same argument that her husband and many others used to gain freedom from Great Britain. While also throwing the view that without women, men become savages. Guest the saying, “behind every great man is an even greater woman.”

  2. The article is very detailed and was informative about Abigail Adams. Abigail Adams and her effect on women’s rights and basically women’s suffrage progress was a big push. The pictures further show us how her efforts and letters she had written were to effect. The photos better help the reader understand who Abigail was as well. The article further summarizes Abigail’s actions and the effect it made very well and is able to connect and portray it wonderfully to the reader.

  3. Abigail Adams was an advocate for women’s right to an education. I’ve only read a little about her impact on women’s rights, but reading more in depth about the things she did is amazing. As a female education major this article means a lot to me. During the Revolutionary War women were left to run society. After the war they started questioning their role in society and things started to change. Great article!

  4. Very informative and well written article. I really felt like I learned something that I didn’t know before. Abigail Adams is a really underrated figure in history I feel she doesn’t get the credit she deserves. I feel like her contributions shouldn’t be ignored because she helped get women’s suffrage and they’re rights to education on track. I feel if it wasn’t for her we would have gotten those things a little later than we did.

  5. This article does an excellent job in covering the American revolution from the perspective of feminism. Too often scholar works are focused on the battles and politics, and while all of that is still very important, many groups who, although did participate in these various areas, are often left on the sidelines due to their social status in society at the time. The article does a great job covering the letter sent by Abigail Adams to her husband as well as detailing the life of Abigail Adams in her early life and why she is rembered as the woman she was.

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