In celebration of Women’s History Month, today we’re highlighting a newly digitized collection of correspondence: a selection of Mary Newbury Adams letters from the Adams Family Papers found on our Digital Collections website.
Mary Newbury Adams was born in Peru, Indiana, in 1837 to Samuel and Mary Ann (Sergeant) Newbury. Her father strongly believed that both men and women should be educated, and so she attended Mrs. Willard’s Female Seminary in Troy, New York, where she graduated in 1857. A few months later, she married Austin Adams, a young lawyer who had graduated from Dartmouth College and Harvard. They moved to Dubuque, Iowa, where he eventually became a judge and was later elected to the Iowa Supreme Court and became chief justice there. The Adams had four children, Annabel (b. 1858), Eugene (b. 1861), Herbert (b. 1863), and Cecilia (b. 1865).
In an early letter, dated February 21, 1857, Mary writes from school to her fiancé Austin (“My dear one”). She suggests that his cousin might come to call on her while she is spending a Sunday with her aunt in Lansingburgh, New York, the following month. “I should be happy to see him,” she writes, adding with maidenly modesty that disappears in later letters, “although I should feel rather embarrassed I fear.”
Mary Newbury Adams was an avid student of science, history, philosophy, and poetry. In a letter to her sister Frances, she explains that she has been studying earlier that day about the formation of minerals. “I have little time to go to the library now,” she writes, “but I manage to keep one or two subjects on hand to think about – just to hang my thoughts on.” She adds, “I never was so driven in household matters” (November 9, 1869).
She established the Conversational Club of Dubuque in 1868 to promote access to education and ideas among women. Club meetings were held in the homes of members, and the topics discussed included education, local progress, political science and economy, mental and moral philosophy, the fine arts, political revolutions, belles lettres, ecclesiastical history, natural philosophy, and physical sciences.
Reflecting on the importance of the clubs to women’s lives, she writes to her sister, “Our literary clubs are getting along finely and their beneficial effects are already evident in society. When women have clubs for study then they will not be driven for amusement to make society a business. Any amusement made an occupation becomes dissipation. All dissipation ends in disease. No wonder our American women are so weak” (Letter to Frances Newbury Bagley, March 18, 1869).
In another letter, however, she attributes women’s weakness to a very different cause: the stress that comes from a very active life. Many women today can relate to Mary’s frustrations!
“I am not very well and then am driven by outside work – our literary club’s preparation for the opening of the Institute of Sciences and Arts. One doesn’t want to go and examine minerals when they know nothing of them[,] nor rocks when one can’t tell the difference between stratified and igneous rocks. Then the papers pile in and one keeps reading and taking notes & making scrapbooks so not to lose it before it is gone[.] Then the sewing, calls, church and one’s own body to care for. It’s no wonder American women are weak. They try to live ten lives in one and vote besides.” (Letter to Frances Newbury Bagley, April 26, 1868)
In 1866, Mrs. Adams became interested in women’s suffrage and did much to promote it through writing and speaking. She was a member of the Association for Advancement of Women, the American Historical Association, vice chairperson of Women’s Branch of the World’s Congress Auxiliary of the Colombian Exposition, and numerous literary societies. She was a founding member of the Northern Iowa Woman Suffrage Association.She wrote a letter home to her children on October 27, 1898, from the National Council of Women meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, describing her busy schedule, meeting with many people, old friends and new. She writes of her “level headed practical friend by my side Maria P. Peck.” Peck was another prominent Iowa woman from Davenport and founder of the Davenport Women’s Club (see entry: “PECK, Maria Purdy,” Woman’s Who’s Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914-1915. ed. by John William Leonard. New York, NY: American Commonwealth Company, 1914. pp. 633).
The Mary Adams letters give a peek into the day-to-day concerns of a prominent Iowa suffragist and intellectual during her most active period. Be sure to take a look at the letters in Digital Collections. You can also come in to Special Collections and take a look at the entire Adams Family Papers, MS-10. To see what is included in this collection, take a look at the finding aid.
And to find other important women you can research in Special Collections, check out our Women’s Collections subject guide.
We always look forward to seeing you in Special Collections–online or in person!