OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Edith B. Gelles

Portrait of Edith B. Gelles

Edith B. Gelles is a senior scholar with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. For thirty years, her research has focused on women in colonial America and especially on Abigail Adams and her family. Most recently, Gelles is the editor of Abigail Adams: Letters (2016). She has also written two biographies of Adams: Portia: World of Abigail Adams (1992), which the American Historical Association's Herbert Feis Award, and Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage (2009), which was a finalist for the George Washington Prize. She has also edited and written an extensive introduction to The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks, 1733-1748 (2004), the earliest surviving corpus by a woman in the colonial western world. Gelles has taught American women's history as well as the survey of world history, and she has appeared on several television documentaries, including the recent cnn series on First Ladies.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Abigail Adams's letters are the best record we have of women's experience during the Revolutionary era of American history. Her letters are artistry; she had the gift of language and she told stories. Her own story is intriguing,important,and enduring as history of her time, as women's history and as biography. This lecture locates Abigail at the center of all three.
Abigail and John Adams were married for fifty-four years, but spent less than half that time living together as a family. This accounts for the profusion of letters that exist between them, as well as to and from other family members and friends. Their letters describe the dynamic era of the American Revolution and Early National periods of American history from both the home front and the state diplomatic fronts. Theirs is as well a personal story, written by the two most eloquent, endearing and authentic letter-writers of their time.
Absent the Adamses—Abigail and John, Louisa Catherine and John Quincy—from American history and the written chronicle of our country’s past would be altered. And poorer. Not just because all of the Adamses were great patriots who sacrificed in order to birth and grow and cultivate the country, but because they were writers. It is fair to say that had there been no Adams record, the history of the Revolution and early republic would be cast and framed differently.So the first point to make about the original Adamses is that they were writers. And their records encompass almost a century of American history, from the colonial period through the Civil War. Their letters contain information about statecraft, statesmen, ordinary people and personal issues. They are all brilliant writers. Their stories leave us with an indispensible history of their lives and times.