Women in all states won the universal right to vote one hundred years ago through the ratification of the United States Constitution’s 19th Amendment in 1920. Though women in Seneca Falls, New York, launched the women’s rights movement in 1848 when they claimed that the Declaration of Independence applied to women in the Declaration of Sentiments, the first mention of women’s rights took place during the American Revolution.
Abigail Adams’s call to “remember the ladies” is well known. Less familiar is how her husband, John Adams, responded. The debate he held on voting rights reveals a desire for independence to mean unbiased, and the role that class played in society during the nation’s founding. Adams’s remedy also expressed a form of self-sufficiency still embraced today.
Often taking initiative, Abigail wrote to a London bookseller at her husband’s request to build support in England for America’s cause. “I need not tell you, Sir, that the distressed state of this province calls for every excursion of every member of society,” Abigail had written to Edward Dilly shortly after the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. Her choice of words showed her egalitarianism. “The spirit that prevails among men of all degrees, all ages and sexes is the spirit of liberty. For this they are determined to risk all their property and their lives nor shrink unnerved before a tyrant’s face.”
At this time, John and Abigail Adams were physically but not emotionally separated. She was living like a single parent, with the full care of their four children in war-torn Massachusetts. Hundreds of miles away in Philadelphia, John was consumed with his new passions—patriotism, public policy, and politics.
John saw Abigail as his intellectual equal. Though women did not attend school in this era, Abigail had learned to read and write at home as a child growing up in Weymouth, Massachusetts, about twelve miles from Boston. A minister of a church, her father had a large library, which he encouraged Abigail to use. She indulged in books.
Their relationship and chemistry were built on their mutual intellect. “This has been the cheering consolation of my heart, in my most solitary, gloomy and disconsolate hours. In this remote situation, I am deprived in a great measure of this comfort. Yet I read, and read again your charming letters, and they serve me, in some faint degree as a substitute for the company and conversation of the writer.”
His longing for her during their war-enforced separation led him to write that he wanted to see her think. Yes, watch her think. “Is there no way for two friendly souls, to converse together, although the bodies are 400 miles off?—Yes by letter.—But I want a better communication. I want to hear you think, or to see your thoughts.”