By ASHLEY HELMS
Though she lived during a time when women weren’t allowed to own their own property, Abigail Adams proclaimed women should have more of a place in society than just being subservient to their husbands, leading some, including members of the Rye Historical Society, to consider her “America’s first modern woman.”
Adams’ outspoken nature on such issues made her the perfect topic for the historical society’s annual spring luncheon at the American Yacht Club on March 6, with her story told by George Baker, a John Adams re-enactor from New Canaan, Conn.
Baker told the story of being married to Abigail Adams, whose sharp financial skills, intelligence and strong will made her family prosper and helped shape the establishment of the United States as a separate entity from Great Britain. She became the country’s second first lady when John Adams was elected president in 1797.
Sheri Jordan, director of the historical society, said she met Baker during Rye’s 350th incorporation anniversary in 2010 and he told her he was working on an Abigail Adams performance. Jordan said, by bringing Baker’s performance to a broader audience, she wanted to highlight the part women played in history. She thought a presentation centered on Abigail Adams’ life would be a perfect match for the luncheon audience.
“I know [Baker] was an engaging speaker; it’s as if you had John Adams fast forwarded,” Jordan said. “Since it’s primarily women at a luncheon, I wanted to focus on women in history.”
Baker, dressed in full colonial attire, began with Abigail Adams’ upbringing.
She was born in 1744 in Weymouth, Mass., to a wealthy family. Her father was a reverend and her mother was a member of the Quincy family, after whom Quincy, Mass., is named. Baker said John Adams fell in love with Abigail, who was nine years his junior, because of her wit and energetic mind.
“Saucy was how I described her to a friend and saucy is how she always was,” Baker said.
Their marriage was tested continuously by John Adams’ travel, which spanned roughly 10 years. The two wrote letters back and forth to each other during the time they were apart. John Adams served as an ambassador to France and a delegate in Philadelphia, Pa. during the Continental Congress of 1774 and he often traveled back and forth between the two locations.
Abigail Adams stayed behind in Massachusetts on the couple’s farm, raising the children, but Baker said she was never angry at him for leaving and knew it was best for the country.
In one of the 1,100 letters John and Abigail Adams wrote to each other, Baker said Abigail Adams wrote to her husband in 1776 requesting the Continental Congress “remember the ladies.” She spoke out against the country’s Common Law, which stated that anything a woman had would come under her husband’s ownership when she got married. Baker said Abigail urged her husband to help establish laws that would give women autonomy.
“Your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh tide of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend,” Baker said as he read an excerpt from one of Abigail’s letters.
Just before Abigail Adams died in 1818, Baker said she wrote a will that left $5,000, which would be the equivalent of roughly $200,000 today, to 25 women so they would be able to be somewhat independent from their husbands.
Baker said John Adams made sure the women received the money after Abigail’s death, even though, legally, he didn’t have to, and ensured equal educational opportunities for both men and women when he crafted Massachusetts’ constitution in 1780.
Baker has told stories of John Adams to businesses, schools and national conventions around the country. According to Jordan, proceeds from the historical society luncheon will go towards the society’s educational programs as well as storage of historical documents.