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A pioneering study of Thomas Jefferson’s relationships with women in his personal life and in American society and politics.
The author of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote the words “all men are created equal,” was surprisingly hostile toward women. In eight chapters based on fresh research in little-used sources, Jon Kukla offers the first comprehensive study of Jefferson and women since the controversies of his presidency.
Educated with other boys at a neighborhood boarding school, young Jefferson learned early that homemaking was the realm of his mother and six sisters. From adolescence through maturity, his views about domesticity scarcely wavered, while his discomfort around women brought a succession of embarrassments as he sought to control his emotions. After Rebecca Burwell declined his awkward proposal of marriage, Jefferson reacted first with despondence, then with predatory misogyny, and finally with the attempted seduction of Elizabeth Moore Walker, the wife of a boyhood friend. His marriage at twenty-nine to Martha Wayles Skelton brought a decade of genuine happiness, but ended in despair with her death from complications of childbirth. In Paris a few years later, Maria Cosway rekindled his capacity for romantic friendship but ultimately disappointed his hopes. Against the background of these relationships, Kukla offers a fresh and cogent account of Jefferson’s liaison with Sally Hemings.
Jefferson’s individual relationships with these women are examined in depth in five chapters. Abigail Adams, the women of Paris, and the wife of a British ambassador figure in the first of two closing chapters that examine Jefferson’s attitudes toward women in public life. In the last chapter, Kukla draws connections between Jefferson’s life experiences and his role in defining the subordination of women in law, culture, and education during and after the American Revolution.