Remember the Ladies: Revolutionary Women Writers

Abigail AdamsAbigail Adams. Pastel by Benjamin Blyth, c. 1766 (Photo: Massachusetts Historical Society)

In a March 31st, 1776 letter to her husband John, who was in Philadelphia engaged in the debates of the Second Continental Congress that would lead to the Declaration of Independence, Abigail Adams famously wrote, “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 favorable to them than your ancestors…If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies,” she went on, “we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”

The letter and sentiment are justifiably well-remembered, as a reflection both of this singular American woman (and future First Lady) and of the proto-feminist perspective that she articulated in her letter. But less well-known is the fact that in the subsequent two decades, as the Revolutionary and Founding eras played out and often failed to do justice to Adams’ request, a number of talented and passionate American women did indeed use their voices and writing to rebel against the period’s dominant perspectives on gender and identity.

Many of those Revolutionary women writers were part of the Mid-Atlantic Writing Circle, a group of prominent figures (of both genders) who began sharing their works before the Revolution and continued to do so for many years thereafter. Two of the circle’s male participants, Philip Freneau and Hugh Henry Brackenridge, would become well-known as part of the first post-Revolution American literary movement, the Prospect Poets. But the group featured an even larger number of women writers, including Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, Susanna Wright, Milcah Martha Moore, Hannah Griffitts, and, perhaps the circle’s most prolific writer and one of the first female poets to be published in America, Annis Boudinot Stockton.

Stockton, wife of the New Jersey lawyer and Declaration signer Richard Stockton, was famous in the era for her political activities: the only woman elected to the secret American Whig Society, she safeguarded the group’s papers during the Revolution at her Princeton estate, where she also hosted George Washington and other luminaries. But in her poetry she often enacted revolutions against other authorities, as best illustrated by the short 1756 poem in which she responded (using the pseudonym “Emilia”) to a published male perspective on women:

A Sarcasm against the ladies in a newspaper

Women are books in which we often spy
Some bloated lines and sometimes lines awry
And tho perhaps some straight ones intervene
In all of them errata may be seen
If it be so I wish my wife were
An almanac – to change her every year

An impromptu answer

“Women are books” – in this I do agree
But men there are that can’t read A B C
And more who have not genius to discern
The beauties of the books they attempt to learn
For these an almanac may always hold
As much of Science as they can unfold. –
But thank our stars, our Critics are not these
The men of sense and taste we always please
Who know to choose and then to prize their books
Nor leave the straight lines for to search for crooks
And from these books their noblest pleasures flow
Although perfection’s never found below
With them into a world of error thrown
And our erratas place against their own

Far more serious and philosophical than Stockton’s witty poem, but offering a complementing revolutionary response to dominant images of gender, were the writings of Judith Sargent Murray. Married to a Gloucester, Massachusetts, sea captain whose terrible business sense brought him to debtor’s prison and then flight to the West Indies, the intelligent and talented Murray began publishing poems and essays (under the pseudonym “Constantia”) in order to support herself. While she wrote on a wide range of philosophical and social topics, her most consistent themes were those of gender and women’s rights, as best captured in her poem and essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1790). Erudite and impassioned, ranging across classical and historical periods and up to her own moment and perspective, Murray’s piece embodies the impressive, inspiring community of women writers and voices present in this Revolutionary moment. It’s time we heeded Abigail Adams’ advice and better remembered them.

About the Author

Ben Railton

Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He's working to create public American Studies scholarship and to impact our collective memories and narratives, as evidenced by his books (most recently The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America), his daily AmericanStudies blog, and many other ongoing projects.

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2 Comments

  1. Very interesting, and I’ve often pondered John’s response to Abigail, which some historians see as sexist. I tend to think he was being playful in the way he would have been with his wife, essentially saying, the world is turning upside down and you want us to do even more! Anyway, it’s good to see an article that reminds us that there was more to the story than her wonderful letter to her husband.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Michael! I agree that there’s ambiguity in John’s response, although I tend to like him and the dynamic between them in the letters (more than I like John in most other settings, actually), so I’m with you on it. It does also make for an interesting comparison of Abigail’s more private/personal activism with these other more overtly public women writers.

    Thanks,
    Ben

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