Mr. Jefferson’s Women
Mr. Jefferson’s Women, as its title implies, examines Thomas Jefferson’s attitude toward women through his relationships with the significant females in his life: Rebecca Burwell, who turned down his proposal of marriage; Elizabeth Moore Walker, a friend’s wife whom Jefferson allegedly tried to seduce; Martha, whom he married; Maria Cosway, whose company Jefferson enjoyed after Martha’s premature death; and Sally Hemings, his slave and his mistress. What Kukla emerges with is a portrait of a man who held thoroughly unenlightened and conventional attitudes about women, and who feared their role in public life. Only Abigail Adams, once a close friend until the two fell out over politics, seems to have come close to softening Jefferson’s views.
As this is apparently the first study of its kind, one wishes that Kukla might have spent more time developing his topic (there are only 187 pages of discussion, with the rest being devoted to appendixes and notes). Still, Mr. Jefferson’s Women makes for interesting reading about a great man’s shortsightedness in a particular area, reminding us yet again how often reality falls short of ideals.