Women and gender equity: How we can learn from the past and improve in the future
Today we focus on Colonial figures cited as America’s first feminists: “Silence Dogood” (aka Benjamin Franklin) and Abigail Adams, first lady to second President John Adams and mother to sixth President John Quincy Adams.
Their observations were prescient.
At 16, Benjamin wanted to write for his older brother’s newspaper, the New England Courant, but James Franklin forbade it.
One day letters began appearing under the newspaper’s door, signed by a mysterious widow, “Mrs. Silence Dogood.” James and his friends praised the writing within earshot of Benjamin, agreeing that the person was ingenious.
Mass Moments, a daily almanac of Massachusetts history, calls Dogood’s letters delightful but dignified, mocking Boston manners and mores. Indeed, Dogood was half “Dear Abby” and half Gloria Steinem, freely giving advice on how women should be treated.
She became a sensation. But her missives offended some men. A “Mr. Ephraim” accused Dogood of being a pampered woman who had best tend to her chores than write for the Courant. “Let Female Idleness, Ignorance and Folly, (which are Vices more peculiar to your Sex than to our’s,) be the Subject of your Satyrs, but more especially Female Pride, which I think is intollerable.”
Dogood responded on May 28, 1722. “Men are commonly complaining how hard they are forc’d to labour, only to maintain their Wives in Pomp and Idleness, yet if you go among the Women, you will learn, that they have always more Work upon their Hands than they are able to do; and that a Woman’s Work is never done, &c.”
Dogood blames men for marginalizing women, noting, “One would wonder indeed how it should happen that Women are conversible at all. … Their Youth is spent to teach them to stitch and sew, or make Baubles: They are taught to read indeed, and perhaps to write their Names, or so; and that is the Heighth of a Womans Education.”
As her popularity grew, to the point of some proposing marriage, Franklin confessed that he was Dogood, leading to fisticuffs with his brother and causing the teen to run away to Philadelphia. The rest is history, literally.
Abigail Adams made history for her intellect. As the National Women’s History Museum states, “Hailed for her now-famous admonition that the Founding Fathers ‘remember the ladies’ in their new laws, [she] was not only an early advocate for women’s rights, she was a vital confidant and advisor to her husband John Adams.”
In a March 31, 1776, letter to her husband, she wrote:
“And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. 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.”
Abgail Adams was speaking more about domestic rather than political emancipation because of the ill treatment of women, considered a husband’s property.
Kelly Winfrey, interim director of Iowa State’s Women’s & Gender Studies Program, says Franklin’s and Adams’ words remind us how far we have come but also what still must be done. Franklin exposes the unpaid labor of women throughout history. “American women are now more likely than men to enroll in college and earn a four-year degree, but the majority of high-level leadership positions in the public and private sectors are held by men.”
Women make up a majority of the workforce, but still do significantly more household and childrearing labor. “Indeed, the words ‘a woman’s work is never done’ hold true today. These issues affect everything from women’s income and mental health to business productivity,” Winfrey said.
She adds that Abigail Adams’ threat of rebellion is relevant. “My students are often surprised that in their parents’ or grandparents’ lifetime, women did not have the right to get a credit card in their name and that spousal rape wasn’t a crime in all 50 states until 1993.”
Winfrey’s research highlights messages that target women voters as well as gender differences in campaign communication content and strategy. With the upcoming 2024 election, her observations are pertinent.
“We know there are ways to do better,” she says, “and we can look to other countries for ideas.” The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report ranks the United States as 43 out of 146 countries overall.
“Looking at the four subcategories shows where we have the most work to do.” The United States is 21 on economic participation and opportunity, 59 on educational attainment, 78 on health and survival, and 63 on political empowerment.
Americans should educate themselves about U.S. policies and norms that perpetuate gender inequity, eliminate obstacles and advance the status of women.