Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could."

At a time when visionary leaders were shedding the shackles of no representation in government and constructing a brand-new country with laws demanding equality, Abigail Adams seized her opportunity. "Remember the Ladies," she famously wrote to her husband, "and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors...if particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or Representation."
Abigail Adams, like nearly all other women at her time, had no formal/positional authority and no legitimate power beyond that required to run a household. She was, however, exceptionally bright, and fortunate enough to have married a man who not only noticed her intelligence but also respected it. It is well-documented through John and Abigail Adams' prolific correspondence that he often asked her advice on matters of state and governance; through the strength of this relationship, Abigail possessed at least some degree of referent power and potential influence (Hughes, Ginnett, and Curphy).
Abigail also used the "rational persuasion" power tactic as she counseled her husband on, ironically enough, good leadership - "Whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to all men, emancipating all nations, you insist on retaining an absolute power over wives. But you must remember that arbitrary leadership is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken...we have it in our power...[to] throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet." Her argument is following naturally enough from current events - Americans were in the process of overthrowing a ruler who refused to act in their best interests, and Abigail is stating directly that exactly the same thing will happen with women if they are not given notice. Her statements themselves sound eerily like a precursor to Barnard - leadership is not effective when assumed merely by virtue of position, it is granted by those who are led, and they can take that authority away.
It is perhaps on a related principle of Barnard's that Abigail made her error in leadership - a leader should never ask a subordinate to do something that they cannot or will not do. John Adams was certainly physically capable of remembering the ladies, but even as a progressive man of his time he was unwilling to put his masculinity on the line and risk the "despotism of the petticoat." But did she create her own self-fulfilling prophecy? In an interesting parallel to McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y of humanity, Abigail would have planted herself firmly in the Theory X category when she called all men naturally tyrannical. If she had communicated to John that all men were, instead, naturally fair and just, would she have received a more fair and just response?
Abigail Adams is an example of a leader with no followers (at the time) and who "accomplished" essentially nothing. She did, however, have a vision - a leadership quality which Choi, Sashkin, and other theorists claim is fundamental - and this vision would inspire hundreds and thousands of women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to fulfill the prophecy of rebellion that Abigail Adams foretold. It took almost 150 years from the founding of our country for her vision to realize, but the government finally did - in 1920, with women's suffrage - remember the ladies.

(quotes taken from

1 comment:

  1. Loved this! I think Abigail Adams started the process of women seeing themselves as empowered individuals, moving beyond domestic definitions. Although her voice didn't instigate action in her time, her legacy inspired countless others to offer their voice to change. Thanks for sharing!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.