Young Moms Changing the World: Abigail Adams

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When Michelle mentioned to her contributors that she wanted to cultivate a feature that highlights famous or historical “early mamas,” I jumped all over the opportunity. Aside from my academic background, I’m also teaching a course this semester titled “Women and the American Experience.” It was a perfect fit. 

Our first spotlight goes to my favorite historical mama, Abigail Adams. She raised President John Quincy Adams (along with four other children), and was the wife of Founding Father and President John Adams. Some, such as journalist Cokie Roberts, have called her a "Founding Mother." I love that.

Born in 1744, she was privileged to have a unique upbringing for the colonial era — one in which her father actively encouraged Abigail and her sisters to fill their minds and debate the big issues. 

She met a Boston lawyer, John Adams, when she was 19 years old, and they eventually had six children (although only four lived to adulthood). She first became a mother at 21, definitely making her an "early mama" by today's standards. And during her marriage to John (which ended in 1818 with her death), they spent about a third of it separated by distance and obligation to the infant nation. 

So where's the girl power?

While John was acting as midwife in the birth of our nation, Abigail was responsible for raising their children, maintaining the farm, supervising the farm workers, and keeping an eye on the finances. She weathered a small-pox outbreak — during which her family underwent the terrifying "inoculation" process — as well as sparse crops and the Revolutionary War, much of which took place in their backyard. We also know a lot about Abigail thanks to the extensive letters she exchanged with John during their separations. We know her struggles, her emotions, and her equal footing within the marriage. She famously asked John to "remember the ladies" in the Declaration — although that message seemed to be forgotten.

The letters provide a touchstone to the times, as well as to the unique relationship and open dialogue between the young married couple.

Abigail lived in a very different time. The idea of a mother was quite different than it is today. For example, the concept of "Republican Motherhood" helped shape the young nation and its youngest citizens. Mothers — who lacked the vote — found their political voices through their children. They educated their offspring on the values of the new republic, as well as their personal views on the issue. When their sons came of age, they hoped their sons would speak for them at the ballot box. 

Her children and son-in-law became U.S. Representatives, Senators, and a President — making her the poster woman for Republican Motherhood. But she had no social safety net to help pay for healthcare or childcare. She was truly on her own in a way that we (thankfully) do not have to be.

The take-away here is to look to Abigail Adams for inspiration for what can be done by an early mama. Understanding her struggles in the face of obstacles such as war and disease can help lift us out of our own difficulties.

She was not perfect, but she did her best given the circumstances. And she took pride in being a young mother.