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Ownership

Abigail Adams: One of the First U.S. Women Investors

The history of investing is largely male—and largely white. In the stock market’s 200-year-old history, opportunities for women and people of color have been relatively few and far between. With our In the Shadow of Wall Street series, we celebrate the often forgotten folks, the people who (sometimes quietly) broke investing barriers and helped create a path for those who came after them.

Abigail Adams is often remembered as being the wife of Founding Father and later president, John Adams, but she accomplished much more than that. An early advocate for women's rights, female education, and the abolition of slavery, she also raised her four children and oversaw the family household and assets while her husband was away (and he was often away). Also notable: she was one of the earliest documented American women to invest.

Original Household CFO

Part of overseeing the family household was managing the family finances. While that might sound surprising, in the late 1700s it was common for men—away on political business—to have their wives manage everything at home, including money.

What is remarkable, though, is that she didn’t simply manage the money as John requested, as Woody Holton wrote in Abigail Adams, Bond Speculator. While he preferred her to use their extra cash to purchase farmland and manage tenants, Abigail was more interested in government bonds, securities sold by the government with the promise to repay the face value at a later date as well as periodic interest payments in the meantime. Her interest was likely in part protection against inflation—the price of federal securities was dropping slower than the value of paper money.

Investing, but not owning

Another remarkable thing: Abigail didn’t just invest her husband’s money, she invested her own—even though she didn’t technically have her own money in the eyes of the law. The law of the land, from before the American Revolution to as late as the 19th Century, was “coverture,” which stated that the husbands and wives were “one… and that one is the husband.” That meant that with marriage, women gave up their legal existence. Along with giving up the ability to sue and sign contracts, getting married also meant giving up the right to manage her property.

And yet, Abigail often referred to her “own pocket money” in letters. She took a portion of their money and called it her own—and she wasn’t the only woman to do so. With “money which I call mine,” she continued to purchase government and war bonds. Abigail knew that any tangible property she purchased would be her husband’s under the law, so purchasing bonds was a way for her to keep possession of it—not to mention, she was seeing a fantastic rate of return.

Investing and empowerment

So how did she do? Very well. Abigail ultimately saw a return of more than 400% from her investments. Of which, she used a decent amount to help out other women in need, including her own sister—help that likely would not have come from anywhere else in the community at that time. By empowering herself to take control of her finances and step into investing, Abigail was able to pay her returns forward to what mattered most to her—a pretty big reason we think everyone deserves to be an owner.

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