“Remember the Ladies.” That is what Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, then a delegate to the Continental Congress, as the Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia to form a new nation in March of 1776.
John Adams was the country’s first vice president, and second president.
“Be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the Husbands. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies,” Abigail Adams warned, “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 words of Abigal Adams one of the earliest American advocates of women’s rights, were prophetic. Because when we have not “remembered the ladies,” they have, by their words and deeds, reminded us so forcefully of the omission that we cannot fail to remember them. For the history of American women is as interesting and varied as the history of our nation as a whole. American women have played an integral part in founding, settling, and building our country. Some we remember as remarkable women who—against great odds—achieved distinction in the public arena.”
These extraordinary women certainly merit admiration, but other women, “common women,” many of them all but forgotten, should also be recognized for their contributions to American thought and culture. Women have been community builders; they have founded schools and formed voluntary associations to help those in need; they have assumed the major responsibility for rearing children, passing on from one generation to the next the values that keep a culture alive. These and innumerable other contributions, once ignored, are now being recognized by scholars, students, and the public. It is exciting and gratifying to realize that a part of our history that was hardly acknowledged a few generations ago is now being studied and brought to light.
In recent decades the field of women’s history has grown from obscurity to a politically controversial splinter to academic respectability.
From the initial donation of the Women’s Rights Collection in 1943, the Schlesinger Library grew to encompass vast collections documenting the manifold accomplishments of American women. Simultaneously, the women’s movement in general and the academic discipline of women’s studies in particular also began with a narrow definition and gradually expanded their mandate. Early causes such as women suffrage and social reform, abolition and organized labor were joined by newer concerns such as the history of women in business and the professions and in politics and government; the study of the family; and social issues such as health policy and education.
Women as historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. states “have constituted the most spectacular casually of traditional history. They have made up at least half the human race, but you could never tell that by looking at the books historians write.”
The women’s studies movement has led scholars to question traditional interpretations of their respective disciplines. For example the study of war has traditionally been an exercise in military and political analysis, an examination of strategies planned and executed by men. But scholars of women’s history have pointed out that wars have also been periods of tremendous change and even opportunity for women, because the very absence of men on the home front enabled them to expand their educational, economical and professional activities and to assume leadership in their homes.
The ladies have forced their way up front, even though the glass ceiling is still intact; women are rapidly working toward breaking that ceiling, from Hillary Clinton challenging for the top spot in the country, to more women earning positions in corporate America as well as small businesses and the political arena. Even though White women are receiving the greatest benefits there are still more Black women climbing the ladder to the ceiling in the corporate and political circles in an effort to someday shatter that ceiling.
(By Matina S. Horner as an introduction to a series of books on outstanding women in American history.)