The term ‘ladies’ itself has a history that illuminates how power, privilege, and oppression have functioned throughout American history. From early modern times through much of the twentieth century, the term ‘lady’ signified women with power and authority over others by virtue of their race, class, marriage, or ancestry. A lady was a queen or head of household who oversaw subjects, children, servants, and slaves. As Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham notes, “Ladies were not merely women; they represented a class, a differentiated status within the generic category of “women.”” During Reconstruction, for example, married black women who didn’t work outside of the home and aspired to such status were socially condemned for even trying. A lady was a quintessentially normative white woman who set the standards by which other women were judged.
Consider the story of Abigail Adams and her most famous quote. When Abigail Adams asked her husband John to “Remember the Ladies” as he drafted the Declaration of Independence, she was not advocating for the rights of American women who were predominantly poor, indentured, and enslaved. Rather, she called specifically for married women’s legal rights to property and protection from domestic abuse. Abigail wrote, “I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable 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.” Despite the particular focus of her request, this sentiment has been celebrated as a broad call for women’s rights, and is considered a foundational moment in American feminism.
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