Most Americans could tell you who George Washington’s wife was. (Martha, right?) Most Americans probably couldn’t tell you who Thomas Jefferson’s wife was. (It was also Martha, but a different one of course). They might be able to tell you, however, who Thomas Jefferson’s alleged concubine was, as she has been in the news a lot lately. (His slave, Sally Hemings). But actually there were a lot of women in Jefferson’s life–or should we say a lot of women had Jefferson in their lives.
Virginia Scharff tells us about the most important of them (including Martha and Sally) in her literary-yet-historical new book The Women Jefferson Loved (HarperCollins, 2010). The “Jefferson Women,” if it may be allowed, were an interesting bunch. They were sturdy, intelligent, and sometimes rich. Jefferson did love them, but he didn’t really think they were the equals of men. He was hardly alone in this opinion. Even children of the Enlightenment like Jefferson felt God had made women for a distinctly womenly role, and Jefferson felt it was his duty to make sure they played it. Suffice it to say that they were pregnant a lot and became very good at managing domestic life on a plantation. That, of course, is nothing to discount, for in so doing they created the domestic and emotional context within which Jefferson lived. They were an important part of his world, and he of theirs. Thanks to Virginia for bringing this world alive for us.