• Oct 4, 2018

A selection from our Student Matinee Educational Guide: The Disappearing Women

By Laura A. Brueckner, Ph.D.

If you’re like the character Karen in the play, Thomas and Sally, you’ve never heard of Sally Hemings - or her mother, Betty. That’s really no surprise. In the 1700s, the vast majority of women were prevented from doing the kinds of things that would make them known to anyone past their lifetimes. Most never published any writing, or had careers to make them famous; they were required to stay at home, doing or overseeing housework and raising numerous children (there was no birth control, so women were pregnant much of their adult lives). Also, thanks to a law called coverture, a woman’s right to do any legal or financial business for herself vanished one she was married; there would be no official record of what she had worked for and wanted economically. Finally, since hiring a painter to have a portrait done was very expensive (and there were no cameras), only the wealthy could afford to have images of themselves made that would survive their deaths. Some women simply didn’t ever sit for a portrait - there is no existing portrait of Martha Jefferson, Thomas’ wife, although they probably could have afforded one. 

Women who were enslaved, like Betty and Sally Hemings, had even fewer options. They were generally prevented from reading and writing at all, their daily tasks almost never took them outside the walls of the plantation where they lived (until they were sold or deeded away). And their white owners almost certainly didn’t think it worth the cost to have their portraits painted. In this century, most enslaved women's faces, names, and voices simply disappeared into history. 

Then how do we know anything at all about the female characters in this play? In the case of white women who married famous men, such as Martha Jefferson and Abigail Adams, we have their private letters - tons of them - to their husbands, friends, mothers, sisters, and people they admired. Historians started collecting and examining their letters because of their relationships to their husbands. From letters, we learn that Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson were more or less best friends, wrote letters constantly and even went shopping for each other; we also learn that Abigail Adams was agitating for the legal rights of women over 140 years before the 19th Amendment ensured they could vote. 

As enslaved women, though, information about Betty and Sally Hemings is much rarer, and it comes from more sobering sources: what others wrote and said about them, and the infernal record-keeping of slavery. 

For example, their reputation as having been strikingly beautiful derives only from brief descriptions of men who either worked at or visited Monticello, and saw them there - Betty was called a “bright mulatto” (when any comparison to being bright or white was thought a compliment); enslaved Monticello blacksmith Isaac Granger Jefferson recalled that Sally was “mighty near white . . . very handsome, long straight hair down her back.” There were white men who emphasized Sally’ Blackness when describing her, including the notorious James Callender who tried to demolish Thomas Jefferson’s reputation in 1802 by outing Jefferson’s sexual involvement with Sally in the newspapers. Even then, when he was actively trying to do damage, he called Sally an “African Venus,” confirming her beauty. 

Information about Betty’s and Sally’s interpersonal relationships is even less available - we have to draw inferences from very small pieces of information. One letter from a Paris schoolmate of Patsy and Polly gives us a glimpse at the kind of relationship the girls had with Sally, when the girl asks them to say hello to “Mlle." Sally for her. The title “Mlle.” (short for “Mademoiselle”) was only used among the upper classes for each other, so the fact that this girl attached it to Sally’s name indicates that she thought of the beautiful half-sister of her school chums as part of her own social class; her saying “hello” at all indicates she thought of Sally as a friend. 

Before beginning to consider these women privileged, however, we need to balance their beauty and access to upper-class white life with the stark, ugly realities of slavery, as reflected in the legal and financial documents concerning them. For example, legal documents show that Betty Hemings was given as property to a man’s daughter when she got married, for the daughter to take to her new home forty miles away; Betty was 11 years old. Letters tell us that when Sally was 14, her owner’s family took her away from her home in Virginia (and her mother and four brothers and sisters), and ordered her sent on a ship to Europe as a nanny to her owner’s eight-year-old daughter. As far as she knew, she would never see her family again. She had no say in the matter. 

We also know from household records that both Betty and Sally worked in the houses of their respective owners, not in the fields or factories. Historian Annette Gordon-Reed mentions, however, that working in the house may not have been preferable to working outside - field work is harder physically, but being inside the house subjected enslaved people to far more scrutiny, criticism, and control every waking moment of their lives - not to mention, for some women, the sexual attention of their male masters. No form of slavery was “easier” or “better.”

Of course, some of what we know about Betty and Sally derives from information that was discovered much later. Sally Hemings’ son Madison was interviewed for his memoirs in 1873, almost 40 years after Sally had died; in them, he asserts plainly that Sally became pregnant by Thomas while they were in Paris, that he made her "a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years,” and that it was because of this promise that she agreed to return with him to Virginia. Further, a study of the DNA of Hemings descendants published in 1998 convinced most modern historians that Jefferson did indeed father Sally’s children. And as recently as this February, archaeologists uncovered the room they believe Sally Hemings lived in at Monticello - only steps away from Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom, when no other enslaved person had quarters even remotely that close to him. 

Finally, we sometimes must examine what’s not there. Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, where he kept his obsessively comprehensive records of all economic activity at Monticello, contains detailed lists of the purchase prices, food and clothing rations, and births for all of the over 600 enslaved people he owned over time. Jefferson noted every single time an enslaved woman gave birth on the plantation, along with the children’s names, and the name of children’s father - except for Sally Hemings. In her case, the name of the children’s father is left blank. Why? There are numerous entries in Jefferson’s Farm Book and mentions in his in letters about Sally’s siblings, Robert, James, Critta, Peter, and Thenia - what they were doing and where they were going. But virtually no similar mentions of Sally exist. For some historians, these gaps in the records of a man who apparently wrote down anything and everything else point to an intentional silence. 

Ultimately, the play Thomas and Sally is an exploration of what these women’s lives, and the lives of those around them, might have been like - taking into account what we do know, and attempting to imagine the rest. We hope this show gets you thinking!