" Misogyny found throughout his writings", "surprisingly hostile toward women", " reacted with predatory misogyny"--these and other accusations are used to describe a new book about Jefferson and women. Misogyny is defined simply as " hatred of women" and a misogynist is "one who hates women". According to one reviewer (Booklist), the author of Mr. Jefferson's Women, Jon Kukla, " concludes that Jefferson's sentiments regarding women were a mixture of suspicion, contempt, and possessiveness". Of all the misunderstandings regarding TJ the claim that he didn't like women, no less hated them, is probably the most absurd. True, I have not read this book, but I took the quotes from book reviews and the book's opening chapter on Amazon.com designed to sell the book. They were repeated in an annoucement of a talk the author is giving at the International Center for Jefferson Studies. So, Kukla 's views are being promoted and given respect. Besides, I have heard these ideas before, including from one of the speakers at this summer's Jefferson Symposium (Jan Lewis), and have researched the subject myself and discovered similar opinions.
The evidence for the charge of misogyny seems to be drawn from TJ's brief uneventful, though lustful, encounters with a teenage girl whom the college student TJ hoped to marry someday (Rebecca Burwell), the wife of a close friend when he was single, and a married woman in Paris when he was a widower. Then there is the relationship with his slave Sally Hemings that despite the public's understanding is still essentially a mystery to historians. Despite DNA evidence that appears to support a sexual relationship bearing children, a debate continues whether such a relationship existed. (I won't address this further today.) The point is we know almost nothing about his treatment or attitude towards Sally.
What apparently is not emphasized by this author and some other scholars is TJ's relationship with his mother, sister, wife, two daughters, grand-daughters, and his many close, long-term friendships with women. (One of my favorite TJ books, The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson, is a great resource to understand these family relationships.) If anything, TJ loved women too much, and was occasionally led by his passion into embarrassing behavior. He was human and lived 83 years, and things happen. But his behavior towards women wasn't motivated by suspicion and contempt, rather by attraction and appreciation.
Indeed, I believe TJ loved women more than most men of his time did, and perhaps even more than most men do today. He had his own strong feminine side (there's even a book about that) that gave him a special empathy for females. Like most men, he experienced some discomfort and unease around women, although I wouldn't call it "his lifelong uneasiness around women" as Kukla does, just as most women experience some unease around men. Yet, despite living in an era when the sexes were often divided and separated, including for after-dinner conversation, the testimony from the women close to him all attest to his general comfort with women.
On the political front, Kukla asserts that Jefferson " did nothing whatever to improve the legal or social condition of women in American society" and was "convinced that women posed a serious menace to republican government". It hard to know what he was supposed to do to improve the condition of women per se when he devoted his life to helping create a new nation that would provide justice to all. Its particularly hard to understand these statements knowing that TJ was a strong supporter of educating women, as he personally demonstrated with his daughters and grand-daughters, and made the very radical proposal that girls be educated in public elementary schools. He even thought daughters should be able to inherit from their fathers at a time when it was still commonplace for the first son to inherit everything.
Since my interest is in what we can learn from 'our Jefferson', what is significant about this issue is how the combination of political correctness and presentism (applying present-day values to past events and people) permeates the accusation of misogyny against TJ. The result is a kind of retroactive political correctness. This is not uncommon as revisionist historians try to find something new to say. I also think it indicates the difficulty scholars and historians have in understanding the emotional and psychological motives for the actions of historic figures. I would add spiritual motives, as well.
If someone today criticizes a group (political, social, or ethnic) of men, or certainly one man, no one claims the person doesn't like men, or is disrespecting or degrading men. Yet, if someone criticizes a group of women or a particular woman, say Hillary Clinton, they risk being called anti-women. For one TJ example, does his criticism of French women using their sexual favors to influence the corrupt French royalty mean he thought women were a "menace" to liberty? Does it negate his respectful political and philosophical exchanges with other French women in the salons of Paris? His far harsher criticism of Kings, Federalists, and some British politicians didn't garner him accusations of being anti-men.
If someone is critical of a strong independent women, a current example might be Condoleezza Rice, does that mean that person "was never entirely comfortable with strong and independent women", as Kukla described TJ? In TJ's case he raised his oldest daughter (his other adult daughter died at 25) as a single parent and she became a strong, educated, independent, and highly respected woman. There has always been, and probably always will be, some unease between the sexes, but this can be seen as a creative tension that adds excitement to gender dynamics. There will always be some men who can't handle 'strong women', and some women who can't handle 'weak men'.
But nothing is gained by labeling men of good-will misogynists. It just increases the discomfort between the sexes. When the term or concept is used to smear the image of a great American we all lose something. True, men like TJ have often felt the need to protect women from the harsher realities of life, such as manual labor, military service, crime, and yes, even politics. They weren't motivated by malice, but by a protective love. This is not to negate the reality of men, individually and collectively, oppressing women inorder to assert their authority and power, or out of fear and insecurity. Indeed, its not always easy to know where to draw the line between these two types of men. But we must try.
Postscript: I encourage you to check out the Discussion Group (click the link in the sidebar) and read what Lisette has to say about the book. She makes several important points and provides some excellent quotes.
What do you think about TJ, political correctness, presentism, and today's gender issues? Let us know.
It is civilization alone which replaces women in the enjoyment of their natural equality. That first teaches us to subdue the selfish passions, and to respect those rights in others which we value in ourselves. 1782