Jefferson's Views on Women

by Thomas O. Jewett

Thomas Jefferson stands as an infallible oracle to today's society. Both ends of the political spectrum quote him as evidence for their causes. While Jefferson's words seem to have credence for contemporary events, it must be remembered that he wrote them for the eighteenth century.

As Joseph Ellis so eloquently stated in his book the American Sphinx, "Lifting Jefferson out of that context and bringing him into the present is like trying to plant cut flowers." (Ellis, 1997, P.292). It is with some trepidation, therefore, that the author explores Jefferson's views concerning women. His opinions should not be gauged by today's standards, but by that of his time, geography, and class.

Jefferson lived, chronologically, midway between the Age of Reason with its trust in science, and the Romantic Era with its uninhibited emotionalism. Both, in uneasy coexistence, can be seen in Jefferson's character and views. As a romantic he enjoyed, especially in his youth, a sentimental emotional life. But, he also recognized that this romantic side to his nature threatened to take charge the pure reason of the mind he valued so highly.

As a young man, Jefferson rejected the Stoic ideal of disdain for human passion, desire, and enjoyment of things usually accounted good in this world...Jefferson found himself drawn to the Epicurean ethic, which, while admitting the reality and the necessity of the passions, sought to control them by the exercise of reason. The passions, constituted the true life of man, they must be kept under tight rein in order to attain the serenity, tranquillity, happiness, and right conduct sought by every man. (Miller, 1995, P.178).

Thomas Jefferson and his views on womenThomas Jefferson

Jefferson was especially concerned lest reason lose control, especially when it came to sexual passion. He attempted to consign women to a more rarefied and less contentious domain. In his Notes on Virginia, he made it clear that he felt love was far more a spiritual relationship than the gratification of carnal appetite (Miller, 1995, P. 188). Jefferson preferred to meet his lovers in the rarefied region of the mind rather than the physical world of the bedchamber (Ellis, 1997, P. 97). He consummated his relations at a level where the realities of intimacy were sublimed to safer regions of the mind. His primary goal was harmony between the mind and the heart, however there were times when his romanticism won out over reason.

He came to prize domestic felicity above any other. "Nothing can preserve affections uninterrupted but a firm resolution never to differ in will." (As cited in Nock, 1966, P. 58). Jefferson felt the burden of attaining such domestic bliss rested mainly on the woman, whose whole life ought to revolve around the husband, hearth, and children. His wife, he decided must be intelligent, talented, a good companion, and, a good homemaker.

In Jefferson's aristocratic Virginia, wives did not normally show a great deal of independence in thought. They were taught to accept the domination of their husbands. Plantation wives played an important, though supporting role in their husbands' business and political life, as hostess and social companion. How she dressed was a reflection of her husband's wealth so her clothing was expected to be suitably stylish and tasteful. Jefferson was in line with his contemporaries. He wrote to his daughter concerning dress:

A lady who has been seen as a sloven or slut in the morning will never efface the impression she has made, with all dress and pageantry she can afterwards involve herself in...I hope therefore, the moment you rise from bed, your first work will be to dress yourself in such style as that you may be seen by any gentleman without his being able to discover a pin amiss. (As cited in Padover, 1956, p. 16).

Jefferson also had strong feelings about women's hygiene. He was deeply offended by a lack of feminine cleanliness. "Nothing is so disgusting to our sex as want of cleanliness and delicacy in yours." (As cited in Nock, 1966, p. 59). Jack McLaughlin has suggested that he may well have been one those men whose compulsive and controlled personalities lead them to associate women's sexuality with filth.

Men, who hold this view often sublimate their disgust for physical sexuality by idealizing love as pure, and romantic. Jefferson admired women who were soft, passive, modest, and chaste, and who possessed such artistic talents as made them ornaments of a masculine world. As mothers and housekeepers they were domestic workhorses, but as sexual objects they must be delicate and beautiful, living works of art existing in an imaginative world of romantic love. This view of women reduces them to either ladies or sluts. (McLaughlin, 1988, p. 195).

Like most men of his age, Jefferson believed women's interests were to be confined chiefly to housekeeping and childbearing. (In ten years of marriages, he fathered six children, several at times when his wife's health should have precluded pregnancy. But Jefferson was unwilling as any male of his class to deny himself the pleasures of the marital bed because of his wife's poor health.) The two sexes had separate functions to which they were genetically adapted and should not mix. In particular, he thought women should keep out of politics.

Since women were not called upon even to discuss politics, Jefferson saw no reason to give them the vote. Enfranchised women might take it into their heads to run for office. "The appointment of a woman to office is an innovation for which the public is not prepared, nor I." (As cited in Miller, 1995, p. 184).

If the republican principle were carried out as far as it would go "there would yet be excluded from their deliberations:

  1. * infants, until arrived at years of discretion.
  2. * (2) Women, who to prevent depravation of morals and ambiguity of issue, could not mix promiscuously in the public meetings of men.
  3. * (3) Slaves." (As cited in Nock, 1966, p. 57).

Women thus excluded from public affairs, no effort need be made to educate them in any subjects which did not seem likely to be useful in their place as wives and mothers. Their duties being so incomplex, and the grasp of it needing so little brains, the education of women was correspondingly simple. He wished to encourage the development of the artistic talents of women and generally those aspects that made them worthy companions for their husbands and satisfactory tutors of their children.

Jefferson found that a great obstacle to good education for women was their inordinate passion for novels. In those who seek this release for the pent desire for romance. "the result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment and disgust towards all real business of life." "For a like reason, much poetry should not be indulged. Some is useful for forming taste and style." French is indispensable. Music is "invalu- able where a person has an ear." Drawing is an innocent and engaging amusement, often useful and "a qualification not to be neglected in one who is to become a mother and instructor." Dancing is a healthy and elegant exercise, a specific against social awkwardness, but an accomplishment of short use, "for the French rule is wise, that no lady dances after marriage...gestation and nursing leaving little time to married lady when this exercise can be either safe or innocent." (Nock, 1966, p. 58).

Jefferson had worked on a plan for white, male universal education for nearly fifty years, yet at the age of seventy, he stated that "a plan for female education has never been a subject of systematic contemplation with me. It has occupied my attention so far as only the education of my own daughters occasionally required." (As cited in Padover, 1956, p. 297). His daughters were instructed "to play the harpsichord, to draw, to dance, to read and talk French and such things as will make you worthy of the love of your friends..." (Elllis, 1997, p. 92). Also the more mundane tasks of cooking, cleaning, and needlework were taught.

To accomplish this curriculum Jefferson devised a daily routine for his oldest daughter:

From 8 to 10 o'clock practice music. From 10 to 1 dance one day and draw another. From 1 to 2 draw on the day you dance, and write a letter the next day. From 2 to 4 read French. From 4 to 5 exercise yourself in music. From 5 till bedtime read English, write etc. (As cited in Peterson, 1970, p 268).

He was continually anxious about his daughter not having enough to do: "a mind always employed is always happy. This is the true secret, the grand recipe for felicity. The idle are the only wretched." (As cited in Nock, 1966, p. 60). Above all women should be taught to be industrious, for as he observed "no laborious person was ever yet hysterical." (As cited in Miller, 1995, p. 182).

This entire regime of study was to ready his daughters for marriage and to serve their husbands. He felt strongly that women had a single purpose in life, marriage and subordination to a husband. To his oldest daughter, at her nuptials, he wrote: "The happiness of your life now depends on the continuing to please a single person. To this all other objects must be secondary, even your love for me." (As cited in Nock, 1996, p. 58).

Women should please the particular male in their life who stood for them to the world, be it father, brother, or husband. All her relations to society would be attentively tended. "It is an honourable circumstance for man that the first moment he is at his ease, he allots the internal employments to his female partner and takes the external on himself." (As cited in Nock, 1996, p. 57). Women were consigned to domestic duties while men were tasked food, shelter, protection, public debate, and politics. He went so far, in 1816, to declare that for men and women to cross this division and mix promiscuously in public meetings would produce "deprivation of maorals and ambiguity of issue." (As cited in Miller, 1995, p. 182).

One can imagine his discomfort when he became an envoy to France. There he met for the first time intelligent and emancipated women who presided over the Parisian salons. He was never at ease in this society. And, was profoundly disturbed by the fact that these women stepped out of their role as housewives and mothers and extended their influence over politics. He wrote to Washington:

The manners of the nation allow them to visit, alone, all persons in office, to solicit the affairs of the husband, family, or friends, and their solicitations bid defiance to laws and regulation...(Few Americans) can possibly understand the desperate state which things are reduced in this country from the omnipotence of an influence which, fortunately for the happiness of the sex itself, does not endeavor to extend itself in our country beyond the domestic line. (As cited in Ellis, 1997, pp. 90-91).

From the influence of women upon politics he appended every evil and that their meddling in matters of state portend the downfall of the French monarchy and that France would become a matriarchy.

The tender breasts of ladies were not formed for political convulsions and the French ladies miscalculate much their own happiness when they wander the true field of their influence into that of politicks. (As cited in Miller, 1995, p. 180).

He contrasted American women by lauding them as they "who have the good sense to value domestic happiness above all other...Our good ladies, I trust, have been too wise to wrinkle their foreheads with politics. They are contented to soothe and calm the minds of their husbands returning from political debate...It is a comparison of Amazons to Angels." (As cited in Ellis, 1997, p. 91).

The one woman who Jefferson perhaps saw as an equal and put a dent in his beliefs was Abigail Adams. She provided him with an example of a wife who was a full partner with her husband. "A woman capable of conversation that moved naturally from questions of parental responsibility to matters of European statecraft." (Ellis, 1997, p. 91). Their correspondence was that of peers. He asked her advise on a number of issues ranging from child rearing to politics.

None the less, her example was not stereotyped by Jefferson. He, like his eighteenth century, male, aristocratic, contemporaries saw women in a tightly regimented role. For them to break out of these imposed boundaries was repugnant. "In the United States, during Jefferson's presidency, a female politician was said to be only slightly less disgusting than a female infidel." (Miller, 1995, p. 181).

So, Jefferson was not atypical in his views on women. But, we have come to expect more from our oracle. It is difficult to understand the dichotomy of an individual who believed in supreme personal liberty and the equal creation of all men, to put such boundaries on women. (The same ambivalence can be seen in Jefferson's writings and actions toward slavery.) Perhaps the cause was the diametric philosophies of reason and romanticism which he embraced. Perhaps, his view of women was a bit skewed by his own personality, for here was a man whose most sensual written statements were aimed at beautiful buildings and statues. Or, perhaps he was a little bitter, for as Albert Nock suggests, "Mr. Jefferson was not the type that women set their cap for." (Nock, 1996, p. 55).


Ellis, Joseph J. (1997). American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

McLaughlin, Jack. (1988). Jefferson And Monticello, New York: Henry Holt And Company.

Miller, John Chester. (1995). The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Nock, Albert Jay. (1966). Jefferson, New York: Hill and Wang.

Padover, Saul K. (1956). A Jefferson Profile, New York: The John Day Company.

Peterson, Merrill D. (1970). Thomas Jefferson And The New Nation, New York: Oxford University Press.