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The French Education of Martha Jefferson Randolph


The four years the young Martha Jefferson spent in a French convent school were profoundly formative of her outlook on female education, a subject that, by his own admission, Thomas Jefferson never spent much time contemplating. The years spent in the company of girls and women, devoted to the intellectual life, and supervised by an abbess who herself epitomized female intelligence, capacity, and energy, shaped her own ideas of the content and meaning of female education. Given such a model, as well as the rich pageantry that Roman Catholic liturgies presented to a Protestant Virginian, it is perhaps no wonder that Martha considered taking the veil and remaining forever. Of course, she did not; rather, she returned to Virginia, married, and learned household management. But she created a culture of learning at Monticello that in many ways looked like an Enlightenment model, emphasizing the cultivation of a rational, disciplined self. These various influences—French, Catholic, and aristocratic, on the one hand, and American, Protestant, and republican, on the other—converged in Randolph's thought to produce a unique view of female identity that fit neither the national paradigm of republican motherhood nor the regional pattern of southern slave mistress.