I wonder what Abigail Adams would think. Where would our long-ago neighbor to the south stand in the current debate about whether to amend the Constitution to guarantee equality for women? My guess is she would be astonished that — in the past 231 years — it hasn’t happened. (The Equal Rights Amendment is still three states away from ratification; New Hampshire ratified it in 1974.)
Back in her day, Abigail saw clearly the need for women’s rights. Just read her letters to husband John. The most famous, written in 1776, just before the Declaration of Independence was signed, said this:
“I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable 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 particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion.”
And she wasn’t kidding, though John at first thought she was. He should have known better. Abigail’s beliefs about women — formed, it seems, while she managed the family’s affairs in John’s long absences — had been well articulated throughout her adult life. If she lived today, she would be called a feminist.
So what about the ERA? On the face of it, it’s simple — “Equality of right under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” It was first introduced in Congress in 1923, three years after women won the right to vote. It got nowhere fast.
Four decades later, with the women’s movement in full swing, the newly formed National Organization for Women vowed to fight tirelessly to get the amendment ratified. By 1972, both the House and Senate had approved it, but that same year conservative Phyllis Schafly set up the National Committee to Stop ERA. The drive to ratify stalled soon after.
Two years ago, supporters renewed efforts to get the ERA ratified. It immediately got tangled in controversy. Has the deadline for ratification passed? Will it guarantee same sex marriages? Government-funded abortions? Drafting women? Plus, doesn’t the 14th amendment, which guarantees equal protection to all, cover it? Ratification appears unlikely.
What would Abigail, there at the very beginning of our country, do? She would have been unacquainted with the issues involved, so who knows. But her challenge to the male-dominated power structure echoes through the ages: “We have it in our power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our master, and without violence, throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.”
Wow, she makes Gloria Steinem look like a wimp. Corset burning, anyone?
This article appears in the May 2007 issue of New Hampshire Magazine