Early in the creation of our Constitution, Abigail Adams in March 1776 wrote to her husband John Adams, a leading Founding Father, and famously appealed to him: to "Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors." John Adams, otherwise a wise man who would become a wise President, in this instance was dismissive and mocking in reply: "As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh."
Two hundred and forty years later, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in securing the requisite number of delegates to win the Democratic presidential nomination and become the first woman of any party to do so in American history, took to the stage last Tuesday night and, in her opening remarks, paid silent homage to Abigail Adams and remembered the ladies (video here).
Specifically, Clinton remembered the women, and men, who worked on behalf of the rights of women, who climbed into the arena to do political and cultural battle:
"Tonight's victory is not about one person. It belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible."
Continuing in a historical vein, Clinton noted:
"In our country, it started right here in New York, a place called Seneca Falls, in 1848, when a small but determined group of women and men came together with the idea that women deserved equal rights, and they set it forth in something called the Declaration of Sentiments, and it was the first time in human history that that kind of declaration occurred. So we all owe so much to those who came before, and tonight belongs to all of you."
In including men among those honored in the struggle for women's rights, Clinton showed more magnanimity than John Adams did in his role as Constitution-shaper. In his defense, John would plead the exigencies of rebellion against the British, with "the bands of Government" loosened all about. In his response to Abigail, he cited children and apprentices grown "disobedient." He complained---fatefully for the country's future---that "Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters." And now his wife brings "the first intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented."
It is the height of counter-factual history, and yet imperative to consider: If the conceptual framework of the U.S. Constitution had been less "tribal" (that is, white) and more focused on power-sharing, think of the lives not lost and not deformed because of tyranny. Abigail herself pointed to the problem: "Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could."
In a way, it is apt that it took another woman to deliver on Abigail's demand to remember the ladies, even if it took 240 years: Abigail threatened rebellion from the ladies if their interests were not included in the Constitution. In that famous letter to John, she wrote (these spellings are hers):
"If perticullar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation."
Thus it is altogether fitting and proper that Hillary Clinton, in achieving the highest peak in national life a woman has scaled to date, saluted those who struggled and sacrificed for women's rights, those of us who made the long-running "Rebelion."
Some of us recognized that, if things went better for us collectively, things would go better for us individually. We looked around us, in our workplaces and public spaces, and where we saw imbalance, we sought balance. We got nervy and organized; we made speeches when we might have preferred listening; we called ourselves feminists and never forsook the term. We endured the shrugged shoulders and rolled eyes of friends and coworkers, including other women, who thought we were fools. We suffered the scorn of more traditional women who thought we were radicals. We abided stern lectures from our elders, and from other "Guardians" and "Masters," on the sacrilege of upending the natural order.
For we knew "the natural order" was not right, not natural. The full rights and dignity of women had yet to be affirmed, there was more organizing and lobbying and legislating to do. We climbed into the arena to make History by altering History.
Which is why Hillary's historic win of the presidential nomination last week, while not treated in the media as a particularly big deal, was a big deal to some of us, and so moving. It felt like History-making hard work was rewarded at last, while also reminding us of all the female talent that was held back or thwarted throughout the ages because of "tribal" stereotyping.
Of course, winning the nomination does not mean winning the White House. The general election coming up, pitting Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump---misogynist, xenophobe, tyrant---promises to be brutal. While I am not convinced Hillary playing the "woman card" is sound strategy (just as Barack Obama did not play the black card in his campaign), rest assured Mr. Trump will employ his entire arsenal of insults and smears, much of it aimed at womanhood while simultaneously reinforcing his own (white) manhood.
Complicating the ascent of this particular woman is the fact that many women reportedly do not like Hillary (also here). To whom I would say: Remember, Ladies, your sisters in political life have to leap many more hurdles than their male cohorts do. A little sympathy, please? And to the media: Why isn't the likeability standard applied to male politicians? Of course, if we are truly grown up, why is likeability even a standard?
Meanwhile, the world wonders at our struggle: Currently, eighteen (18) countries are led by women. Examples in the recent past include Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher. The world's oldest democracy hasn't produced one yet?
Back into the arena, Troops! Our "Rebelion" is not done.
For full text of the Adams' letters quoted above, see here.
For my earlier post titled "The Speech Hillary Clinton Should Give to the 1 Percent on Capitalism and Income Inequality," see here.
Carla Seaquist's latest book is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death." In an earlier career she helped organize the women's caucus at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. ('72 -76) and served as Equal Opportunity Officer for the City of San Diego ('77-80).