Girls in the eighteenth century were expected to learn household chores and the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. The girls in the Smith family of Braintree Massachusetts, however, gained more knowledge than many of their friends. While they learned to sew and cook from their mother, they also had access to their father’s impressive library. Abigail, nicknamed Nabby, was especially eager to spend her spare time reading authors such as Shakespeare. Though her mother thought her daughter was wasting time on topics women did not need to know, Abigail’s father encouraged his daughter’s curiosity. He taught her not only to read literature and history, but also to ask questions about what she read.
In addition to reading, Abigail also spent hours writing. She learned to write by copying sentences in a notebook. Writing was one way that young girls at the time could communicate privately with friends, and Abigail took full advantage of the opportunity. She and her friends shared their everyday experiences and the crushes they had on boys as they wrote by candlelight. Abigail even practiced writing some letters in basic French, but did not learn Latin as many eighteenth century boys did.
Abigail’s curiosity made her unwilling to accept things simply because she was told they were true. She became skilled at debating various topics with her family—a skill she would later use in conversations with her husband John Adams about America’s relationship with Britain. One friend said to her during a debate, “Nabby, you will either make a very bad, or a very good woman.” As it turned out, Abigail’s skills made her the perfect partner for the man who would take a major role in starting the American Revolution.
Mercy Otis Warren was one of the few women who expressed her political views in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Her first play, The Adulateur, used fictional characters to criticize Boston’s royal governor Thomas Hutchinson. She wrote that he would stop at nothing to destroy the colonists “boasted rights, and mark them as slaves.” Although Mercy was bold to publish her writings at a time when a woman’s involvement in politics was considered scandalous, she was conscious of society’s opinions. She published her early works anonymously, knowing that a female writer might not be taken seriously. At this point in her career she accepted society’s belief that men should take an active role in politics, while women were “confined to the narrow circle of domestic cares.”
Mercy was a gifted political writer, but she was only able to achieve this because of the men in her life. Her father and brother supported her classical, unconventional education, providing her with the skills she needed for a writing career. Her husband supported her talent when she doubted herself, and John Adams became her mentor. As she said in a letter to Adams, “Your Criticism, or Countenance, your Approbation or censure…may in some particulars serve to regulate my future conduct.” As Adams gained political prominence in early America, he often helped Mercy’s work gain an audience.
Later in her career, Mercy asserted that women had the right to understand political matters, and she stopped publishing her works anonymously. Consequently, male reviewers dismissed her History of the American Revolution because it was written by a woman. She gained respect from the men around her for her talent, but her career remained dependent on male opinions of her work.