Ignorance of Its Achievements Contributes to Feminism's Bad RapRoundup
tags: feminism, womens history
Elizabeth Cobbs is Glasscock professor of American history at Texas A&M and author of Fearless Women: Feminist Patriots from Abigail Adams to Beyoncé (Harvard University Press, March 7).
Feminism gets a bad rap.
Polls show that a third of respondents believe it does more harm than good. That’s a direct result of Americans not knowing the true record of feminist activism and how, throughout American history, it has propelled changes that we recall fondly — from the implementation of universal education, to the abolition of slavery, to the knitting of the social safety net.
Feminists built the nation as surely as the railroad did.
Women’s History Month is intended to correct distortions that undermine the sense of common experience and values that nations need to cohere. It offers an opportunity to recognize that whether we are Republicans, Democrats or independents, we are all feminists under the skin — whether we know it or not. Embracing this history will better equip us to resist extremists who try to divide us.
The ugly slander of feminism is as old as the country. Since 1776, opponents have painted feminists as disruptive and disloyal. John Adams was America’s first politician to employ the trick.
A crafty debater, Adams understood that nothing cuts an opponent quicker than ridicule. In May 1776, Adams received a disturbing letter: A British military retreat and the imminent declaration of American independence had inspired his wife, Abigail, to express her hope that Congress would cease treating women as “vassals of your sex.” Abigail Adams reminded her husband that “all men would be tyrants if they could” — a double entendre since this was the standard criticism of kings used to describe husbands. Women should have representation in government she averred, otherwise the new laws would be unfair.
John Adams pretended that his wife amused more than offended him. “I cannot but laugh,” he wrote back, though he warned that she and her “tribe” bordered on insubordination. The enemy was egging on “discontented” complainers from enslaved Africans to “Scotch Renegados.”
In communications with his wife, John Adams dismissed her concerns as silly, but the next month he soberly wrote another legislator that they must guard against such requests. After all, he told his colleague, “Whence arises the right of men to govern women, without their consent?” If the vote was freely granted, “there will be no end of it.” Other disenfranchised groups might rebel, too.
Like most Founders, Adams could conceive of no way to consolidate the country other than as a place where White men governed. The 13 colonies could barely agree to declare independence, much less rewrite the social contract. They bought consensus at the cost of long-term battles by marginalized groups who had few, if any, rights.
Yet Adams mischaracterized his wife’s intent. Abigail Adams hoped to reinforce the nation, not destabilize it. She saw a need, for example, for new leaders to replace British ones. She often reminded her husband that women could educate the next generation if released from their “more than Egyptian bondage” (an allusion to the Jews’ plight in Egypt under the pharaohs) and permitted higher learning rather than being banned from secondary schools.
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