Audacious Abigail

22/07/2012

Two things struck me about Abigail Adams’ complex personality and contradictory life: her long separations from John  and her teaching an indentured black servant.

John and Abigail gave up a stable married life so he could focus on being a public servant for their fledging country. John spent years away in Philadelphia, then later Europe, working on the foundation of our country along with other Founding Fathers. Abigail should be credited along with a handful of other women as  Founding Mothers. She sacrificed a family life – but there were other gains. After a five-year separation from John (five years!), they reunited in France where John was serving in an Ambassador type role during the War. So Abigail was uncommon compared to many others in her day in traveling across sea to Europe, meeting royalty, observing different cultures and visiting grand 1700’s capitals such as Paris and London. Still I cannot imagine the longing she must have felt for her husband during their long separations.

My favorite anecdote about Abigail was her reaction to a white man’s confrontation over an indentured servant boy of hers. The boy’s name was James and Abigail had taught him to read and write; however, she didn’t believe in racial equality. Nevertheless, Abigail was a big advocate of educating women and blacks. Women were barely educated and blacks received none. When a night school opened, James expressed interest in attending and Abigail gave her blessing. A neighbor confronted Abigail over the matter, stating all the white boys were leaving school because a black boy was attending. She told the man if they didn’t have a problem with blacks sitting in church with whites or James playing the fiddle at their dances then they shouldn’t complain about his attending school. “Tell them I hope we all go to heaven together.”

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.  – L.P. Hartley

First Lady of the United States. As Americans, we hear the wife of every current President announced by this moniker, but what does the title signify? What makes a Lady First?  Since the President of the United States is such an overwhelming powerful figure, where does the First Lady (no First Gentlemen yet) figure in the grand sweeping melodrama that encircles the President, along with the policies and public showmanship that characterizes his reign?

I distinctly remember as a child perusing my maternal grandmother’s World Book Encyclopedias from the ’50s, thumbing through their yellow pages. Mostly, I would look up U.S. Presidents and read about their wives who were delegated to the back page of their husband’s section. There would be a small black and white print  photograph of the First Lady, and under it would be a very short bio. I recall contemplating if the space she was given amounted to the importance she played in her husband’s Presidency, and to a further extent the times in which she lived.

A former potential History major, before I chose English, I love reading about historical personages, especially Americans, whose lives I use as an inspiration to enrich – both good and bad ways – my own existence in this U.S. of A., circa 2012. Discovering the past First Ladies going all the way back to the late 1700’s, I want to discover the ways this role has changed and the performance each Lady gave whilst the man was occupying and wielding tremendous power in the Oval Office. Were these women as ambitious as their husbands in seeking the Presidency of the United States? Supportive? Or were some unhappy and disconcerted at being judged and held up as the President’s wife? Was the “Lady” role suffocating and unbearable?

In seeking the answers to my questions, I will read a biography of each “Lady” that occupied the White House with her “Gentleman.” However, there are about a handful of First Ladies that were not wives and I hope to discover how these ladies were chosen amongst others within the President’s family and social sphere.

My decision to write a blog about the First Ladies Past and Present occurred only after ditching the idea of reading about all former and current U.S. Presidents. At Times Dull sparked my curiosity and I’m indebted to its blogger, Janet Potter. Smart gal. Nevertheless, reading a biography of George Washington I came to the realization that I wanted to read about his wife, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington. Now here I am. First Ladies instead of U.S. President’s.

Alas, I have no time goal for finishing this project. Michelle Obama is our 44th First Lady. That’s 44 books to read! Here I go!

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