The French Education of Martha Jefferson Randolph

Culture & Identity  •  Fellowships  •  History

<p>Catherine Kerrison>

Catherine Kerrison>

Martha Jefferson lived in Paris with her father while he served as U.S. Minister to France. Jefferson enrolled her at Abbaye Royale de Panthemont (left) where an abbess shaped Martha’s ideas of female education.

The four years the young Martha Jefferson spent in a French convent school were profoundly formative of her outlook on female education. Years 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.

VFH Fellow Catherine Kerrison examined these various influences – French, Catholic, and aristocratic, on the one hand, and American, Protestant, and republican, on the other – and how they 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. Of course, Martha married and lived in a republic that little resembled her glittering life in Paris. Yet, here she created a program of education for her daughters that reveals a clear imprint of those years.

Kerrison argues Martha’s French education significantly influenced her ideas about female education, in part because of the curriculum, but also because of the example of Abbess Marie-Catherine Béthisy de Mézières and the other elite women in French society whose learning, wit, and conversation presented her with a model of womanhood that showcased female learning. Further, Kerrison contends, the works of Madame Genlis, tutor of Louis-Phillipe, future king of France, furnished a blueprint for Martha Jefferson Randolph’s life in rural Virginia, in her promotion of the rational capacity of women, and the benefits of home education for mother and child alike.

Catherine Kerrison
Catherine Kerrison

Catherine Kerrison is an associate professor of history at Villanova University, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in colonial and Revolutionary America, American women’s history, the history of sexuality in America, race and gender at Monticello, and historical methodology. She is the author of Claiming the Pen: Women and Intellectual Life in the Early American South (2006), which won the Outstanding Book Award from the History of Education Society, and the recipient of numerous fellowships, including the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Association of American University Women, and the International Center for Jefferson Studies. She received her graduate degrees from the College of William and Mary.