Abigail Adams’ sister, Elizabeth Smith Shaw, provided some advice to her niece “Nabby” on the occasion of her marriage in England to Colonel William Stephens Smith. In her letter she succinctly details the role a woman was expected to fill at that time.
Haverhill [Massachusetts] November 27th. 1786As you my Neice have given me a new Nephew, permit me to congratulate you both upon the Celebration of your Nuptials. … You my Neice who have so happily escaped the dangers, the whirlpools, and the quicksands of the single Life, and have safely arrived at the Haven of Matrimony, will find a new Scene open to your view. And that there are two very principal Characters in which you must become the Actress—that of Wife and Mistress—and before a much more interested Audience than you have yet ever beheld in a publick Theatre, I need not tell you, I mean your Husband, and your Family,—and perhaps e’er long, you may be called to act in a third, not less important, arduous and tender. That each have their several incumbent Duties, and that there are certain Traits requisite, without which a Lady of your Judgment, well knows a female Character must be exceedingly imperfect. A proper reverence of yourself—a dignity of Manners—joined with Meekness, and Condescention—gentleness, and sweetness of Temper—have most attractive Charms, and are the richest, and most valuable Ornaments, you can adorn yourself with. They [will] render you lovely in Youth, and (I may venture to say,) forever ensure you the attention, the Love, and the best Affections of that Man, who is truly worthy of you.
This excerpt is from In the Words of Women, Chapter 7, page 181. The portrait is by John Singleton Copley, done in 1787 one year after the above letter. It is the frontispiece of The Journal and Correspondence of Miss Adams compiled and published by her daughter in 1841.
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