Women and the Presidency

[Portrait of Abigail Adams by Benjamin Blyth], Library of Congress

[Portrait of Abigail Adams by Benjamin Blyth], Library of Congress

I’ve enjoyed listening to the Presidential Podcast from the Washington Post over the past few months. Each episode is about a different U.S. President, and the experience has been enlightening. It’s easy to forget that these historical figures are more than just a name we try to memorize and only associate with one or two events or policies from their administrations. They each had complicated stories, and in some cases they’ve been misunderstood.

It had not occurred to me that the podcast producers had so carefully planned their timing. The final episode aired Wednesday morning, after the election of our 45th president. In this episode, the host, Lillian Cunningham, reflects on the history of the presidency as a whole and the qualities that make a good leader. She interviews a colleague to speculate about what kind of a leader Donald Trump will be. It’s a fairly even-handed assessment, somewhat hopeful, and very cautious.

Another part of the episode that has stuck with me since Wednesday. Cunningham reflects on the roles of women in the Presidency, especially the influence the first ladies have had on their husbands. She interviews two historians, Michelle Krowl and Julie Miller, whom she interviewed for several of the previous episodes. Cunningham asks, were there any particular presidents who helped further the progress of women in the United States?

The answer from both historians: No.

Not a single US President has been a champion for women’s rights or made women’s issues a priority.

In March, 1776, in the midst of the American Revolution, Abigail Adams wrote to John Adams a letter than has been quoted over and over again:

I long to hear that you have declared an independency — 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 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.


John Adams responds: “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.”

Two hundred and forty years later, I cannot help but think that John Adams is laughing at us from the grave.

It took 144 years after this exchange for women to gain the right to vote. As one of the historians in the podcast says, “It was women who did that for themselves.”

Many of those women were abolitionists, and “As they worked to emancipate slaves, they built up a head of fury about their own condition, and that fury… powered them into a movement that ultimately many years later finally elapsed into a constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote.”

I try to imagine how differently things would be if John Adams took his wife seriously. Or any US president after him. What if a woman had been elected president at any time in the past 227 years?

Abigail did not seem discouraged by her husbands mockery. In response, she wrote:

I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken – and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our Masters, and without violence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet
‘Charm by accepting, by submitting sway
Yet have our Humour most when we obey.’

Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 7 – 9 May 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/

John Adams was a product of his time, and the idea of women having rights was probably unheard of for many people then. It is easy to keep following what you’ve always believed to be true when no one challenges you. Many people keep doing something or acting a certain way because it never occurs to them that things could or should be different.

Appearing to obey was probably one of very few options for Abigail Adams and her contemporaries. Today we have many more, thanks to her and the many women who followed.


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