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Feminism, From Abigail Adams to Beyonce

Feminists built the nation as surely as the railroad did.

Feminism gets a bad rap.

Polls show that a third of respondents believe it does more harm than good. That’s a direct result of Americans not knowing the true record of feminist activism and how, throughout American history, it has propelled changes that we recall fondly — from the implementation of universal education, to the abolition of slavery, to the knitting of the social safety net.

Feminists built the nation as surely as the railroad did.

Women’s History Month is intended to correct distortions that undermine the sense of common experience and values that nations need to cohere. It offers an opportunity to recognize that whether we are Republicans, Democrats or independents, we are all feminists under the skin — whether we know it or not. Embracing this history will better equip us to resist extremists who try to divide us.

The ugly slander of feminism is as old as the country. Since 1776, opponents have painted feminists as disruptive and disloyal. John Adams was America’s first politician to employ the trick.

A crafty debater, Adams understood that nothing cuts an opponent quicker than ridicule. In May 1776, Adams received a disturbing letter: A British military retreat and the imminent declaration of American independence had inspired his wife, Abigail, to express her hope that Congress would cease treating women as “vassals of your sex.” Abigail Adams reminded her husband that “all men would be tyrants if they could” — a double entendre since this was the standard criticism of kings used to describe husbands. Women should have representation in government she averred, otherwise the new laws would be unfair.

John Adams pretended that his wife amused more than offended him. “I cannot but laugh,” he wrote back, though he warned that she and her “tribe” bordered on insubordination. The enemy was egging on “discontented” complainers from enslaved Africans to “Scotch Renegados.”

In communications with his wife, John Adams dismissed her concerns as silly, but the next month he soberly wrote another legislator that they must guard against such requests. After all, he told his colleague, “Whence arises the right of men to govern women, without their consent?” If the vote was freely granted, “there will be no end of it.” Other disenfranchised groups might rebel, too.

Like most Founders, Adams could conceive of no way to consolidate the country other than as a place where White men governed. The 13 colonies could barely agree to declare independence, much less rewrite the social contract. They bought consensus at the cost of long-term battles by marginalized groups who had few, if any, rights.

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Yet Adams mischaracterized his wife’s intent. Abigail Adams hoped to reinforce the nation, not destabilize it. She saw a need, for example, for new leaders to replace British ones. She often reminded her husband that women could educate the next generation if released from their “more than Egyptian bondage” (an allusion to the Jews’ plight in Egypt under the pharaohs) and permitted higher learning rather than being banned from secondary schools.

Her advice proved prescient. During the same muggy summer of 1787 when George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and other Founders sweated over the Constitution, male reformers who shared Abigail Adams’s vision launched the first “Ladies Academy” on Cherry Street in Philadelphia, a short walk from Independence Hall. Soon thereafter, Isabella Graham, Eliza Hamilton’s closest collaborator in later years, started one in New York City.

By 1830, more than 360 new female academies had sprung up across the states, training the first generation of women teachers and paving the way for universal public schools. Mass education, in turn, fueled America’s industrial revolution and economic success by creating a skilled workforce that was better-educated than any in the world.

In subsequent decades, feminists laid other milestones. They campaigned doggedly for abolition, and after the Civil War organized the nationwide petition drive behind the 13th Amendment that ended slavery. They helped create an inclusive electorate by fighting for the African American vote (theoretically achieved with ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, but not fully secured until the Voting Rights Act in 1965), and later, women’s suffrage (accomplished with ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920).

One of their number, U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet, spearheaded the passage of Social Security in 1935 and the minimum wage in 1938. Others helped double the workforce by taking down barriers to female employment, such as rules that required pregnant women to quit their jobs. Gradually, they helped redefine marriage as a romantic partnership between equals.

Like the nation itself, they were racially, geographically and religiously diverse. They did not always agree with one another. Modern Americans would admire some more than others, just as we do the Founders. That’s natural but not the point.

Throughout, they were unfailingly accused of being grumpy nags, even as Americans grew prouder of the rights that Abigail Adams proposed and John Adams resisted. In the 19th century, pioneers like Susan B. Anthony faced the same slurs as Abigail Adams had in the previous century, intended to ridicule and delegitimize their quest for equality — which, after all, was America’s founding goal. In the 20th century, feminists weathered accusations that they had “penis envy” or were “ball-busters.”

Today, male supremacists like the Proud Boys — designated a terrorist group by Canada — continue this tradition by denigrating feminists as “not even women anymore” and therefore “punchable.”

Feminists are not some odd minority. They are anyone who believes that women should be able to attend school, earn wages, wear pants, speak in public, vote in elections or serve in government, all rights that patriotic women and men labored together to win. Feminist ideals are democratic principles that can guide us even as we grapple with questions on which we disagree, like abortion rights and access.

If anyone is confused about what feminism is, they can cite former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Her 1935 definition remains surprisingly sturdy: “The fundamental premise of feminism is that women should have equal opportunity and equal rights with every other citizen.”

Improving national unity means honoring values that allow for conversation despite challenging differences. Women’s History Month is the place to begin.

Elizabeth Cobbs is Glasscock professor of American history at Texas A&M and author of "Fearless Women: Feminist Patriots from Abigail Adams to Beyoncé" (Harvard University Press, March 7).  Twitter