JEFFERSON AND EQUAL RIGHTS FOR WOMEN
> how would jefferson feel about the equality that women experience now? It seems safe to say that Jefferson would feel quite comfortable with the equality that women experience today, GIVEN THE SOCIAL CONDITIONS OF TODAY. The point is, he always viewed women as well as everyone else, even including slaves, as persons entitled to natural rights. But the exercise of anyone's natural rights is necessarily affected by the social conditions under which that person lives. The women of Jefferson's time, just like the children of every time, were in a dependent situation. That was the way society functioned in that day. Notice in the passage below from his writings, he recognizes the way the social condition of women prevented them from acting independently, just as the social condition of slaves prevented them from doing so. He was opposed to the institution of slavery, but the institution must go before the social conditions which the institution fostered would change, and that kind of change is a very complicated process. "Were our State a pure democracy, in which all its inhabitants should meet together to transact all their business, there would yet be excluded from their deliberations, 1. Infants, until arrived at years of discretion. 2. Women, who, to prevent depravation of morals and ambiguity of issue, could not mix promiscuously in the public meetings of men. 3. Slaves, from whom the unfortunate state of things with us takes away the rights of will and of property. Those then who have no will could be permitted to exercise none in the popular assembly; and of course, could delegate none to an agent in a representative assembly. The business, in the first case, would be done by qualified citizens only." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:71 But Jefferson fully recognized that society was in a state of constant change. He thought his society treated women much better than the barbarous socities that preceded it treated them, as he expresses in this passage: "With [every barbarous people], force is law. The stronger sex imposes on the weaker. It is civilization alone which replaces women in the enjoyment of their natural equality, that first teaches us to subdue the selfish passions, and to respect those rights in others which we value in ourselves." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.VI, 1782. ME 2:84 Moreover, Jefferson made allowances for the CONTINUED advances in society, as expressed in this passage: "When I contemplate the immense advances in science and discoveries in the arts which have been made within the period of my life, I look forward with confidence to equal advances by the present generation, and have no doubt they will consequently be as much wiser than we have been as we than our fathers were, and they than the burners of witches." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, 1818. ME 15:164 The problem is, many people fault Jefferson for not fighting back then for a society just like ours today. That is called "presentism," and tries to impose the same values and standards on people in the past that we have today. It is a very unsophisticated way of looking at the development of society.
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