The circumscribed paths of women’s lives emerge from a deeply researched history.
Kerrison (History/Villanova Univ.; Claiming the Pen: Women and Intellectual Life in the Early American South, 2005) illuminates women’s experiences in early America through the lives of Thomas Jefferson’s three daughters: Martha and Maria, his children by his wife, and Harriet Hemings, the offspring—one of four surviving children—of his relationship with the slave Sally Hemings. As the author acknowledges, Jefferson’s long affair with Hemings has been well-documented by Annette Gordon-Reed and Monticello historian Lucia Stanton. Kerrison draws from those works as well as abundant historical and archival sources to portray “the benefits and perils” of each daughter’s experiences. Jefferson’s enlightened ideas about education extended only to men. He saw little use in educating females, who were not permitted entrance to the University of Virginia, which he founded. After her mother died, Martha accompanied Jefferson to Paris, attended a convent school, learned to speak French fluently, and absorbed France’s antipathy to slavery. Still, like her sister, she was expected to embrace “the life of wife, mother, and plantation mistress”—including overseeing slaves—tasks that proved, “after Paris, a trial so arduous as to require heroism to be endured.” While Martha was in France, the younger Maria was left behind with relatives; “her peripatetic childhood” was marked “by only brief periods of loving stability that came to sudden unannounced ends.” Even after Jefferson returned to America, his political obligations kept him away from the family’s home. Kerrison discovered more sources to document Martha’s life than Maria’s: a talented amateur pianist, Maria died in childbirth at 25, barely a memory for her surviving son. Martha lived into her 60s, keeper of family papers. But the author’s greatest challenge was finding evidence of Harriet’s life, both at Monticello and later, when she left Virginia and, passing as white, probably lived the rest of her life in Washington, D.C. Despite Kerrison’s dogged and thoroughly detailed detective work, Harriet’s life remains a mystery.
An insightful contribution to women’s history.