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Writing Jefferson’s Daughters: A Work of Passion, Persistence, Collaboration and Conviction

Catherine Kerrison’s research for her book involved the work of a number of committed graduate students

Book cover for Jefferson's Daughters showing the backs of three women in 18th century dress

VILLANOVA, Pa. – Villanova University Associate Professor of History Catherine Kerrison’s, PhD, new book, Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America, explores enduring issues of race and gender through the stories of Thomas Jefferson’s daughters’ divergent life experiences.

“It’s important to look at this period to better understand why things are the way they are today for different groups of people,” says Dr. Kerrison in an article in the College of Arts and Sciences newsroom. “These three women lived fascinating lives. In this book, I wanted to share their stories and experiences from 200 years ago to encourage conversations about what we’re still experiencing today.”

Dr. Kerrison’s book tells the stories of Martha and Maria Jefferson and Harriet Hemings. Martha and Maria were the daughters of Jefferson's marriage, and grew up in both Virginia and Paris, where their father served as America’s ambassador to France. Harriet was Jefferson’s daughter from a longstanding relationship he maintained with his slave Sally Hemings.

Harriet Hemings was born into slavery, but at age 21, she boarded a stagecoach bound for Washington, D.C. Jefferson had given her $50 for her travel expenses. Thereafter, passing as a freeborn white person, Harriet disappeared from the historical record.

“So how did we lose a president’s daughter?” Dr. Kerrison asks in a piece she wrote for The Washington Post. “Given America’s obsession with the Founding Fathers, with the children of the Revolution and their descendants, why did Jefferson’s child disappear? As it turns out, America has an even greater obsession with race, so that not even Harriet Hemings’s lineage as a president’s daughter was sufficient to convey the benefits of freedom. Instead, her birth into slavery marked her as black and drove her decision to erase her family history.”

Dr. Kerrison, who is also the graduate and academic director for the College’s Gender and Women’s Studies program, says Jefferson's Daughters demonstrates that the work of GWS is not limited, in scholarship or classes, to topics solely about women.

“The book shows that ideas about femininity, masculinity, authority and race have been inseparable in the American experience,” she says. “In doing so, it broadens our vision considerably from the stories of three individual women to new ways of thinking about what we thought we knew about Jefferson and the significance of the founding period itself.”

Dr. Kerrison’s painstaking research for the book spanned several years and involved the work of a number of committed graduate students.

"We are very fortunate in the history department to have a cadre of graduate students who bring both passion and professionalism to their work as research assistants."

“We are very fortunate in the history department to have a cadre of graduate students who bring both passion and professionalism to their work as research assistants,” Dr. Kerrison notes. “A couple of students helped with translations of letters to Martha Jefferson Randolph by her French schoolmates. Another worked with me on the 1850 and 1860 census records for the District of Columbia, as I searched for clues in naming patterns to try to identify the family of Harriet Hemings. Another provided crucial checks of my footnotes and sources. As I produced each chapter, the graduate students gave me valuable feedback from their unique vantage points as both historians and general readers.”

Jefferson’s Daughters, which earned positive reviews by The New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly, among others, was very much a collaborative effort among Dr. Kerrison, her graduate assistants, colleagues and editors.

“My generous colleagues in my department have listened to me talk for years about Jefferson's daughters, so that they know Martha, Maria and Harriet almost as well as I do! Their comments on various iterations of the book helped sharpen my thinking,” she notes. “I've also developed wonderful working relationships with scholars who study race and gender at conferences and while holding fellowships. There's nothing so invigorating as talking about ideas with smart people who inspire you to do your best work!”

That support and the utter conviction that her work was critical for society today drove Dr. Kerrison through the times when research or writing became difficult.

“The most important thing is to have a passion for your subjects, never forgetting that they were human beings who lived and breathed as we do, and whose lives weren't fated by unseen historical ‘forces,’ but rather the result of a series of choices they made,” Dr. Kerrison says. “Sometimes it's hard to imagine, when you're immersed in the archives or struggling with writer's block, that the book will ever be done, much less well received. So it's a marvelous feeling to hold the finished copy in your hands for the first time and to read the initial reviews that suggest people are responding favorably to it! But more than anything, I hope this book helps readers to understand how the barriers that separate us by race and gender were constructed, and to resolve to foster justice by tearing them down.”

About Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Since its founding in 1842, Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has cultivated knowledge, understanding and intellectual courage for a purposeful life in a challenged and changing world. With 39 majors across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, it is the oldest and largest of Villanova’s colleges, serving more than 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students each year. The College is committed to a teacher-scholar model, offering outstanding undergraduate and graduate research opportunities and a rigorous core curriculum that prepares students to become critical thinkers, strong communicators and ethical leaders with a truly global perspective.