The Harpy Hall of Fame is dedicated to those women who worked on behalf of advancing women’s rights, contributed to reshaping gender roles, or were just generally awesome and badass. Unstinting in their desire to achieve their goals, these remarkable women left legacies that continue to resonate today.
Like most women of her day, Abigail had no formal education, but instead spent much of her childhood in her father’s library. Exceptionally well-read, her letters reflect a broad and passionate knowledge of the world, despite the fact that she spent most of her adulthood raising children and running a household in New England. Married at age 19 to up-and-coming attorney, John Adams, Abigail was lucky enough to find a husband who valued and relied upon her formidable intellect and energy; their letters to one another reflect a deeply respectful–and often flirtatious–relationship of equals.
They had five children in eight years—years in which John was frequently absent and Abigail was consumed with the duties of a housewife: managing servants, handling accounts, making clothing, and stocking and preparing food. Perhaps as a consequence of her never-ending and thankless housewifely duties, Abigail Adams became a passionate advocate of married women’s rights. The laws of the time did not allow married women to hold money or property in their own name. A wealthy single woman, or widow, upon marriage, became completely dependent upon her husband and had no right to reclaim her money—or chance of earning any—should they separate. Women, Adams believed, should not be forced to submit to laws that went against their interest, nor should they aspire to being merely docile wives and mothers. In March 1776, Abigail Adams wrote an open letter to John Adams and the Continental Congress, requesting that they, “…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.” She threatened, half in jest, that: “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.” It was a deliberate echoing of the same revolutionary fervor that Adams, Jefferson and their colleagues voiced against the King of England and one suspects that she meant it far more seriously than they gave her credit for.
Although Abigail Adams’ parents owned slaves during her childhood, she came to abhor slavery. In a 1776 letter, she said that she doubted that Virginians—Jefferson included—were paying mere lip service to “passion for Liberty”, since they “deprive[d] their fellow Creatures” of freedom. In 1791 she wrote to John Adams to inform him that a young black freeman had sought her out, asking to be taught how to write. She agreed to tutor him and later placed the young man in a local evening school over the objections of her neighbors. Abigail responded that he was “a Freeman as much as any of the young Men and merely because his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? … I have not thought it any disgrace to my self to take him into my parlor and teach him both to read and write.” It’s entirely possible that, deprived of an education and unable to take a job and earn a living herself, Abigail identified with this ostensibly free man in a way that had nothing to do with Christian charity and everything to do with shared oppression.
As First Lady, Abigail Adams was extremely politically active, writing long letters to friends and family about the issues of the day and lashing out at her husband’s political enemies. She proved to be an even greater hawk than her husband, encouraging him to take military action against France and supporting the unpopular and unjust Alien and Sedition Act. Derided as “Mrs. President” and “Her Majesty”, she set an example of righteous harpiness that inspired other politically active First Ladies, from Dolly Madison to Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton.
For promoting education for all people, for including us ladies in “all men are created equal” and for agitating politically from the inside as well as the outside, we name Abigail Adams to the Harpy Hall of Fame.