While the recorded history of women in the United States predates the colonial era, one of the more significant steps in its unfolding can be found in one specific document written by an early proponent of female advancement in society. In a personal letter dated on the 31 of March in 1776, Abigail Adams – the wife of the future president John Adams – advised her husband to provide women equal representation under the future government of the United States. John Adams was a sitting member of the Second Continental Congress, which was assembled one month after the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, commonly considered to be the official commencement of the fighting in the American Revolutionary War. In the time between the start of the fighting and the official announcement of political independence in July 1776, the Second Continental Congress was the de facto government of the thirteen American colonies. With John Adams being a member of the Committee of Five – the five men who presented the Declaration of Independence before the Pennsylvania State House in 1776 – Abigail personally corresponded with him to suggest the opportunity for female representation in a new nation that proclaimed that “all men were created equal.” Abigail expressed her desire for John and his fellow congressmen to “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” She further warned against putting “unlimited power into the hands of husbands,” on the grounds that the unrepresented women would be determined to “foment a rebellion, and will not hold [themselves] bound by any laws in which [they] have no voice or representation.” Twenty years after Abigail’s correspondence, John Adams was elected as the second President of the United States. They remained married for the rest of their lives, and their relationship has been retrospectively examined by historians as one that was strong and affectionate in private, while also being politically-formidable in public affairs. Abigail’s topical commentaries on calling for women’s representation in the United States was fairly progressive for the time period, and would later see use as a foundation for succeeding generations of women’s rights activists and their allies to further pursue a more equal and lasting status in the United States.
As the United States neared the midway point of the 19th century, women had gradually lost the relative economic autonomy they had in the Revolutionary era, and had long since been confined to be little more than mothers and homemakers. Even with the few exceptions of women advancing further beyond the domestic world, they were still held back by the remaining Coverture laws of the states, essentially keeping them legally under the men in their homes. Meanwhile, the early inklings of women’s rights activism in the early 19th century had been largely formed out of the Second Great Awakening, an era of Protestant religious promulgation. The published works of James Otis and Charles Brockden Brown had previously promoted more equal proposals for women in society in the Revolutionary Era, but the Second Great Awakening would accentuate these views in far greater numbers as the 19th century advanced. Key elements of the religious revival was an increase in emotional sermons that appealed to the notions of optimism and the supernatural. Similar in vein to the previous First Great Awakening in the early 1700s, this second interval was the antithesis to the skeptical thoughts and deist beliefs that had been popular in the decades before the American Revolution. In the United States, the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening stretched into newly-opened states and frontier territories, including Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and more-notably in the “burned-over district” in Western New York. Two of the foremost religious denominations to emerge from the Second Great Awakening were Adventism – most popularly reflected in modern times in the Seventh-day Adventist Church – and the Latter Day Saint movement – the majority of its adherents now reflected in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Beyond the religious developments of the era, the sweeping changes inspired by the Second Great Awakening also advanced calls for egalitarianism in American society. The timing of the religious revival proved to be advantageous, as the next generation of women’s rights leaders – including the Grimké sisters – found the abolitionist movement to be a strong political topic that blended naturally with calls for greater women’s representation. Individual and group perspectives on how women’s rights and abolition could be most effectively addressed varied, but there was one major future convention at the midpoint of the 19th century that would not only reflect them, but also launch them into the national spotlight.
Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum