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STANFORD - How do you write the biography of the wife of a famous man without turning it into his story?

That was the question historian Edith Gelles faced in writing about Abigail Adams, wife of one president and mother of another.

Nine years ago, when she first came to Stanford's Institute for Research on Women and Gender, where she is an affiliated scholar, Gelles had written a chronological version of Abigail Adams' life. But that, she said, shifted the focus onto the major events in John Adams' life: the Continental Congress, the Revolutionary War, the presidency.

After immersing herself in feminist theory and method, Gelles tried a different approach. This time she would spotlight the major concerns in Abigail's life: supporting her family, often in the prolonged absence of her husband; raising children; nurturing ties with her sisters and extended family.

In Portia: The World of Abigail Adams, just published by Indiana University Press, Gelles constructed what she terms a "collage," a biography in which the chapters are arranged by topic.

One chapter, "Gossip," tells of the courtship of the Adamses' daughter, Abigail Junior, by Royall Tyler, a suitor with a "rakish reputation." Another, "A Virtuous Affair," analyzes a flirtatious correspondence between Abigail Adams and James Lovell, a member of the Continental Congress.

Educated at home by her mother, Abigail Adams was one of the great letter-writers of all time, Gelles said. Her letters, especially those she wrote as a young woman, reflect her lack of formal education. "They are quite crude in terms of grammar, spelling and punctuation," Gelles said.

But in those letters, Adams "writes the history of her age from a woman's perspective," Gelles said. "She also displays a rare honesty and accuracy, and she describes feelings as well as events."

Abigail Adams was exceptionally intelligent, politically informed and articulate, but political concerns were only part of her life, Gelles said. Adams considered her domestic role primary.

Some 20th-century historians have painted what Gelles considers a false picture of Adams as a radical feminist, citing her 1776 letter to her husband in which she urged him to "remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.... If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation."

That sounds like a strong feminist demand that women be treated as equals to men, Gelles said, but the letter goes on to ask John to "regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness."

Abigail Adams had a strong sense of hierarchy, Gelles said, and accepted the patriarchal order she felt was ordained by God.

The Adamses had a good marriage, but it was not a marriage of equals, Gelles said. After 10 years of matrimony, John Adams entered the political arena, spending much of the next 25 years away from his wife and family.

"He was more interested in politics than in family life, although that is not one of the things people usually say about Founding Fathers," Gelles said.

Abigail Adams functioned much like a single parent, running the family farm, buying property, and selling items that John sent from Europe.

And she reproached her husband for his continual absence. After the Revolutionary War ended, she wrote him a letter saying, "I don't know how much you love me if you don't come home."

John Adams did not come home, and Abigail finally joined him in Paris, where he had helped to negotiate the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War and was waiting to be appointed minister to the Court of St. James.

The book's last chapter, "My Closest Companion," explores Abigail's relationship with her daughter and tells of Abigail Junior's mastectomy in 1811 and her death from breast cancer two years later at the age of 48.

In preparation for that chapter, Gelles read extensively in the literature of breast cancer. She quotes at length from two letters, one written by Abigail Junior to the noted physician Dr. Benjamin Rush, describing her breast tumor and her symptoms, and the second written by the English novelist Fanny Burney describing a mastectomy she underwent, also in 1811. Burney writes in vivid detail of the operation, performed without anesthetic.

In fact, Gelles said, she found the subject so fascinating that her next project will be a history of breast cancer. In it, she will deal with medical questions, and also will study representations of the breast in art and literature in order to "examine the breast as a site for looking at femininity."



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