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Women’s History: Abigail Adams, Shrewd Investor

51JM2iwLS-L._AA160_March is Women’s History Month and in “CEO of Adams Inc.,” Boston.com offers “A fresh view of Abigail [Adams] as not just a champion of gender equality but a shrewd investment manager.” This is an important distinction—not only was Adams, wife of our second president John Adams, in favor of marriage being an equal partnership, she took (sometimes unconventional) action to live out her beliefs.

Traditional historical accounts have depicted the affection between Abigail Adams and her husband, noting that he discussed his work with her and that she served as his confidant. What you may not hear, however, is that Adams went against her husband’s wishes engage in financial dealings, including “importing European merchandise for resale; speculating in Vermont acreage; and buying government securities at a deep discount.” This information is in a review of the book Abigail Adams by Woody Holton. The book’s author, who got to delve into the Adams family papers, also found that Adams would send a representative (often her uncle) if she thought she would be at a disadvantage conducting a transaction herself. Adams took a risk on state-backed bonds when the U.S. was new, sometimes buying them at low prices from those who couldn’t hold on to them long enough to see the kind of payoff Adams did.

In a post about the TV show “Downton Abbey,” we discussed women in 20th century England being unable to inherit property. Abigail Adams fought against this societal and legal convention in the 17th and 18th century America, where married women could not own personal property. Holton notes that in defiance of convention she left instructions in her will that certain items be given to the women in her family.

However, another review of Holton’s book in the Wellesley’s “Women’s Review of Books” points out that in portioning out the money she made with shrewd investments, Adams may have created the kind of dependency she herself avoided by insisting on an equal marriage. Her children and some of her relatives may have been more under her control than they would have been otherwise.