Steel to Gold: Feminism vs. Stateswomanship

abigail-adamsThere is a widespread myth that feminism came about in the 20th Century, that—along with Civil Rights and Environmentalism—feminism is one of our great modern advances. The truth is that feminism has a much earlier origin.

In the Beginning…

Adam and Eve left the Garden hand in hand, and as you might recall their leaving was not just Adam’s doing. Nor did Eve walk six paces behind, or even one. They walked together.

Ancient feminism, started by the initiative of Eve, and spurred on in the East by Taoist thought of Yin and Yang, and in West by the Odysseus-Penelope tradition, has one focused objective: the maintenance of the basic unit of society.

In all three traditions equality was never in question, and the feminine provided spark, spice and initiative.

In the ancient stories it is woman who takes this initiative, woman who teaches that all other vows in society are only as strong as the marriage vow, woman who instills steel in young hearts—hearts which will not bend to temptation or loose traditions.

It is ironic then that modern feminism has attacked the marriage vows, pushing for religious, traditional and even legal approval of breaking them, of disconnecting us from each other, of replacing wholeness with individual license.

Eve didn’t need to be emancipated. Only where the marriage vows fail is there  abuse and domination by male or female.

The Family Unit

Where Eve epitomizes this role of marital oneness, Sarah and Abraham include children into the Whole. Thus oneness is not just a marriage, but a family.

Again, Sarah takes a primary role in this story, especially during their most trying times in Egypt. Her role reaches climax when she is reunited with husband in Pharaoh’s presence.

For perhaps the first time in history, man-made government acknowledges the legality and binding force of marriage.

Now the whole world, as well as God, adds its witness to marriage vows and promises to treat the children of the union accordingly.

This familial union, broader than marriage, is so essential that barren Sarah approaches Abraham to bring them children through her handmaid.

Like Eve, Sarah sees generations ahead and takes initiative.

Eve and Sarah are not the cowering ancient woman we’ve been taught to pity, nor are they brow-beaten slaves of controlling husbands in a world dominated only by men. They are strong, feminine, worthy of emulation.

A Tradition of Feminine Strength

Even the worst of them in the record, such as Medusa and Helen, are bad precisely because of their power—not because of their weakness. And tales of modern heroines abound and belie the myth of the frailty of the feminine character.

Despite centuries of European convention to the contrary, the American Founding Mothers knew the truth about women and society, and Tocqueville commented on the contrast and the quality of feminine strength that so marked American culture.

Like the stories of our first matriarchs there are a hundred others: including Rebecca, Rachel, Penelope, Joan and both Abigails.

Together they are the founders of the West. Their descendents and heirs, Tocqueville’s heroic pioneer women who carved out homes in the wilderness, walked across the plains, and taught eight generations of the freest people in history–often while pregnant or nursing–were no less feminine, no less amazing.


We must be like them. We owe a debt of gratitude to those pioneering women and include among them others in more recent times.

We tend to gloss over the patronizing contempt (and often vicious abuse) they endured to retrieve American culture from the backward European norm of the era.

It’s obvious to virtually everyone today that women should strive for excellence without artificial obstacles and that their voice is invaluable in the Great Debate.

And because of the examination of men’s and women’s roles, we are in a better position to make conscious, informed choices about how we live and interact.

Having been raised in a strongly conservative demographic, I feel qualified to observe that conservatives in particular are perhaps a little smug about their power to disagree with radical feminists in the arena of ideas; it is a discussion that, without the efforts of the “feminists” would never have taken place (nor any other discussion, with women being taken seriously).

This being said, the more unfortunate impact of 20th Century feminism is antithetical to its aims: not strong, amazing women who know the power and beauty of their mission, but rather women who are doubtful and tentative, even as they assertively rationalize their insecurities.

If they have careers, they fear they’re missing something. If they are homemakers, they fear they’re missing something. If married, they’re lectured about independence; if single, they’re cautioned about it.

This is the legacy of modern feminism—doubt. Not independence.

Not emancipation. Not opportunity. Not equality. Just doubt.

We as women who benefit from the example of our ancient mothers and the sacrifices of our 18th to 20th century sisters may now take the reins and define female leadership for our generation and the generations that follow.

But we must correct some of the excesses as well as the failures of last century’s narrow feminism.

Feminism Today

Today there are three major schools of thought on the role and future of women: Modern Feminism, Reactionary Feminism, and Anti-Feminism.

1. Modern Feminism

This teaches that women must be emancipated from male domination by making women equal to and independent of men. This view was politically correct from 1965 to 1995, and can be summarized as women giving up family for career.

In its most radical extreme, nobody but a few diehards still promote this. It is considered a failure, mainly because so many of its leading advocates left their careers to have families.

2. Reactionary Feminism

This is the Generation X and Millennial Generation response to Modern Feminism.

Reactionary Feminism can be summarized as the attempt to have a family and a career.

This view has none of the angst of Modern Feminism, but it is a source of our national epidemic of doubt.

The confusion of the patriarchal and matriarchal roles is a by-product of this attitude, and families and relationships are floundering in an atmosphere where neither the man nor the woman take their rightful roles of leadership.

3. Anti-Feminism

This school of thought is promoted by those who believe that the primary role of women is to be at home to focus on their immediate children.

The magazine articles and books by young mothers who’ve decided to choose family over career could fill a library.

A particular problem of this philosophy is that women who do not marry or cannot bear children are left out of the game.

Much to the dismay of the die-hard Modern Feminists, Reactionary Feminism and Anti-Feminism are growing.

Conservatives are thrilled with the trend as more and more young women choose to have families, but in reality there is a big problem with this trend.

The truth is that many Reactionary and Anti-Feminists, who tend not to rant against men and who really like being mothers, are still conflicted. The competing voices have left them doubting, frustrated, wondering if they missed “what could have been . . . .”

And this is the big lie, the real tragedy of Modern Feminism.

By defining a controversy between being a fulfilled career woman contributing to society on the one side, and an unfulfilled, barefoot and pregnant house wife on the other, Modern Feminism has convinced our generation that women must choose between home, hearth and family and societal leadership. The result is that as young women choose home making, they stoically turn inward, focus on their own family, work on the side or stay home, and wistfully watch the world move on without them.

The tragedy is that many women, and also men, have believed this lie.

What cunning deceit!! Somehow “career” became a counterfeit for stateswomanship!

So women believe they must choose between their maternal instinct to raise their children well and their feminine ambition to initiate change and lead worthy causes.

They are convinced that these are the only two choices—home or career—and that if you choose home, you must leave the public arena.

So here we are in the early 21st century: the men are often too busy making a living to change the world, and the women have been convinced that they must either work or watch from the sidelines.

What sad, tragic irony.

This is an illness.

What is needed is a healthy dose of medicine—Historical Feminism—and a resurgence of natural feminine ambition.

Maternal ambition literally changes the world in ways no “career” could. There are at least three ways women must change the world:

1. It takes a mother to raise a village.

For me, a mother is any adult woman who mentors youth, who helps them grow into contributing, happy adults.

There are as many ways to get involved as there are women, but all of us must do it. And the marital or maternal status of a woman has nothing to do with her fully participating in this mission.

There is a power that women bring to the table, the power of shaping a community—of changing its very heart—a power that lasts for generations, not just between elections.

This power is best expressed by the woman who sets out to raise her great grandchildren.

At first this seems obvious.

A woman who raises her own children successfully will, of course, have direct and indirect impact on her grandchildren and even her great-grandchildren.

But this is only the start.

Every great-grandchild is directly raised by twelve people.

There are others who will influence the child, but twelve who directly raise, mentor, teach, lead, counsel and help the child reach adulthood.

The power of womanhood is to directly train all twelve of these people, so that when her great-grandchild is raised, he or she is raised correctly and well.

The twelve people are the great-grandchild’s:

  1. father
  2. mother
  3. grandfather
  4. grandmother
  5. grandpa
  6. granny
  7. uncle
  8. aunt
  9. rabbi (church leader)
  10. teacher
  11. friend
  12. mayor (government)

These are the twelve most influential people on the life of your perhaps yet unborn great-grandchild. And if you don’t raise them right, who will? What an incredible challenge!

Our role as women is to raise these twelve people right! No elected official can do all this, no judge, no senator, no CEO, no high school principal, no Hollywood executive, no media mogul or Federal Reserve banker.

No President or Pope can do this. They just aren’t powerful enough.

No matter how successful such men or women may be in their sphere, they don’t have the power to raise these twelve people effectively.

No constitution, law or policy has such power, but every woman has it, is born with it, can reach deep down inside and bring it to the surface, can spend her life doing it.

If this seems overwhelming, welcome to womanhood.

Thank goodness for husbands, fathers, brothers and friends who provide love and support, and the necessities of life, so we have a real chance of success in this incredibly daunting task.

Fortunately, while husbands each provide for one family, using all their effort and focus, women can organize together, divide the task for training these twelve people and work in closely bonded teams—all toward the same goal.

What are you doing to raise these twelve people?

Of course, some of them are your own children. This is the primary area of your focus.

And womanhood requires us to effectively train all twelve of these people. Our great-grandsons and granddaughters desperately depend upon our success.

So here is the great flaw in Reactionary and Anti-Feminism—one says women should be like men, the other says that women should focus only on their immediate children.

The first is wrong and the second is too narrow. Women have power over generations—and we must use this power or see others usurp and misuse it.

In our modern world the void left by women who don’t magnify this power is being filled by government. Shame on us for that! Raising these twelve people requires us to take action beyond the walls of our own homes.

This is the role of women. Our most important work takes place in our homes, and our vital mission expands from within those walls to raising these twelve people.

What a task is womanhood! What a mission is motherhood!

Whether you are married or single, in a career or not, every women must raise these twelve. For those women who have careers, for whatever reason, exerting this power may entail some special challenges.

But it will take all we have to give, regardless of our status. And it will be worth it.

2. Your education is your most valuable asset.

I don’t mean this in the narrow sense of “schooling”, and I certainly don’t propose to limit it formal diplomas or degrees.

But you can’t exert more power than you have at your disposal, and to successfully train the twelve people women must raise, we need all the power we can muster.

Education includes our whole heart, and our whole mind—everything we have and all we are.

We should never stop improving who we are, our hearts and our minds. With all that hangs in the balance, no woman can settle for anything but the very best education.

3. Raising children is the thing that changes the world the most.

Everybody knows this, but Modern Feminism has convinced us that it’s cliché, even patronizing. Eve didn’t think so, nor did Sarah.

Several countries around the world are bemoaning that their birthrates are leading to their economic decline. Not to mention the decline in morale, creativity and societal vibrancy.

Raising children and mentoring the next generation is the most important thing we can do to change the world. It is the primary role of all women and all men, married or single.

It is who we are. It is why we were born.

We must train up the leaders of the future with confidence, power and grace.

We must deliver. We must achieve results. We are the stateswomen of the 21st Century.

If we fail, the world will fail. If we shrink, hesitate, or doubt, precious time will be lost.

We are the leaders of today. Our choices and our actions are the most important choices and actions occurring in the world today.

Now, the most important thing I have to say:

You Can Do It!

Every woman who reads this has the power to do it. If you never have biological children of your own, you’ll still train your great grandchildren—a whole generation who will be your heirs, impacted by your choices and how you train their twelve.

They depend on you. Don’t let them down. If you are a woman, you have the power to do it. It will depend on your choices.

Consider Abigail Adams, in November of 1775.

The great historian Bancroft wrote that she:

“was at her home near the foot of Penn Hill charged with the sole care of her little brood of children; managing their farm; keeping house with frugality . . . opening her doors to the houseless and giving with good will a part of her scant portion to the poor; seeking work through her own hands and ever busily occupied, now at the spinning-wheel . . . learning French . . . with the aid of books alone. . . . She herself was still very weak after a violent illness; her house was a hospital in every part . . . . Her youngest son had been rescued from the grave by her nursing.

Her mother had been taken away and, after the austere manner of her forefathers, buried without prayer.

“Winter was hurrying on; during the days family affairs took all her attention, but her long evenings, broken by the sound of the storm on the ocean, or the enemy’s artillery on Boston, were lonesome and melancholy.

Ever in the silent night, ruminating on the love and tenderness of her departed parent, she needed the consolation of her husband’s presence; but when she had read the King’s proclamation she willingly gave up her nearest friend . . . to his perilous duties and sent him her cheering message . . .

“‘I could not join to-day in the petition of our worthy pastor for a reconciliation

[with Great Britain]. Let us renounce them; and instead of supplications, as formerly, for their prosperity, let us beseech the Almighty to blast their counsels and bring naught to all their devices.’”

It is tempting to note that shortly after reading this her husband rose in the Continental Congress and swayed the entire body away from reconciliation and toward revolution.

It is tempting to note that her elder son watched her closely during this time, and in addition to her tutoring he felt something like fine steel grow within his breast—something that would not bend, and with him a nation would stand firm.

It is tempting to remember that this same son would be torn from her gentle tutoring at age 13 to serve with distinction as America’s ambassador to Russia.

It is tempting to see her standing on Penn Hill, watching the cannon threaten her home at the base yet writing: “The cannonade is from our army, and the sight is one of the grandest in nature . . .”

In short, it is tempting to see Abigail in her support role and admire that. But to do so would be to misunderstand Abigail.

No doubt she would prefer to be understood this way, but to know Abigail Adams one must turn their attention to the steel in Abigail’s eyes in these trying moments. She took action. She moved the cause of liberty.

Because of her actions and decisions her great grandchildren stood free still.

Today their great granddaughters, eight generations later, stand doubtful. They wonder at their roles, they debate and decide and reconsider. They speak of “how hard it is.” They vacillate.

Our daughters must not do the same, nor our granddaughters.

That means that we must make the change.

The women of today must unconditionally and without apology adopt the full role of womanhood, the glory of maternal ambition, and set out to raise twelve people right.

If we succeed, America will succeed. And the world will succeed. But if we fail . . .

We will not fail.

Of women today, Steel is needed. Unbending. Beautiful.

And, as Eve, Sarah, and Abigail before us, today’s women must turn steel into gold.

The following poem was written of the pioneers by Vilate Raile. It trust it may also be said of every woman reading this today:

They cut desire into short lengths

They gathered it into bruised palms

And fed it to the hungry fires of courage.

And handed it to their children

And their children’s children.

Long after—when the flames had died—

Molten Gold gleamed in the ashes.

About the Author:

Rachel is the co-author of Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning and the audio series Core and Love of Learning: A Recipe for Success, and the author of the award-winning educational resource, This Week in History. She is an accomplished musician, writer, literary editor, public speaker, consultant and momschool organizer.


  1. Heatherlady March 16, 2011 at 2:05 pm - Reply

    I love this essay so much. The first time I read it I almost did a back flip:) you are the first person who has ever put into words almost exactly how I feel about feminism. Thank you. I hope that perhaps some day in the future we might be able to talk more about what you have brought up here. I think that women all over the world are starving for this type of knoweldege. It breaks my heart to see them wander in confusion and doubt. I’d like to find a way to help them see the light and would love to know if you have any ideas on how to do that. Again thank you so much for this.

    • Rachel DeMille March 16, 2011 at 3:42 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Heather. I think a lot of people are confused about the labels involved. They feel in their hearts like they’re feminist, but hesitate to call themselves that because it means so many things to so many people. In the end it’s not what we calls ourselves but what we do and how we interact with each other that really matters. I feel so strongly about the important role women have to play in making a difference in world. It sounds so hyperbolic–but it’s true! rd

  2. Celeste March 17, 2011 at 9:08 pm - Reply

    This is very beautiful and empowering. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Latesha Stephens March 18, 2011 at 9:35 pm - Reply

    Thank you Rachel for sharing this beautiful article. Abigail Adams has been one of my models for years. I remember reading about her and noticing that she was the wife of someone great and the mother of someone great. Then and there, I decided that, that was my goal in life- To be the wife of someone wonderful, awesome and great and to be the mother of someone wonderful, awesome and great!
    I heard a funny story of a mayor and his wife driving down the street in a limousine, when they happened to pass some construction workers, among which was an old boyfriend of the wife’s. The mayor said, “See, Honey, if you would have married him, you would be a poor construction workers’ wife”. Then the wife replied, “If I would have married Him, HE would be Mayor”.

    • Rachel DeMille March 19, 2011 at 6:24 am - Reply

      Thanks, Latesha. It’s great to connect with you here; memories of our early years are dear to me.

      I’ve heard that funny story. I really believe in the power of a spouse to impact his or her wife/husband for good, and the power of God to use us to accomplish things for his purposes. I can’t imagine being married to anyone but my dear Oliver, or what I (or he) would be if we hadn’t walked this path together!

  4. Yannette April 4, 2011 at 4:04 pm - Reply

    I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve linked this essay for all my friends and sisters to read. It is perfect. Thank you.

    • Rachel DeMille April 4, 2011 at 4:09 pm - Reply

      Not at all, Yannette. I hope you’ll invite them to post their comments here so they can be a part of the discussion….

      xoxo rd

  5. Debra E. November 7, 2011 at 3:27 am - Reply

    What a powerful essay. Rachel you have so eloquently expressed the feelings of many of us. Thank you.

  6. Michelle November 26, 2011 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    Rachel, I love this article. I am inspired to learn more about Abigail Adams. Would you recommend a good book? Thanks!

    • Rachel DeMille November 26, 2011 at 1:34 pm - Reply

      The letters of John and Abigail Adams are published, are an absolute treasure!

  7. Sheila May 28, 2014 at 8:05 am - Reply

    By all accounts, Abigail was a horrendous parent, as was her husband. The child was NOT ambassador to Russia, but *secretary* to the ambassador to Russia. That whole story is a historical urban legend. Google it.

    • Rachel DeMille May 28, 2014 at 4:41 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Sheila; I did:

      Regarding the Adams’ parenting: I’m not sure what “accounts” you refer to, but my perfunctory search found many accounts to the contrary, and none to corroborate your position. Of course, this was not exhaustive research on my part, and history being what it is, you may well be right. I simply did not find evidence of it.

      You had me worried! Thanks for keeping me on my toes.


  8. Elizabeth May 28, 2014 at 5:08 pm - Reply

    In one of the letters Abigale Adams wrote to her husband said; “(In her letter of March 13, 1776) “[I]n the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable 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. 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.” This looks like “radical feminism” to me especially in the 1700’s.

  9. Latesha Stephens May 30, 2014 at 1:28 pm - Reply

    @Elizabeth- I appreciate your beautiful quote from Abigail Adams. I think that she was an amazing and strong woman. But I wish the term ‘Feminist’ could be changed, as it has never in my opinion, had anything to do with being feminine. Feminine and woman do not always go hand in hand, in my understanding. Feminine, as I understand it, is more of a character trait that a woman can obtain if she practices it. In the definition of feminine I found, it stated that to be feminine is= having qualities traditionally ascribed to women, as sensitivity or gentleness. I do not see much sensitivity or gentleness in woman commonly associated with being ‘Feminist’.
    I further believe that there should be two different words and definitions for woman who pursue feminist ideas. One word would be for feminine woman who understand that all men and woman are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, but also understand that men and woman have different callings, duties and functions and seek to compliment each other. The other word would be for women who ignore their role as women and desire to become, in most if not all ways, a man.
    I see Abigail Adams as being in the first category.
    Did any of that make sense? I have never been very good at explaining my thoughts. What do you think?

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