Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Abigail Adams: "Remember the Ladies." John Adams: "Nah."

When Women Became No Longer Equal, Part 4: Women and the Founders of the United States Say, "Let's Not 'Remember the Ladies'"


My rage since the U.S. Supreme Court decided that women are not, after all, free and equal human beings, capable of making rational decisions about their own lives, has only burned more furiously every single goddam minute since the decision came down, just six days ago, on 24 June. Over the next while, I'll be posting where that fury has led me . . . 

Abigail Adams, 31 March 1776
(reproduced from

And so I'll begin with Abigail Adams, and her well-known "request" to her husband, John Adams. 

In 1776, John Adams was in Philadelphia, representing Massachusetts at the Continental Congress. 

On 31 March 1776, just months before the assembly approved the Declaration of Independence, with its stirring words proclaiming that "all men are created equal," Abigail Adams wrote to her husband. She's a bit worried about the slave-holding delegates from Virginia, who seem as if they might be just a tad hypocritical: "I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us."

But she has a few other concerns as well. So, she writes, "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.

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.

Now, Adams wasn't asking that her husband make sure women be included in the constitution--the writing of that founding document was still in the future, and when the Constitutional Convention convened, her husband wouldn't be there (he would be serving as ambassador to London when the Constitution was being drafted). 

What Abigail Adams was asking for wasn't political equality or the right to vote--she just wanted a measure of legal recognition for women. Well, probably not for all women, but at least for married (and white) women. Women like herself, women who, upon marriage, lost their personal autonomy and control of their own property.

Did her husband consider Adams's request? Nope. Not at all:

As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient—that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented.—This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.

Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat. . . .

In his defense, many historians comment that John Adams was just having a laugh. Nothing to see here. Sure, really funny, that John Adams, boy, he just cracks me up, and I'm sure Abigail Adams got a kick out of her husband's dismissal of her legitimate concerns as well. 

But, on a more serious note, and in reply to the Massachusetts politician James Sullivan, who thought maybe the "consent of the governed" should include those who were governed, like poor men and women, John Adams wanted nothing to do with it. Such a thought was too dangerous. If you extend the vote to men "who have no property," then what?

There will be no End of it. New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their Rights not enough attended to, and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of State. It tends to confound and destroy all Distinctions, and prostrate all Ranks, to one common Levell.
Horrors! In the end, of course, the Constitution left it up to the states to determine who could vote. And so voting rights were given to free, white men, over the age of 21, who owned property. And in most places they couldn't be Catholics, Jews, or Quakers either. Because, you know.

Since each state determined who could vote, it can be a bit difficult to calculate how many people men could vote, but here is a sense of how many did. In 1789, when voters elected the first new Congress, the "overall number of people who were allowed to, and actually voted, was miniscule in state after state. For example, Delaware had a total state population of just over 59,000, but only 2,059 ballots were cast, meaning just 3% of the population. Georgia’s turnout was around 5%, New York about 3% and Rhode Island has what seems to have been lowest turnout of all at an abysmal 0.7%."

And so, to get back where all this began, no, Samuel Alito et al., the Constitution says nothing about abortion. Or, in the words of Jill Lepore, "Of Course the Constitution Has Nothing to Say about Abortion" [emphasis added}. 

Because the fifty-five men who drafted the Constitution made no mention of women (or anything to do with women) at all:
As it happens, there is also nothing at all in that document, which sets out fundamental law, about pregnancy, uteruses, vaginas, fetuses, placentas, menstrual blood, breasts, or breast milk. There is nothing in that document about women at all. Most consequentially, there is nothing in that document—or in the circumstances under which it was written—that suggests its authors imagined women as part of the political community embraced by the phrase “We the People.” There were no women among the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. There were no women among the hundreds of people who participated in ratifying conventions in the states. There were no women judges. There were no women legislators. At the time, women could neither hold office nor run for office, and, except in New Jersey, and then only fleetingly, women could not vote. Legally, most women did not exist as persons.

Wait, what? "Except in New Jersey"? For the New Jersey "exception," click here.