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Column of March 2, 2015

Monday March 2
March madness: Honor historic women

“Remember the ladies,” Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, who was in Philadelphia in 1776, straining with the labor pains of what would soon produce the birth of a nation. She knew he was one of the leaders in the effort to frame a firm and lasting set of rules for a brand-new country. And so, bold for her day, she wrote of politics to her husband.
John and Abigail Adams would have been in the top 10 of Most Interesting Couples of Our Time, if the early Americans had allowed themselves to indulge in such frivolities. They were devoted to each other, listened to each other, admired each other and had one of the new nation’s first commuter marriages. He was wrapped up in the creation of a government in Philadelphia, and she was ensconced in a house full of children surrounded by the Braintree farm she had to run, with responsibility for their second residence in Boston.
But they both took time to write letters to each other, long, thought –provoking, loving letters. As we nearly drown in the e-mail and texting era of instant answers, we have to admire these serious talks by letter and the long wait for an answer.
In any case, despite the enormous responsibilities of her daily life on the Adams farm in Braintree – or maybe because of them – Abigail found time to think and to write. As we slide from February’s busy-ness (hearts, snow, flowers, snow, presidents, snow, African-Americans, snow) into March, we focus on women’s history. And Abigail Adams is one of the stars of that history.
Not surprisingly, the remembering-ladies letter contained many of the same elements that my grandmothers wrote about in their weekly reports to family members. They sent the news of the day and the neighborhood. Thus, Abigail’s letter informed her husband that Becky Peck would not live out the day, that Isaac was confined with the mumps, that spring was in the air, that his nephew was having “convulsion fits” and that their children were “yet well,” despite the various ailments surrounding them.
But my grandmothers would never have presented their husbands with a collection of radical ideas. Ms. Adams urged her husband to give women the vote, arguing that the ladies would not be bound by laws in which they had no representation.
Calling men naturally tyrannical, she accused them of making vassals of women and asked that the idea of Master be changed to the concept of Friend in male/female relationships. She threatened that, if ignored, the ladies would “foment a rebellion.”
“I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors,” she wrote. Little did she dream how far ahead of her time she was and how long it would be before her suggestions were heeded.
John Adams’ answer to his wife mostly reflected the respect he had for her. He granted, in his answer, that she had made many good points, but he joshed about the idea that the ladies might revolt if ignored.
On the issue of equality, he was specific: “Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory ... in practice you know we are the subjects.” He goes on to say, after calling her “saucy,” that if men gave up their official role as masters, they would be subject to “the despotism of the petticoat.”
Abigail might be shocked at the survival of some gender-related inequalities. But the petticoats are gone.
Ruth Bass is author of two historical novels. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.