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The Adams Women

March 2023
1min read

by Paul C. Nagel; Oxford University Press; 310 pages; $19.95.

While writing his best-selling biography Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family , Paul Nagel came to realize that the Adams women—minor characters in that book—“deserve at least as much attention from a biographer as their male counterparts.” And unlike most women of their time, they left abundant testimony about their lives and feelings, as they were prodigious correspondents and writers. The author could read their “perceptive observations about human nature … their recipes for making rouge … or for treating piles.” They judged keenly the strengths and weaknesses of males, compared methods of enduring menopause, and shrewdly argued politics. And ever present was their indignation at the way in which their maledominated society treated women. In this admiring and delightful book, Nagel seeks to right the historical balance between male and female Adamses.

The most fascinating of the Adams women was perhaps Louisa, John Quincy’s wife, whom her grandson Henry Adams called an “exotic,” a woman of unique philosophical and literary talents. John Quincy was a difficult husband—her patience with him was saintly—and Abigail was for many years a hostile mother-in-law. It is to the credit of both women that eventually they became close, supportive friends.

Neither Abigail nor Louisa liked the First Lady role, and though Louisa had always been a brilliant hostess, she found the White House a “dull and stately prison” that depressed her spirits. Nor was she happy that John Quincy chose to go back to Washington as a congressman after his term of office as President. That she made a success of even that unwanted role is attested to by the fact that on her death both houses of Congress adjourned in tribute. It would have mollified Louisa’s indignation about her status as a woman to know that she was the first American “female whose death would bring the nation’s legislators respectfully to observe a day of silence.”

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