Thomas Jefferson: The Face of a Rapist

thomas jefferson

Americans look at Thomas Jefferson and see the one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence,  a statesman, a former president and one of the founding fathers,’ however; when I look at him, I see the face of a rapist. When Jefferson first met Sally Hemings, his slave through inheritance, she would have been no more than 15 or 16 years old.  It is rumoured that when she returned from France with him, that she was already pregnant with his child.

It was widely suggested within his own life time that he kept a light skinned negro concubine.  You see, Sally was 3/4 white and was described as a handsome light skinned woman with long dark hair in one of the few known descriptions of her.   Jefferson’s children through his wife Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, denied the relationship, however; Jefferson himself did not publicly answer the rumours.  The only slaves that Jefferson freed were the children of Hemings and he petitioned the government for two of her sons to stay in Virginia after emancipation. At the time, a slave had to leave the state within one year of manumission.

There are those that to this day vehemently deny that Jefferson fathered Sally’s six children despite the DNA evidence.  It is my belief that such denial is not based in the simple fact that it would prove that he was a lecher but that he chose a woman of color.

On the other side of the coin are those that believe the oral, written, and DNA evidence.   They often refer to the relationship as an illicit love affair, citing that Sally had the opportunity to stay in France where slavery was outlawed, rather than returning to the United States with Jefferson.  Assuming that Sally had chosen to stay in Paris, what would an uneducated 1/4 negresss do with no money to support herself and her unborn child?  She chose to return because Jefferson gave his word that he would free her children and offer her a life of comfort relative to the other slaves at Monticello.

Jefferson may have felt love for Sally but how can we possibly term this relationship a love affair?  Once they returned to the US, he had the power to have her flogged, or even put to death.  At anytime he could have sold her children away from her.  For a relationship based in love to exist, both parties must be equal and due to the power differential between Jefferson and Hemings what occurred cannot be described as anything other than rape.  Some have even had the nerve to refer to Hemings as the first Black first lady of the United States as a way of further legitimizing the relationship between the two, however; to sanitize it and call it anything other than rape, is to once again violate her spirit.

Jefferson was not the first or last White man to sneak into the slave cabins.  One of the reasons White women argued so vehemently for the abolition of slavery, was to save the poor overwhelmed White man from the negro temptress.  It was not uncommon to see near white or light skinned children resembling the master working on the plantation.  The Black woman was and still is blamed for her own rape.  Victim blaming began with women of color and continues to this day.

No matter how many times Black women have angrily contested the use of the term love affair between Hemings and Jefferson, it continues to be the most common descriptor by those who believe the DNA evidence.  This assumes that Hemings actually had the power to deny Jefferson sexual access, or that Jefferson had a right to Sally’s body for the purposes of sexual gratification.  Both suppositions are erroneous.  Due to the patriarchal nature of gender relations, many men believe that they exist with the right to access  women’s bodies and that is specifically grounded in the power imbalance between the genders.  If we can acknowledge in a modern context that a power imbalance exists between men and women, how much more likely is it that this same imbalance existed between Jefferson and Hemings?

Some may look back at Jefferson and simply claim that he was a man of his time and that he should not be judged outside of historical context, however; in my mind a rapist is a rapist.   What he did at the time may not have been considered a violation due to current race and gender relations, however; today we can correctly name his actions.  Sally did not have the power to consent to his advances even if she was so inclined; this simple fact must be affirmed not only to honour the memory of Hemings but to change the social understanding that Black women’s bodies are unrapeable.  We are not naturally licentious whores who exist to fulfill the sexual fantasies of depraved racist men.  We are women that must be accorded the right to control over our bodies without punishment for any decisions we make in that regard.

Cross posted from Womanist Musings

Author: has written 38 posts for this blog.

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167 Responses

  1. Sheelzebub
    Sheelzebub August 20, 2009 at 10:58 am |

    ITA. The trope that this was a love affair irritates the fuck out of me. First, she a fifteen-year-old girl. Second, she was a slave–he owned her. There is no way she could have given meaningful consent. Going along with him doesn’t negate that–as you said, this was a young Black girl with no power or resources, whose owner could have sold her children (and her, if he so chose, while they were in the US). Even if she was “free” in Paris, if Jefferson or any other White man assaulted her, she would have very likely been dismissed and derided because of her race and gender.

  2. Marlene
    Marlene August 20, 2009 at 11:07 am |

    This post is brilliant! Thank you.

    While I certainly don’t dispute that Jefferson’s rape of Hemmings was just that, I think it might be fair to say that the consent in relationships of married couples of the time did not live up to our modern expectations either.

    Jefferson stands out because we know he was a rapist, but it is likely reasonable to suppose that most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were. Jefferson also stands out because there is more being ignored in his case.

  3. karak
    karak August 20, 2009 at 11:11 am |

    There is something very, very wrong with the power dynamic between slave owner and slave, older man and younger woman, wealth and poverty. Thomas Jefferson could have easily been Sally Hemings’ violent rapist, or rapist of coercion. It is most possible that she did not like him or love him, and had sex with him because the social power structure she lived in allowed nothing else. Sally Hemings’ was almost certainly a victim of rape.

    That said… I must take exception to one thing you’ve said: “For a relationship based in love to exist, both parties must be equal”. This honestly suggests that no woman before the 1900s ever felt lover/partner/sexual love. Women have been chained to their partners by law, by circumstances, by poverty, by culture, by abuse and even by rape for millenia–and many still are. Unequal partnerships are complex, but inequality does not mean there cannot be love (as well as fear and hate and resentment). Was there love on the part of Sally? I seriously doubt it.

    I’m sorry for derailing here–I’m not trying to debate your point about Thomas and Sally (which I think is a correct and valid analysis).

  4. mzbitca
    mzbitca August 20, 2009 at 11:45 am |

    Amazing Piece Renee and something I’ve never thought of due to my privilege.

    Whenever people extole the founding fathers as some amazing beings it blows my mind. They were white men, white men at a time where their power was virtually unchecked and they wrote a constitution that kept that power in place.

  5. julian
    julian August 20, 2009 at 11:51 am |

    Thank you for this post, Renee.

  6. BAR
    BAR August 20, 2009 at 11:52 am |

    Robert Jensen in his book The Heart of Whiteness discusses similar topics. Calling Jefferson a rapist, and how in their unequal relationship there is no way she could have “consented.” It was very eye-opening when I read and discussed the book in my White Privilege/Social Justice Sociology course a couple years ago.

  7. kofi
    kofi August 20, 2009 at 12:29 pm |

    Hey Guys
    move on, you dont know the facts, so anybody can conjecture, was he in love or not? do we know what the slave woman said or felt? who are we to decide for her, is it not possible that she loved Jefferson?

    Have you never seen a servant seduce her boss!. Move on!! Jefferson was a great man!!

  8. chris
    chris August 20, 2009 at 12:36 pm |

    Excuse me….have you lost your mind…where is there proof of rape…where are there witnesses….what is wrong with you…did he sell there children…did he whip her…what…hint of rape can you gather from anything you said…yes some treated women that way…where is your evidence….I know the next thing you will be doing is going to townhall meeting screaming ….what a douchebag

  9. gretel
    gretel August 20, 2009 at 12:40 pm |

    Can I just reiterate that I’m so glad you’re a guest blogger on Feministe!

    I remember a few years (or maybe it was a decade, yikes) ago when the Jefferson decedents had a family reunion and did not want the Jefferson-Hemmings descendants to attend. It still amazes me that people could be so threatened by the reality of their ancestors: how much it bothered them to accept and acknowledge that their family tree had a few more limbs because the most famous Jefferson raped a woman–a woman he kept as a slave. Most people I know have to think about those issues on a daily basis; they never have any illusions that great–great-etc. grandfather was a wonderful human being.

  10. Anne
    Anne August 20, 2009 at 12:44 pm |

    This is an awesome post!

  11. juju
    juju August 20, 2009 at 1:08 pm |

    Renee,

    I will love you forever and ever for this post. In my work, I am constantly confronted with this perspective of honoring those who are thought of as “our great men”. In fact, it was only just a couple of hours ago that in a staff meeting we discussed Jefferson’s “genius”, within the larger context of talking about how best to illustrate some bit of history, such as what was done in recreating some of Jefferson’s inventions at Monticello. You might want to avoid the tour of Monticello or UVA, it can be vomit inducing.

    Thanks much for this.

  12. Thomas Jefferson: The Face of a Rapist [ Feministe ]

    [...] Thomas Jefferson: The Face of a Rapist Found 1 hour, 26 minutes ago Americans look at Thomas Jefferson and see the one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence,  a statesman, a former president and one of the founding fathers,’ however; when I look at him, I see the face of a rapist. When Jefferson first met Sally Hemings, his slave through inheritance, she would [...] From: http://www.feministe.us [...]

  13. lindsey
    lindsey August 20, 2009 at 1:29 pm |

    fantastic post…has really opened my eyes. im rather passive about the past, probably almost to a fault. i constantly have ‘its just how they did things back then’ running through my head when im confronted with history and some of the things that happened that just repulse me. i revel in the fact that, for the most part, things that went on back then are not socially acceptable now…so, its wrong now and i just leave it at that.

    you said, at one point, that jefferson wasnt the first white guy to step into slave cabins, and thats the part that really got me. becuase HE WASNT!! not the first or the only guy, OR WOMAN (there are twisted women, too) to use slaves for sex. or anything else.

    and rape is rape. sex when one person doesnt want it and the other forces is rape. if it were happening NOW, it would be wrong. the fact that it happened THEN doesnt excuse it. even if i cant do anything about it.

    thanks, renee. :)

  14. Claire
    Claire August 20, 2009 at 1:30 pm |

    I was never one to extoll the virtues of Jefferson, but if we’re here to look at the “oral, written, and DNA evidence” then how can we so adamantly claim what happened was rape? Just to play devil’s advocate here – because I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he had raped her – what if she did want to sleep with him? Yes, she was a slave and yes he was her master. That doesn’t give him a strong foot to stand on in my opinion. However, stranger things have happened in terms of relationships taking place. Also, if we’re saying their relationship couldn’t have been valid because she was his property, then every single relationship at that time between all white people also has to be discredited and sex between those couples called rape. It was only in the latter half of the 20th century that we saw changes in the law to protect women’s property, sex in marriage and so on.

  15. lindsay
    lindsay August 20, 2009 at 1:46 pm |

    In situations now, we’re able to call rape what it is in sexual interactions between people of different power dynamics/coercion/not much choice otherwise. It’s so important to look back in history and apply the same standards. The white men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were great political and philosophical thinkers, but not always great human beings. It’s about time American teaching of US history reflects that.

    As always, great post.

  16. Jim
    Jim August 20, 2009 at 1:58 pm |

    Renee,

    “For a relationship based in love to exist, both parties must be equal and due to the power differential between Jefferson and Hemings what occurred cannot be described as anything other than rape.”

    I’m not sure what makes you assume that ‘love’ cannot exist without ‘power’-differentials. They exist in pretty much every relationship. But you’re probably only referring to specific ‘power differentials’ like slavery or patriarchy, so I’ll focus on them – so assuming he never forced her to have sex with him and that their personal relatinship was one of mutual emotional dependence, what kind of situation would you require for her (assumed enthusiastic) consent to engage in sex with him to be acceptable as an expression of a free will. And – to push this even further – isn’t the assumption that any power differential invalidate the free willed expressions of the person that is deemed as oppressed a reformulation of the long contested and usually misattributed quote that “all heterosexual sex is rape” because of the assumed power differential between women and men (and as a consequence that women aren’t ABLE to give consent for the same reason)?

    And another question, isn’t defining all heterosexual sex or sex between whites and blacks under slavery as rape making it a bit difficult to differentiate between “just sex (defined as rape due to people having different levels of ascribed power)” and specific instances of sexual aggression.

    So, who gets to define at what point a woman’s consent can actually be taken seriously and will not later be contested on grounds of “power differentials”. Again, the basis for my question is my assumption that Sally Hemings actually did have the power to refuse Jefferson’s sexual advances because the actual legal situation didn’t matter and the rules of *their* engagement were defined between the two. If he actually did force her to have sex, then, sure, he’s a rapist.

  17. melancholia
    melancholia August 20, 2009 at 2:20 pm |

    Jefferson *was* a person of his time though. What would have been better for Sally, going to the North to work in a factory or as a maid maybe? Jefferson could not end slavery even if he wanted too – it was an institution bigger than either of them. The issue of power is irrelevant here since no matter where she went, she would be marginalized and subject to white control.

  18. Tom Foolery
    Tom Foolery August 20, 2009 at 2:31 pm |

    Going beyond Sally Hemmings and other slaves who were exploited by their masters, would you argue that women, broadly speaking, in the 17th-18th centuries, were similarly (though not to the same degree) unable to deny men sexual access to their bodies, and therefore basically any non-celibate man living in that time period could be described as a rapist?

  19. Faith from F.N.
    Faith from F.N. August 20, 2009 at 2:41 pm |

    That was one awesome post, Renee. That is all.

    “would you argue that women, broadly speaking, in the 17th-18th centuries, were similarly (though not to the same degree) unable to deny men sexual access to their bodies, and therefore basically any non-celibate man living in that time period could be described as a rapist?”

    I don’t know about Renee, but I damn sure would, will, and do. Completely. Absolutely. Any man with any degree of power who makes sexual advances towards a woman who can not reasonably refuse his advances is a rapist. In the 17th-18th century, that would have made most men rapists. That reality still holds true of men in certain countries.

  20. freddybak
    freddybak August 20, 2009 at 2:55 pm |

    Faith, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you. But although the ability of a woman to refuse was quite limited back then, whether for a slave where such ability simply did not exist or for a white woman where it was severely limited, I’d like to think that there could still be love between two people EVEN under those circumstances. In other words, not every sexual act between two people who have a power disparity is by definition rape. An individual woman could still WANT to have sex and might even be in love. That’s not to say that her life and choices might be different if she were freer, but that lack of freedom doesn’t prevent all of her choices from being affirmatively made. I realize this comment is somewhat beside the point, I guess I’d just like to think that even in the horrendously unfree gender and racial dynamic that was, there could still be room for consensual sex.

  21. The Czech
    The Czech August 20, 2009 at 2:58 pm |

    Yay Renee! Thank you for writing a post on this topic. Whenever I try to point out these “little details” to friends, they unfailingly obfuscate and deny deny deny.

    It’s like they just can’t bear to have their Great American Heroes defaced by the actual reality of their lives.

    That some of the (American) founding fathers kept Africans as property, that some of the founding fathers were rapists, that when most of them spoke of rights and freedom they simply meant privileged, landed white men and no one else, are all facts that fall on deaf ears most the time.

    I like to choose my own heroes, not have them chosen for me.

  22. shah8
    shah8 August 20, 2009 at 3:17 pm |

    There is also considerable romanticization concerning native american/white romances.

  23. Faith from F.N.
    Faith from F.N. August 20, 2009 at 3:20 pm |

    “I guess I’d just like to think that even in the horrendously unfree gender and racial dynamic that was, there could still be room for consensual sex.”

    Well, I’d like to think that, too. The alternative is recognizing the hideous reality that women have endured for, oh, about the past few thousand years. As depressing as it is to acknowledge that reality, I’d rather do so than live with my head buried in the sand or flying high in the clouds.

  24. laprofe63
    laprofe63 August 20, 2009 at 4:04 pm |

    yes. of course she was raped. to her the power of “no” did not exist …..except within her own mind. And she knew that she had no power to say “no” to any white man for any reason from the very moment of her birth to the very moment of her death. Absolutely, can be nothing other than rape, by very definition of her enslavement.

    Sex not only implies consent, it demands free consent.

  25. Danny
    Danny August 20, 2009 at 4:07 pm |

    How can you consent when you don’t have the freedom to act otherwise?
    That would be up to the person in question. Did they “consent” because of fear of retaliation, did they “consent” in hopes of winning the master’s favor, etc… While it is true that most of those rapes were based on “consent” (rather than consent) it just seems to be a stretch to just blanketly say that consent never did or never could occur.

    (By “consent” I mean consent through force, coersion, or whatever. Not to be confused with actual consent.)

  26. Cara
    Cara August 20, 2009 at 4:18 pm |

    It hurts both my heart and my brain that anyone would even think about contesting the points that Renee puts forth here, and especially that they would do so here on a feminist site, but this really is very simple:

    There is no such thing as meaningfully consenting to sex with a man who in the eyes of the law owns you. Sally knew perfectly well that the people in charge did not see her as human, but as a piece of property, just as any slave did. And she knew perfectly well that when people see you as a piece of property, you don’t get a choice.

    Also, to the ridiculous “point” about Jefferson being unable to stop slavery if he wanted to . . . was there a law that I’m unaware of, stating that white people had to have their own slaves? Come on now, people. A man’s inability to abolish slavery doesn’t absolve him from owning and raping slaves himself. Again: really very simple.

  27. Sheelzebub
    Sheelzebub August 20, 2009 at 4:29 pm |

    Wow, Renee. It’s amazing, the nuclear stupid that gets posted in response to your very common-sense post. I’m not surprised to see such defensiveness over white (and male) privilege on display, unfortunately.

    I’m going to bold this for those who don’t want to get it: If you own someone, they have no legal or economic power. They do not have the power to say no. Therefore, it doesn’t matter if they ‘really’ wanted to have sex or not, because they didn’t have a meaningful way to consent. You don’t have to beat someone up to rape them–you can coerce them, and when you actually legally own them and their children, that’s some heavy coercion there.

    Jesus.

    You know, there is a reason why many companies look askance at bosses having relationships with their employees/direct reports–they aren’t naieve about the power differentials (or they aren’t now after employees who felt pressured and harassed had to take it to the courts). Slavery is–or should be–oh, a million times more obvious, FFS.

    @Freddy:

    I’d like to think that there could still be love between two people EVEN under those circumstances.

    Except that if there wasn’t love on the part of the slave woman she didn’t have the power to refuse. What’s love got to do with anything when he had the power to take what he wanted, no matter what she said? Shall we just call all situations like this during slave times love affairs, since we “don’t really know” if the (often teenage) slave girls/women (you know, the women who were legal property) were actually in love or not?

    @Jim:

    Again, the basis for my question is my assumption that Sally Hemings actually did have the power to refuse Jefferson’s sexual advances because the actual legal situation didn’t matter and the rules of *their* engagement were defined between the two.

    Except the legal situation did matter. You can’t just hand-wave that away. He had the power to rescind whatever their supposed agreement was; she didn’t. He had every right to to take what he wanted from her, sell her, do whatever he wanted because she wasn’t considered to be a human being with any rights.

    @chris:

    excuse me….have you lost your mind…where is there proof of rape…where are there witnesses….what is wrong with you…did he sell there [sic] children…did he whip her…what…hint of rape can you gather from anything you said…yes some treated women that way…where is your evidence….I know the next thing you will be doing is going to townhall meeting screaming ….what a douchebag

    Um, reading is fundamental, cupcake. Do you need a diagram? FFS. But yes, it’s only rape if there are witnesses. If no one sees it then it didn’t happen–or perhaps, it’s the romance of the fucking century. Then to imply Renee is hysterical because she doesn’t agree with you–not at all racist or sexist. Douchebag indeed. Guess you’d know.

    @kofi:

    Have you never seen a servant seduce her boss!.

    Um, no. But who knew servants and slaves had all of this power! Dear me! Are you getting enough air in the orfice you’ve shoved your head into?

    @Claire:

    What would have been better for Sally, going to the North to work in a factory or as a maid maybe? Jefferson could not end slavery even if he wanted to– it was an institution bigger than either of them. The issue of power is irrelevant here since no matter where she went, she would be marginalized and subject to white control.

    OK, you know what? If Jefferson loved her so goddamn much, he could have gone out of his way to agitate for the end of slavery–something that affected the woman/girl he supposedly loved so much. He did so at the beginning of his career, but he dropped it. And he was known for his belief in the inferiority of Black people–part of his emancipation scheme was to deport them from the US. And really–was Hemmings ONLY option to submit to Jefferson’s sexual whims or go on to be a factory worker or maid in the North? (And golly–getting paid for the work you do. How reveloutionary.) This is the point–she didn’t have any options other than what Jefferson gave her. Even if she did love him–at the end of the day, her feelings for him didn’t matter. She was legally owned by the person who had sex with her. He had vast amount of legal and economic power over her. I mean, what–it was a nice, “gentle” rape so she should be grateful for it?

    If it bothers people so goddamn much that a huge power differential like this means that sexual activity isn’t necessarily consensual, well, maybe you should get over your sense of entitlement and privilege and work to even the playing field. Drop the defensiveness and do something constructive.

    @Faith:

    The alternative is recognizing the hideous reality that women have endured for, oh, about the past few thousand years. As depressing as it is to acknowledge that reality, I’d rather do so than live with my head buried in the sand or flying high in the clouds.

    YES, THIS. SECONDED. BOLDED. UNDERLINED.

  28. Sheelzebub
    Sheelzebub August 20, 2009 at 4:33 pm |

    Danny, if a man pulls a gun on me and tells me to fuck him or die, I suppose my aquiescence would mean that I “consent” in the context of your post. But it is not what legal consent is.

  29. E.D.
    E.D. August 20, 2009 at 4:36 pm |

    Great post! Like lindsey said, “if it were happening NOW, it would be wrong. the fact that it happened THEN doesnt excuse it. even if i cant do anything about it.”

  30. Sarah TX
    Sarah TX August 20, 2009 at 4:40 pm |

    I pointed this out at Womanist Musings, and I’ll say it again here.

    It was widely known at the time that Sally Hemings herself was a half-relative of Martha Jefferson, and that she and her mother were bequeathed to Martha by her father upon his death.

    There is no ration way to romanticize the fact that Sally Hemings mother was raped by Martha’s father, and that Sally herself was raped by Mr. Jefferson. Just as we say that a child under the legal age is not able to give consent to an adult because of the power an adult has over a child, a slave cannot give consent to her master because the power a master has over his slave. This is all pretty basic stuff.

  31. N1nj4G1rl
    N1nj4G1rl August 20, 2009 at 4:48 pm |

    Your posts are always thought provoking! I remember the first time this horrifying realization came to me. I was in about 7th grade and I was reading a book called “Wolf By the Ears” by a fairly well known YA historical fiction author Ann Rinaldi. I read it many years ago obviously but reading your post brought all the emotions I felt when reading that book flooding back. It’s fictional but based on the reality of the situation. It tells the story of one of Sally Hemmings children, an 18 year old woman who is very light skinned. It’s mainly about her choice between staying at Monticello or taking the offer of the freedom and going to live in DC and ‘passing’. It is a young adult novel, but it is by no means a fluffy happy everything is peachy keen story. The book does discuss/examine what her mothers feelings may have been about the situation and the man who everyone knows is her and her siblings father but HE will certainly not acknowledge it.
    I know that Rinaldi does pretty extensive research and this is not her first book dealing with race relations or women (I think all of her books feature a female protagonist). I agree with pretty much everything you have said in this post and just though I would bring this book to your attention in case you werent aware!

  32. Sarah TX
    Sarah TX August 20, 2009 at 4:49 pm |

    hat when most of them spoke of rights and freedom they simply meant privileged, landed white men and no one else, are all facts that fall on deaf ears most the time

    The really sad thing is that Jefferson recognized how depraved slavery was… how it was un-Christian not only because it tempted white men to have extra-marital sex (hah!), but because Africans were undeniably human beings (although a lower class of human beings) who deserved human rights.

    He just “couldn’t see a way” through to freeing his slaves, considering how in debt he was. His only income was the plantation, and who would work it without slave labor?!?

  33. nm
    nm August 20, 2009 at 5:04 pm |

    It is my belief that such denial is not based in the simple fact that it would prove that he was a lecher but that he chose a woman of color.

    Some of us who look for other explanations (could the father of Hemmings’s children have been Jefferson’s uncle? could it have been ….) don’t like to believe it precisely because we agree that it would have been rape, and we don’t want to think of Thomas Jefferson as a rapist.

  34. S.A. Small
    S.A. Small August 20, 2009 at 5:45 pm |

    A few things:

    Did they “consent” because of fear of retaliation, did they “consent” in hopes of winning the master’s favor, etc…

    It’s still an extremely coercive situation if you’re aiming to ‘win the favor’ of someone who can legally beat, rape , buy, sell, or kill you on a whim. Quotes or no quotes.

    Also, if we’re saying their relationship couldn’t have been valid because she was his property, then every single relationship at that time between all white people also has to be discredited and sex between those couples called rape.

    Well, why not? (I admit I’m being a little caustic.) Renee nailed this in comment 25: if women’s ability to give or decline to give consent existed in context where they were property, and thus were actually unable to decline to give consent, then it seems that rape was more than likely the norm. Obviously, that’s horrific, but who said the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (or twentieth, for that matter) were pleasant, particularly for women or people of color?

    If taking a critical (to put it lightly) stance against Jefferson makes you uncomfortable, then deal with it. If it makes you question your current relationships, and your attitudes towards the history and politics of this country, then it should. As many have already said, one could trump up the tired excuse of “that is what they did in those days.” In these days, however, we abhor rape and slavery–or at least we should.

    Granted, no one can know, really, how two people in such close quarters interact with each other, but all Renee has done is apply what we know about the privileges that wealthy white men had–and that enslaved black women lacked–and make the most parsimonious explanation. Sure, Jefferson and Hemmings could have loved each other, but it’s very, very, very, very, very unlikely. And since he loved her so damn much, why didn’t he set her free?

  35. S.A. Small
    S.A. Small August 20, 2009 at 5:56 pm |

    I would like to apologize for saying everything Sheelzebub and Faith said, but less well. This is why you refresh the page before you type, I guess.

  36. Jim
    Jim August 20, 2009 at 7:41 pm |

    Renee, Sheelzebub -

    “@Jim what exactly are you failing to understand about the fact that he had the power of life and death over her. How can one possibly believe that consent did not include that very basic fact. No matter what arrangement the two supposedly worked out, it never involved the reduction of that power.”

    “He had the power to rescind whatever their supposed agreement was; she didn’t. ”

    Except I think *IF* he *LOVED* her and *IF* she loved him and he knew/believed she loved him, she very much had the power to refuse, simply by threatening to take away the mutuality – her love. If her love meant more to him than the fact that he had the legal right to her body – and for me *that’s* a given in case he had – as you put it – loving feelings for her, then that threat was a real one. Sure he could rape her anytime legally. But that would mean to end her assumed or real feelings for him, and *if* he loved her, he wouldn’t risk that. He would not threaten her, because having sex as opposed to rape would be on her terms, because *she* wanted to. If he raped her, she would take her love away. If that’s not a threat for someone in love, I don’t know what is.

    Of course, that’s not to imply that was a relationship of equals in any way. If he ever stopped loving her her “power of goodbye” would be gone, because at that point, the legal situation would again become relevant.

    But it does imply that loving someone will give the loved person powers that can actually transcend even the most absurd legal arrangements and, in this case, allow her to become much more than a slave – as long as he loves her.

  37. Jim
    Jim August 20, 2009 at 7:46 pm |

    addendum -

    “and *if* he loved her, he wouldn’t risk that.”

    and *if* he loved her, he would never want to hurt her (which is, I think, the more important point, but I was so focused on game theory above, that I forgot to mention it).

    1. Cara
      Cara August 20, 2009 at 8:02 pm |

      Jim, seriously. I don’t even know what to say to you. How do you talk to a person who doesn’t understand that between a slave and slave owner, the threat need not be spoken and is always present. Also, what to say to someone who thinks that if a man “loves” a woman, he wouldn’t physically hurt her. Yeah, okay.

  38. Jim
    Jim August 20, 2009 at 8:49 pm |

    Cara,

    “the threat need not be spoken and is always present.”

    Sure, but do you think that a threat can get you love? I can’t think of anyone who’d think that. So assume you *love* a person and aren’t a crazy stalker, then you’d want to be loved back. Especially knowing that you can’t change some things between you, you’d have to be particularly careful because that threat will obviously make it harder for her to trust and love. If you want her *love* and not just her body, you’d need to find a way of credibly renouncing the use of violence against her. Freeing her would be an obvious example, but I’m not in a position to judge whether that was a political or social possibilty if they wanted to stay together.

    1. Cara
      Cara August 20, 2009 at 9:20 pm |

      So assume you *love* a person and aren’t a crazy stalker

      Hmm, but you are a slave owner whose “love interest” is his own slave . . .

      Especially knowing that you can’t change some things between you

      Because he freed their children, but couldn’t free her? That wouldn’t have entirely eliminated by any means the power imbalance, as he would still be a powerful white man and she would still be a poor black woman, but it’s certainly something. And you think that if he really “loved” her, he wouldn’t want her held captive against her will, right? I mean, that sound kind of like a crazy stalker to me, which you seem certain that Jefferson was not.

      If you want her *love* and not just her body, you’d need to find a way of credibly renouncing the use of violence against her.

      And again, that way did not exist.

      Do you make a habit of making rape apologist arguments? Or is it just when the rapist is a famous white historical figure and his victim is a black slave? Because rape apologism is precisely what you’re engaging in right now. You’re trying to rationalize why this time wasn’t really rape because there were mitigating circumstances, and really(!!!), he’s a good guy, so we shouldn’t jump to conclusions . . .

  39. Ginger
    Ginger August 20, 2009 at 9:16 pm |

    I want to know what color the sky is on the planet Jim inhabits.

  40. La Lubu
    La Lubu August 20, 2009 at 9:19 pm |

    So assume you *love* a person and aren’t a crazy stalker, then you’d want to be loved back.

    For. Fuck’s Sake. Ok, since the Jefferson worshipers here are demanding where the “proof” is that he raped Sally Hemings (seeing as it isn’t getting through your thick-as-a-brick skulls that a person who is owned as a piece of property cannot reasonably/realistically without consent without putting herself in danger)….

    …..all you romantic devils, you…..where the hell is the evidence that he ever “loved” her? Hmm? Come to think of it, what the hell is your definition of “love”, anyway?

    If you want her *love* and not just her body,

    And what on earth makes you think this was the case?

    Sheelzebub had it right. Nuclear stupid.

  41. Josh Jasper
    Josh Jasper August 20, 2009 at 9:28 pm |

    Why is it the “If they really loved each other” situations always sound just as plausible as “What if they were both possessed by aliens from the Pleiades?”

  42. Jim
    Jim August 20, 2009 at 9:40 pm |

    Cara,

    don’t get me wrong. I think it’s entirely *possible* he raped her. I was making a case that even in case of severe power differentials *love* will add a dimension that can give the less empowered lover *real power* within the relationship and that implies that “rape” is not the only possibility in such a relationship – it may well be the default configuration.

  43. Pega
    Pega August 20, 2009 at 9:47 pm |

    I have to say, the mind really boggles as I read through the comments on this post.

    I remember being in high school and having a mock Philadelphia Convention and having to “re-enact” the 3/5 compromise. Since I had grown up in NYC, even though I was currently attending a very small, rural HS in the Deep South, the history teacher thought it especially important that I have to argue the point of the Southern delegates. I had a real problem with it, and told the teacher flat out that I couldn’t do it, because I just could not under any circumstances argue that someone was not an actual whole person just because of the color of their skin. I eventually managed a passing grade, but only after a lecture that finally got the point home to me.

    The men who composed the Declaration of Independence, the Consitution, where extremely forward thinking – borderline genius – as long as you accepted their most basic tenet that only white, male, landowners were really ‘people’. Everyone else existed only to serve them. Their wives, their children, their slaves, their indentured servants, even their paid day laborers (rare as those were) were not full-fledged people. End of discussion.

    In a scenario like that, yes, even marriage was institutionalized, sanctioned, LEGAL rape. Sex between a master and slave? Even if there were tender emotions present, the act of sex is still rape. Or maybe it’s really only 3/5 of a rape…

  44. Dori
    Dori August 20, 2009 at 10:01 pm |

    All I can say about this thread is to wonder if I’m actually at a feminist blog. Seriously, when did these comment sections turn into the fucking twilight zone? Rape apologism? really? Are we actually going there?

    I mean seriously, what planet do you people come from that Renee’s point isn’t glaringly obvious? And the implications that her points make for the wider societal framework re: gender relations isn’t pretty, but they are TRUE. Ask women who have actually lived it instead of your romanticized ideas of love and sex. Trust me, rape isn’t fucking romantic for the person being raped.

    Romance my ass.

  45. Courtney
    Courtney August 20, 2009 at 10:42 pm |

    I 100% agree with your post Renee. I want to apologise fo derailing…I lurk on your blog frequently and respect your thoughts so I’d like to ask you a question. If this is not appropriate then I’m sorry and feel free to delete the comment.
    I had a ta-da enligtening moment recently with this same subject. My oldest son is just now getting into reports for school (he is 8). He had to do his on Booker T Washington and I cringed because there is a lot of problematic areas of his history to teach an 8 year old. For one of many like Sally Booker’s mother was raped by her owner. No where did it say this when we researched it but I knew that is what I would have called it.
    You see I don’t want to teach my children revised history that is taught in school, but when is a good age to explain rape and the complexity to kids. I have no problem with sex ed we have had quite a few talks already. This however I was not prepared for.

  46. Danny
    Danny August 20, 2009 at 10:43 pm |

    Danny, if a man pulls a gun on me and tells me to fuck him or die, I suppose my aquiescence would mean that I “consent” in the context of your post. But it is not what legal consent is.
    Precisely Sheelzebub. By him pulling that gun out and forcing you to have sex technically he got “consent” but it would be that sorry-ass “she said she wanted it” defense the rapist would try to pass off at trial but it would not be actual consent (like say he approached you at a club, asked, and you say yes).

    S.A. Small:
    It’s still an extremely coercive situation if you’re aiming to ‘win the favor’ of someone who can legally beat, rape , buy, sell, or kill you on a whim.
    Agreed and that is what I was trying to say. Said rapist is actively using their power to intimidate the victim. The only reason I added those quotes was to denote the difference between actual consent (you do it because you actually want to) and “consent” (you do it because you are being forced, coerced, etc….)

  47. Courtney
    Courtney August 20, 2009 at 10:50 pm |

    Shit…I was trying to edit a part of that comment and my broke ass mouse hit submit instead so this is still the same comment.
    When it came time to discuss Booker’s family I balked and told him not to mention his father. I didn’t want to mention it without the word rape but I feared it was too complex for him to understand. How do you deal with this with your own children? Sorry to derail but it is an important topic for me and I want to raise my children with the correct awareness of their history.

  48. tanglad
    tanglad August 21, 2009 at 12:38 am |

    I’m reading this in conjunction with your post on racism and power post. You make me think of how sexual desire of and violence against native women/women of color has been a powerful tool of colonialism. It would be ridiculous to argue that maybe the Filipinas who slept with Spanish priests and landowners in the 18th and 19th century Philippines gave consent. And that skewed power differential was very much present between Jefferson and Hemings.

  49. chingona
    chingona August 21, 2009 at 1:45 am |

    Precisely Sheelzebub. By him pulling that gun out and forcing you to have sex technically he got “consent” but it would be that sorry-ass “she said she wanted it” defense the rapist would try to pass off at trial but it would not be actual consent (like say he approached you at a club, asked, and you say yes).

    No. It’s not. Even the states with the more conservative definitions of consent and rape would define that as rape. That is, there was no consent. Lack of physical resistance in the face of a credible threat of violence DOES NOT EQUAL consent. It doesn’t even equal “consent.”

    Jesus Christ on a Cracker

  50. chingona
    chingona August 21, 2009 at 1:49 am |

    I’m thinking that a bunch of the men on this thread think that if the victim is not actively trying to claw out the eyes of her rapist, then she gave, at the very least “consent” and so it’s not “really” “rape.” That’s not how it works. Sally Hemmings may have given every outward appearance of going along with it. She may have even made a calculation that going along with it was better, for her prospects and those of her children, than not going along. She may have even not hated Jefferson. IT’S STILL RAPE.

    Renee,

    I’m so sorry this has been the response to this post. It’s a great post and a really important idea to keep in front of people.

  51. Nyara
    Nyara August 21, 2009 at 1:59 am |

    You know, the fact that people are saying “well, what if he loved her?” is rather disturbing. If you love someone, you DON’T ENSLAVE THEM! Is that really such a radical concept?

  52. Jordan
    Jordan August 21, 2009 at 2:04 am |

    @ Pega

    The people who wanted the 3/5 compromise were doing it to limit the power of the slave state by giving them fewer electoral votes and seats in Congress. They weren’t doing it to write relative value of the races into the Constitution (although no doubt, most, if not all, did value whites substantially more). The slave states wanted slaves to be counted as full persons for purposes of the Census.

  53. Natalia
    Natalia August 21, 2009 at 4:56 am |

    Great post, Renee.

    Rape is often romanticized in a historical context, particularly rape of women of colour by white men. Anyone remember “The East, The West & Sex”? The author actually talked about how awesome it was that a white male abroad could, like, have his pick of any school-girl who was being taught in the building adjacent to his. He framed it as something romantic and exotic.

    Genghis Khan is said to have 16 million descendants today. Why? Because of rape. That figure gets quoted like it’s awesome. Wow, dude, 16 million!

    Did all of those women hate Khan? Perhaps not. Some might have even loved him. But you can’t deny that Khan was able to “spread his seed” because he was a violent conqueror above all else.

    It’s the same thing with Thomas Jefferson. He was a brilliant man and certainly a product of his time. However, we cannot romanticize his relationship with Sally Hemings. To do so is simply foolish. It was what it was. The Founding Fathers were not angels. Confronting that reality may certainly be painful – but it is also necessary.

  54. Llama
    Llama August 21, 2009 at 5:07 am |

    Wasn’t the society Jefferson lived in a rape culture? I know wiki isn’t the best source, but here it is:

    Rape culture is a widely-used term within women’s studies and feminism, describing a culture in which rape and other sexual violence (usually against women) are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media condone, normalize, excuse, or encourage sexualized violence. Within the paradigm, acts of sexism are commonly employed to validate and rationalize normative misogynistic practices; for instance, sexist jokes may be told to foster disrespect for women and an accompanying disregard for their well-being, which ultimately make their rape and abuse seem “acceptable”.

    Personally, I don’t see why it so difficult to grasp that someone who has the power to kill/sell you, kill/sell your kin, owns you, has the power of life and death over you means that the person being owned has very little ability to give their consent. Could someone in her position seriously have said no to Jefferson? What do you think happened to slave women that did?

    I posted the rape culture quote because maybe it would help people grasp what Renee is saying. If you create a huge discrepancy in power, if you rationalize the abuse against people by perpetuating the views that this particular group is inferior, while holding yourself up as superior, if you stereotype POC/black women as hypersexual and treat white womanhood as sacred in comparison, if you dehumanize people, what kind of circumstance does this create? Haven’t you essentially created a rape culture?

    Don’t you think the social factors contribute to, justify and normalize rape?

    Are we, and others, being complicit when we try to normalize it by calling it a love affair?

  55. Azalea
    Azalea August 21, 2009 at 5:49 am |

    There is a rumor that he’d freed Sally Hemmings and that she stayed to be close to her children and because it was safer to be under the *control* of someone who cared enough at least NOT to abuse his power and authority over her than to be on her own and risk being a local sex toy or breeder for another slave owner. You see even with her papers, she could still be captured by someone back then and re-forced into slavery. It was the NORM to whip black women JUST BECAUSE, the norm to forcefully and violently impregnate her, deny and whip the children and maybe even kill her or the children because they were evidence of your raping a slave. Let’s be clear here, back then she was considered to be less humane and less valuable than an unwanted dog, easily replaceable.

    Because she lived so long and from what historians wrote was barely if ever abused physically with the whip, she was not treated as badly as she could have been. There ought to be credit to the fact that because she was not treated badly, because she may well have wanted to engage in sex like other human beings often do, that she may have consented albeit in normal circumstances of the time- she would not have had a choice.

    I think we ought to give HER the benefit of the doubt and not make her a victim against her will as slavery did by denying that she may have in fact made a choice, and that she may have been in love or t the very least THOUGHT she was in love. No woman, not black women either had a real choice in who they would be with as we do today but is it fair to call everyone’s ancestor a victim of rape? To deny her choice and dismiss her consent?

    I think its unfair to every black slave who was brutally whipped into submission or threatened or reminded of “her place” by the slave owner who had no choice, no real incentive, no desire in any way to ever touch the slave owner and was raped to make any comparison or to lump this in with that. Was she pressured or did she feel pressured? Absolutely! Was she undeniably raped? Only she could answer that.

  56. Azalea
    Azalea August 21, 2009 at 6:09 am |

    I want to clarify that I do NOT think of Jefferson as some great person. As it is, he owned slaves and the only one freed with her children was Sally Hemmings. He had the power to free them all though of course he may not have been able to ensure all of their safety once freed, he still had the power to free them all.

    I am also a black woman but I have no delusions of the way things were then. It wasn’t so long ago in Rosewood that black women were lynched along with their babies because a black man allegedly raped a white woman. If that could happen AFTER slavery surely we must not delude ourselves into thinking black women everywhere left the country with the slave owners, returned, their children were freed, their families held together etc etc. Because breaking up the black family- a family that was FORCED or ARRANGED against consent of both parties to begin with- was a major part of history then.

    I do not think Hemmings seduced Jefferson or that she was anxiously awaiting him to seuce her. I simply do not think he brandished his power or ever abused it with concerns to her. That even though he could forcefully do many things to her that he choose to try gaining what -he- thought was her willing consent. That she gave what -she- thought was her willing consent and things moved on from there.

    I absolutely hate the idea that people have of her being the poster child for rape during those times when anyone who has ver read a memoir written by a black woman who was once a slaved and raped knows that Hemmings situation was a far cry from the norm.

  57. Ellid
    Ellid August 21, 2009 at 6:29 am |

    Provocative and interesting post, especially about the power dynamics in the Jefferson/Hemings relationship.

    At the same time, as many others have pointed out, we DON’T know if Jefferson forced himself on Hemings. She lived in France when their physical relationship began and could have remained there as a free woman. According to her son Madison, she agreed to return to America on the condition that all of her children be freed…and Jefferson not only agreed, he lived up to his agreement and either freed her children or allowed them to leave without penalty.

    We DO know that he made sure that her children were trained for trades, were educated alongside Jefferson’s white children and grandchildren, were never sold, and were treated well; two were allowed to walk away (one with a $50 cash subsidy, which was a large sum at the time), and two more not only were freed, Jefferson successfully petitioned for them to be allowed to remain in Virginia despite laws requiring freedmen to leave the state within a year. Hemings herself was informally freed by Jefferson’s daughter after his death.

    This is not typical slave owner rapist behavior. Please see Harriet Jacobs or another slave memoir to see how women who were raped were more customarily treated. The children were not favored, the women were hounded, and family members were threatened with being sold. NONE of this happened to the Hemings children. Not only that, at least two of the Hemings children who settled in Ohio were upfront and proud about their parentage as early as the 1840s, which doesn’t strike me as likely if they had been the children of someone who had raped their mother.

    Yes, there are definitely problems with the Jefferson/Hemings relationship. Yes, it’s not the romantic fantasy of legend. But calling Jefferson a rapist is just as much as a distortion as the romantic version. The truth will never be known unless a memoir by Sally Hemings surfaces, which is pretty unlikely at this point.

  58. Ellid
    Ellid August 21, 2009 at 6:34 am |

    Oh, one more thing – it is not clear if all of Hemings’ children were fathered by Jefferson. DNA evidence proved that the descendants of Thomas Woodson weren’t Jeffersons, and there were contemporary rumors that Harriet Hemings was not a Jefferson either. If Jefferson were indeed a jealous, possessive rapist, it doesn’t seem likely that he’d allow another man anywhere near Hemings.

  59. Faith from F.N.
    Faith from F.N. August 21, 2009 at 7:26 am |

    #44 La Lubu: “Come to think of it, what the hell is your definition of “love”, anyway?”

    I’m not sure I want to know the answer to the question.

    #59 Ellid: “At the same time, as many others have pointed out, we DON’T know if Jefferson forced himself on Hemings.”

    For the love of the little Green Goddess…

    It doesn’t -matter- whether he used physical force or not. It was still rape if she could not reasonably -not- consent. It’s as simple as that. Whether he used physical force is irrelevant. Read, people. READ.

    “If Jefferson were indeed a jealous, possessive rapist, it doesn’t seem likely that he’d allow another man anywhere near Hemings.”

    Newsflash: Maybe Jefferson couldn’t -stop- another man from going near her. Did ya’ ever think of that?

    (Ok, I’m sorry to be rude. But good goddamn motherfucker shit piss…some people. My hands are shaking at the naivety and blind rape apologism being displayed here. Fuckity fuck fuck fuck.)

  60. Sheelzebub
    Sheelzebub August 21, 2009 at 7:58 am |

    Oh. My. Fucking. GOD.

    Look, I’m gonna tell you right off the bat that I’m going to be far more nasty in my response here than before. Black women aren’t slaves anymore, and women have more power than we used to, but many of us still have to deal with that dynamic.

    That “love”? That “power”? Is utter fucking bullshit. Bullshit/. She can take away her love and he can’t take that so he’d never force her? You really think so?

    Here’s what tends to happen in those situations–you can ask me and any other woman who’s been in an abusive relationship, or a “relationship” with someone who’s had more actual power than us. When you “take” away the love these people feel entitled to, they take it by force and convince themselves that you want it that way. They hurt you and violate you in retaliation, do so with impunity, and do so with the sympathy of ignorant pricks who think that having love taken from them made their actions understandable. There is enough of that dynamic now that many of us can see Renee’s point when she is talking about a Black woman who was a slave. If we’ve dealt with this shit as women who had more power than Sally Hemmings, holy shit, yes, I can see that Sally Hemmings was most definitely raped and coerced.

    I am really fucking tired of men (and when it comes to the rape of slaves, whites) erasing this reality. I am really sick and tired of people confusing a slave’s or servant’s (or a woman’s) desperate attempts to get some favor with the person who has actual power over her with real power on her part. If it’s so fucking powerful, if being on the receiving end of this kind of love is so fucking wonderful, why in the hell don’t you all try it sometime? Try it–live with the knowledge that those who have more power than you can “love” you weather you want it or not, weather you like them or not, and that you can make things better for yourself if you just play along. At best, you’ll resent the everloving fuck out of them–at worst, you’re not going to love them. And it doesn’t matter because, hello, they can take what they want when they want to. That’s power–taking WHAT you want WHEN you want to. So your ego gets brusied if she says no or she’s pissed at you. At the end of the day, she’ll come toe the line, because you can make her life exquisitely hellish.

    If Jefferson truly loved her, he would have wanted her to be happy. If he truly loved her, he would have fucking freed her. If he truly loved her, the idea of legally owning her would have made his skin fucking crawl.

    I’ve heard love being used as an excuse for all kinds of reprehensible behavior. I locked you in because I love you so much. I hit you because I love you and can’t stand losing you. He stalked you because he loves you. He raped her because he loves her and oh isn’t that romantic? He didn’t give his slave her freedom because he loved her and didn’t want to lose her–what a mean, petty, selfish excuse. The only love that points to is extreme self-love.

    You know what? Spare me the love. At this point, love makes me fucking sick. I think most of you people don’t know what real love IS.

  61. Sheelzebub
    Sheelzebub August 21, 2009 at 8:08 am |

    According to her son Madison, she agreed to return to America on the condition that all of her children be freed…and Jefferson not only agreed, he lived up to his agreement and either freed her children or allowed them to leave without penalty.

    That points to coercion to me. Yes, he kept his word. But he had enough power–even when she was a free woman in France–that she had to ask him to free her children in exchange for returning to the States as a slave. And please note, she was never freed.

  62. Danny
    Danny August 21, 2009 at 8:52 am |

    No. It’s not. Even the states with the more conservative definitions of consent and rape would define that as rape. That is, there was no consent. Lack of physical resistance in the face of a credible threat of violence DOES NOT EQUAL consent. It doesn’t even equal “consent.”

    Jesus Christ on a Cracker
    Goodness

    That is what I’m trying to say. It wasn’t consent becuase it was forced at the barrel of a gun. As we all know without consent it is rape. That is what I’m trying to say. And I didn’t say anything about how state law defines rape I’m talking about the bullshit the rapist would trying to pass off as consent at trial.

  63. Jadey
    Jadey August 21, 2009 at 9:02 am |

    God, what next? As long as your and your partner love each other, then it’s still totally consensual if you have sex with zir when zie is passed out? Because that’s what you’re saying! That love compensates for an inability to give meaningful consent! And if you don’t believe that slavery (of the non-consensual, non-BDSM kind, to be perfectly clear, because that’s 100% different) negates consent, then we have a totally different issue.

    (This is addressed generally to everyone making the “love” argument, for the record.)

  64. Jim
    Jim August 21, 2009 at 9:09 am |

    Sheelzebub,

    I suppose your last reply was for me as per above, so, just briefly – I already said that what you described was probably the default situation. But that doesn’t make it the *only* possibility. I don’t care if Jefferson is considered a rapist if he was one. So my point was simply that love *can* give this power and he actually *loves* her he will not be content with *taking her*, because he will want to be loved back. If he feels *entitled* and takes her, he doesn’t really love her. The point is that no one can force love – it’s a gift. Sure she could have pretended – but as someone who – supposedly – wanted her gift of love he would have had to assume that it was almost impossible to really love him.

    “If Jefferson truly loved her, he would have wanted her to be happy. If he truly loved her, he would have fucking freed her. If he truly loved her, the idea of legally owning her would have made his skin fucking crawl.”

    True, which is why I wonder if that was an actual social possibility. Could she have stayed with him as a free person? Would it have been socially possible for him to be with her as a free person? Or would that have been considered socially impossible at the time?

    Again, it’s absolutely possible, and perhaps even likely he raped her, but that doesn’t mean that love cannot give the kind of power I described. It’s the most powerful emotion in the known universe.

  65. LSG
    LSG August 21, 2009 at 9:22 am |

    Thank you, Renee.

    Thank you, Sheezlebub and Faith and Cara and the others who have been defending this excellent post.

    This is making me queasy. To be clear, all the people who are defending Jefferson: as far as I can tell, no one is denying that he may have had affection for her, or (though it is less likely) she for him. No one is saying that this is the worst possible thing that could ever have happened to her, the worst most violent rape a slave woman ever experienced. No one is denying that it’s possible that he gave some kinds of ‘special treatment’ to her and her children.

    Which of those things mean that a slaveowner taking access to the body of a woman that he owns — and makes not the slightest effort to free — isn’t rape?

  66. Bagelsan
    Bagelsan August 21, 2009 at 9:40 am |

    At best, you’ll resent the everloving fuck out of them–at worst, you’re not going to love them. And it doesn’t matter because, hello, they can take what they want when they want to.

    I guess this is kind of my hangup about the post — how is the fact that he *could* do physical violence to her any different than most heterosexual relationships? I mean, most guys are physically larger and stronger than me; does that mean the threat of violence is always implicit in relationships I have? So then it’s impossible for me to consent *really*? Jefferson’s situation just seems to differ in degree from most heterosexual relationships back then, but not in kind. White rich men could pretty much do whatever they wanted to anyone (although they could do this to slaves *more* than other whites, obviously) so how in the world could he (or any man) even *have* consensual sex ever? (And it really does seem to go too far to say that *no* consensual heterosexual sex has ever occurred in history.)

    I’m not saying that Hemings *did* consent but I’m saying that her “consent” just seems a little bit more coerced than lots of women’s, and significantly less coerced than some. Threats of being sold or having your family sold add another layer of implicit violence, but just knowing that a man could pretty much decide to rape/kill you whenever he wanted seems to trump that anyways, and that seems pretty constant for most/all women back then (and a fair number now.) Sure, the white woman would be avenged while the black women would be forgotten, but that doesn’t revive you.

    1. Cara
      Cara August 21, 2009 at 9:49 am |

      how is the fact that he *could* do physical violence to her any different than most heterosexual relationships? I mean, most guys are physically larger and stronger than me; does that mean the threat of violence is always implicit in relationships I have?

      Because most men do not fucking own you or have the legal right to kill you or have the right to fucking sell your children or decide whether or not you ever had a bite to eat again.

      THIS IS NOT DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND. The only way it’s difficult to understand is if you are willingly and purposefully turning an eye to the role that white supremacy played in slavery. And how the living fucking hell we are on a progressive blog arguing that some slave owners really were nice guys, and hey slave women didn’t really have it all that worse than white women of the same period, just boggles my fucking mind.

  67. Bagelsan
    Bagelsan August 21, 2009 at 9:42 am |

    I also don’t want to discount her feelings — defining her relationship as rape without knowing what she thought of it makes me somewhat uncomfortable (though it isn’t really appropriate to define it as a “love affair” without her input either, so… that’s why I’m not a historian. :p)

  68. Katie
    Katie August 21, 2009 at 10:15 am |

    This is a great post – thank you for it. I hate that we are denied our true histories.

  69. Kristen J.
    Kristen J. August 21, 2009 at 10:16 am |

    Re: Love

    This is the dumbest argument I’ve ever heard. If he loved her, he had at least two better options (1) he could have remained in France with her or (2) he could have urged her two remain in France for her own safety and the safety of their children with his financial support.

    Because love is sometimes not about being together, sometimes its about caring more for someone than you do about your own needs.

    So no, the whole “But he loved her” trope is complete bullshit. When you love someone you try to give them dignity and respect, not take them somewhere where they are treated as sub-human.

  70. chingona
    chingona August 21, 2009 at 10:54 am |

    That is what I’m trying to say. It wasn’t consent becuase it was forced at the barrel of a gun.

    If you don’t want to be misunderstood, don’t write long posts about how rapists can use a gun to obtain “consent.” Rape is not determined by what the rapist thinks.

  71. Sheelzebub
    Sheelzebub August 21, 2009 at 10:57 am |

    Jim: The problem with the “perhaps he really did love her” argument is that it’s moot. Moot. He had power, an inordinate amount of power, over her. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if he loved her or she loved him. It doesn’t negate the reality that he had the power to destroy her if he wanted to. Any “unspoken agreement” they had was entirely revokable at his whim. That’s power.

    Bagland, in response to your post for me, I’ll copy/paste Faith’s response to a similar question posted earlier in the thread:

    “I guess I’d just like to think that even in the horrendously unfree gender and racial dynamic that was, there could still be room for consensual sex.”

    Well, I’d like to think that, too. The alternative is recognizing the hideous reality that women have endured for, oh, about the past few thousand years. As depressing as it is to acknowledge that reality, I’d rather do so than live with my head buried in the sand or flying high in the clouds.

    Now, I didn’t say that because a man could physically beat me senseless, all heterosexual sex was rape. What I said was that love was being used to excuse all kinds of shitty and abusive and exploitive behavior, that many women have been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment, and heard the “but it’s because I love you” trope. Love is bullshit in this context. What is romantic to many men (and some women) has been experienced as downright abusive by many women, and this is NOT because golly, men and women see things differently.

    What I said was that you cannot ignore the INSTITUTIONAL and LEGAL and ECONOMIC power someone has over someone else–you cannot hand-wave away this reality through “love.”

  72. chingona
    chingona August 21, 2009 at 11:20 am |

    I still feel like a lot of people are hung up on the idea that rape is only when a man physically forces a woman to have sex. The power dynamics alone can make consent impossible to freely give, and so he does not have to physically force her. Why is there so much resistance to this?

  73. Danny
    Danny August 21, 2009 at 11:44 am |

    If you don’t want to be misunderstood, don’t write long posts about how rapists can use a gun to obtain “consent.” Rape is not determined by what the rapist thinks.
    I never said the rapist determined what rape is but rather that they try to define rape in their own twisted and incorrenct manner. Didn’t say it was just, right, correct, or legal. Simply pointing out that they will make such claims.

  74. hellogoodbye
    hellogoodbye August 21, 2009 at 12:05 pm |

    Jefferson literally owned her (legally). Saying that she consented to having sex with him is like saying that a 15/16yr old child who was kidnapped “consented” to have sex with her kidnapper. It’s not possible.

    In Jefferson’s time, having sex with/raping your slaves was more or less considered an OK thing to do – and it definitely was not viewed as rape. It obviously was rape, but this was not recognized in his time. Because of this, he was certainly not as morally culpable for his actions as a kidnapper/rapist would be today. However, the relationship between them was as much of a violation of her rights as it would be today if someone kidnapped and raped a 15 year old girl – and anyone who says differently truly is a rape apologist.

  75. Llama
    Llama August 21, 2009 at 12:19 pm |

    you cannot ignore the INSTITUTIONAL and LEGAL and ECONOMIC power someone has over someone else–you cannot hand-wave away this reality through “love.”

    THIS

    You said it far better than I.

  76. Alara Rogers
    Alara Rogers August 21, 2009 at 12:27 pm |

    I think what’s hanging people up is the changing perception of the term “rape” as we slowly claw our way out of patriarchy:

    - Rape is a heinous act of violence committed by violent, cruel men against innocent virginal women.
    - Rape is any sexual use of another human being against their will, or any sexual use of a human being who cannot freely give consent because of their age, their condition, or the power differential between them and the person using them for sex.

    The first is only a tiny, tiny subset of the second… but it’s been the operational definition of rape for *thousands* of years. The current definition, which posits that all human beings have autonomy over their bodies and have the moral *right* to say no, is new. Possibly only about forty years old, in fact, because spousal rape exemption laws were on the books everywhere that recently.

    Was Jefferson a violent, brutal, depraved man who forced himself viciously on Sally Hemings? Most likely not. If that is your only definition of rape, he wasn’t a rapist. But then, if that’s your only definition of rape, then adult men who have sex with 13-year-old girls who have crushes on them are not rapists.

    I think the reason people don’t want to follow Renee’s logic through to its conclusion, even if under other circumstances they *would* agree with definition 2 for rape, is that, as other posters have pointed out, IT MEANS THAT MOST MEN HAVE BEEN RAPISTS THROUGHOUT HUMAN HISTORY.

    A 13 year old girl might want sex with her handsome 27 year old teacher. That doesn’t mean it’s not rape if he takes her up on it. A slave *could* in theory find her master attractive. That doesn’t mean it’s not rape, given that she is not allowed to say no. By *definition* sex with a slave is rape, whether they would have been willing if they were free or not, for the same reason that sex with a willing 13 year old is rape. Because when there is a power differential so huge that no meaningful consent is possible, any sex falls into definition 2.

    Most clients of prostitutes are rapists, because most prostitutes are forced into being prostitutes and cannot say no. (I do understand that some sex workers freely choose their work. Their clients would therefore not be rapists. But I’m not sure how clients could tell the difference, since prostituted people are probably also forced to claim that they are doing this freely.) Most men, throughout history, were rapists, because they were married and their wives had no legal right to say no. This is *why* it’s so hard to prosecute rape, why it’s so hard to take date rape and spousal rape seriously, why rapists can justify their crimes with “but she wanted it” — because throughout human history, the status of women in general has been so low that what we see today as rape was simply seen as normal sex.

    We can go one of two ways with this fact. We can use it to say “Well, rape can’t be all that bad, because it used to be seen as normal sex and probably every woman on the planet used to have to put up with it, so how bad could it be?” Or we can say, “We take as axiomatic that rape is horrific, because people who have been raped say so, so we must be appalled at the fact of human history that most women who have ever lived were raped, that most men who ever lived were rapists, and we must work to ensure that that situation ends for all people worldwide and that we never fall into that situation again.”

    Being that I am both female and have more empathy than a common sea slug, I take door number 2. I would like for those who are fighting so hard to say “But maybe Jefferson wasn’t a rapist!” or “Okay, he was, but was that so bad? He wasn’t a *mean* rapist” to consider that they are making the first argument, and consider what that implies about their belief about women’s humanity.

    (BTW, I deliberately changed from “women” in definition 1, up top, to definition 2 precisely because definition 2 allows us to understand some things that happen to men as rape, so please, MRA folks, don’t start with “adult women teachers rape teen boys too!” as some sort of supposed disputation of any of these arguments. I add this not to derail in favor of “what about the menz?” but to try to head off such derailments. We’re talking about women here.)

    You cannot have consensual sex with a slave, because to be able to give consent you must be able to deny. By definition, Jefferson raped Hemings. It doesn’t matter if he loved her; lots of men who love women beat, rape and murder them, all over the world. It doesn’t matter if she loved him; he had so much power over her tht she wasn’t free to say no, and therefore she wasn’t free to say yes. There is no point to arguing that *maybe* she wanted it, because it doesn’t matter if she did, any more than it matters if a 13 year old girl wants sex with an adult man. it is STILL RAPE. And I can acknowledge the debt this country owes to Jefferson and consider him a great man while still understanding that he, by definition, was a rapist… and probably so were the majority of men living in that area.

  77. Alara Rogers
    Alara Rogers August 21, 2009 at 12:29 pm |

    Whoops… once my post gets out of moderation the last line should be “living in that time”, not area.

  78. Nick
    Nick August 21, 2009 at 12:30 pm |

    I want to blame rom-coms for the prevalence of this idea that “love” can give someone real, legitimate power over someone else, that negates social, political, and legal power and renders people equals. This bullshit relies on nothing so much as a mystical notion that love is all-powerful and redeeming, much like the idea that there is such a thing as “true love”, or “the one”, or that “love conquers all”. It’s ridiculous and naive.

    Love and sex, in many cases, men’s only experience of women having something that they want and can deny to them, so we do tend to overemphasize the extent to which them “empower” someone over their lover. There’s a cache to claiming powerlessness, and one of the ways the powerful manage to do this is by exclaiming someone else’s unquantifiable power over them.

  79. chava
    chava August 21, 2009 at 12:35 pm |

    So, here’s my one question here–

    Jefferson was a rapist. No argument there. Period, full stop.

    Why can’t he be a rapist AND “one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, a statesman, a former president and one of the founding fathers” ?

    To whip out a stunningly overused platitude, people are complicated, and people who on the whole do a lot of good for the world can be amazingly nasty, evil, and mean in their personal lives.

  80. chava
    chava August 21, 2009 at 12:44 pm |

    Just to clarify, because I think it could be misread–

    I don’t take the good things Jefferson (or any man) did/does to excuse his actions vis a vis sexual violence/rape. I’m just saying that the two can co-exist simultaneously, not that there is a cosmic balance sheet where being one of the Founding Fathers gets you a free pass to rape.

  81. Austin
    Austin August 21, 2009 at 12:50 pm |

    Jefferson literally owned her (legally). Saying that she consented to have sex with him is like saying a fifteen year old girl who was kidnapped consented to sex with her kidnapper.

    In his time, having sex with (raping) your slaves was not recognized as being rape. Since it was not recognized as rape in Jefferson’s time, we can say that he was less morally culpable for his actions than a kidnapper/rapist in our time. But any sex between them was as much a violation of her rights as the kidnapping and rape of a young girl would be today (or anyone else, for that matter).

    I can’t believe that people on here are seroiusly suggesting that if a rapist convinces a woman, at gunpoint, not to resist his advances, that this somehow constitutes consent. If someone held you at gunpoint and you handed them the keys to your car, would you say that you “technically consented” to their taking your car, and it was therefore not really stealing?

    Absolutely unbelievable.

  82. Crys T
    Crys T August 21, 2009 at 12:59 pm |

    Yes chava, but the problem with people like Jefferson, the bad has been erased from the public consciousness, or it’s been distorted to show the person in a good light (e.g., “Jefferson treated Sally Hemings better than most slave owners, so she had it good, so therefore he realy was a good man.”).

    Wow, I haven’t got anything to add to the excellent rebuttals to the rape apologists, but between this thread & the Race & Power one, I’m really wondering: is there something in the atmosphere that’s bringing the latent white supremacist out in so many people posting here? Unbelievable.

  83. shah8
    shah8 August 21, 2009 at 1:03 pm |

    To add to Cara‘s reply to Bagelsan:

    Sally Hemmings was institutionally isolated from the law’s protection. What that means is that her father, her brothers, or any other sponser had no right to protest her owner’s treatment of her. As patriarchal and pisspoor the relationship white women had with the law, they were not nearly as constrained as a slave woman. Which is the point of enslaving women.

    Because here’s the thing: Thomas Jefferson had no legal obligation to honor his promises, even if he drew up “contracts” with such promises. He could change his mind at any time, and if Sally Hemmings were to ever fall out of favor (or even worse, if TJ were to die intestate or with disputed wills), many of the people she knows and cares about intimately can be sent to a fate akin to hell. Sally Hemmings literally had less ability to truly consent than imperial slave concubines at various times.

    One thing that is interesting about this thread is all the “Nice Guy” defenses of TJ. This is the kind of situation “Nice Guys” truly love–a woman who can’t leave the relationship and has to act pleased (and give credit) when the man “acts so nobly” when he refrains from doing things he knows damn well is wrong. There really are quite a few mangas with a fairly similar premise, come to think of it…Maybe that’s why so many of us could think something so deeply wrong could be at least a little right.

  84. Dani
    Dani August 21, 2009 at 1:40 pm |

    Jefferson was a rapist. No argument there. Period, full stop.

    Why can’t he be a rapist AND “one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, a statesman, a former president and one of the founding fathers” ?

    THIS. The fact that he was a founding father doesn’t make him any less of a rapist. Likewise, the fact that he was a rapist doesn’t make him any less of a founding father.

    The timing of this post is impeccable, this subject came up out of the blue at dinner a few weeks ago. I’m aghast at some of the comments in this thread, though. Rape doesn’t always look the way it does in the movies, folks. Maybe a post on Consent 101 is in order?

  85. Jim
    Jim August 21, 2009 at 1:44 pm |

    Sheelzebub,

    “Any “unspoken agreement” they had was entirely revokable at his whim. That’s power.”

    Sure it is power, and I never questioned that. The point was that an unspoken or spoken agreement CAN give her power WITHIN the frame of his assumed love for her.

    “At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if he loved her or she loved him.”

    I think it does for the question of whether she was able to consent to sexual acts or not. I mean, assuming these were two people who really loved each other inspite of power differences and had the most amazing mutually satisfying over the moon sex of their lives, she’s lying happily in his arms, he’s whispering tender things into her ear, and then someone says: Look, sorry for interrupting, but don’t look so happy, what this actually is, it’s rape, Mr. Jefferson, as she, being a slave, cannot actually give consent. She may want to say yes, she may say yes, but given the amount of power you hold over her, it’s impossible for her to truly consent. Sorry, Sally, you were just raped, Mr. Jefferson, you are a rapist.

    I mean, at the very least, don’t you think there ought to be a term differentiating “violent sexual aggression rape” from this kind of “socially defined female inability to consent because of power differentials rape which she *may* have actually experienced not as a violation but as making love because she felt she actually consented?”

    And following up on Bagelsan’s comment above -

    “I mean, most guys are physically larger and stronger than me; does that mean the threat of violence is always implicit in relationships I have? So then it’s impossible for me to consent *really*?”

    - what would be the conditions for you to accept a woman’s consent as valid?

  86. Faith from F.N.
    Faith from F.N. August 21, 2009 at 1:49 pm |

    “And I can acknowledge the debt this country owes to Jefferson and consider him a great man while still understanding that he, by definition, was a rapist…”

    I was right with you up to this point. Jefferson may have done some great things in his time, but no man who is a rapist is a “great man”.

    “Why can’t he be a rapist AND “one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, a statesman, a former president and one of the founding fathers” ?”

    He was. I just don’t believe that he deserves much to any respect for all those other things that he did that he actually gets credit for given that he was a rapist. I’m also not at all sorry if it offends people to hear that I have no respect for Thomas Jefferson. I don’t have respect for men who use their power in society to manipulate women into submission. I don’t give a damn how wonderful their contributions to society may have been. A rapist is a rapist is a rapist.

  87. Faith from F.N.
    Faith from F.N. August 21, 2009 at 1:54 pm |

    “I mean, at the very least, don’t you think there ought to be a term differentiating “violent sexual aggression rape” from this kind of “socially defined female inability to consent because of power differentials rape which she *may* have actually experienced not as a violation but as making love because she felt she actually consented?””

    No.

    “- what would be the conditions for you to accept a woman’s consent as valid?”

    Living in a society in which both people have equal legal rights that are respected and neither individual is forced to be subjugated or dependent on the other person in any capacity. What is so hard to comprehend here?

  88. Roxanne
    Roxanne August 21, 2009 at 1:57 pm |

    Arc D’X, by Erickson, is an excellent novel about this very thing.

  89. Crys T
    Crys T August 21, 2009 at 2:06 pm |

    “don’t you think there ought to be a term differentiating ‘violent sexual aggression rape’ from this kind of ‘socially defined female inability to consent because of power differentials rape which she *may* have actually experienced not as a violation but as making love because she felt she actually consented?’”

    Jim, you are seriously making my skin crawl. Why the hell are you so invested in defining degrees of rape? Every time I read one of you rape apologists doing this, it sounds to me like you’re trying to definie a “gray area” where you can get away with raping a woman but not be “technically” guilty. It’s disgusting and misogynistic and, as Renee has just pointed out, in this case it’s deeply racist.

  90. Abyss2hope
    Abyss2hope August 21, 2009 at 2:09 pm |

    @danny you wrote: “(By “consent” I mean consent through force, coersion, or whatever. Not to be confused with actual consent.)”

    Actually, by “consent” what you mean is compliance. Verbal compliance, even a loud “yes,” in response to force, coercion or whatever is not any form of consent. Using the term consent even with scare quotes to refer to compliance or a lack of resistance is not only incorrect it helps people excuse sexual violence in themselves and in others. This usage allows people to get away with the lie, “She consented. That’s what the law says I needed. How was I to know it wasn’t actual consent?”

    In modern criminal cases such as the “my turn rapist” case where the rapist gave the rape victim (who had just been raped by his friend thanks to his cooperation) the choice between sex and rape, this idea of “consent” allows people to deny that the rape victim’s only choice was in assessing the response which would result in the least trauma from the promised sexual assault. The truth was that she never had a choice between consenting and not consenting. But to most of those who call compliance “consent,” the sexual assault only began when she begged her rapist to stop mid-rape when it began the instant he and his friend started forcing this woman sexually.

    In Sally Hemings case there was a constant threat over her head and over the heads of her children. She had to know of examples of what happened to slaves and/or their children when a slave did not comply to their owner’s satisfaction. Thomas Jefferson knew this. Yet he proceeded anyway. Like modern day rapists he may have quieted the part of him which believed in freedom with rationalizations about why he was a better man than those violent rapists.

    His actions can’t be dismissed with, “he was a man of his day.” The most we should say is that his day helped him to rationalize his actions toward Sally Hemings.

  91. AMM
    AMM August 21, 2009 at 2:21 pm |

    I’m not sure what this article is supposed to be telling us that we didn’t already know, nor do I see what the point is in labelling Jefferson a rapist.

    We know that she was his slave (which is a pretty horrific thing, not only by our modern standards, but to many people in his own time), and that, formally at least, he could do whatever he wanted to with her. He had the right to kill her, torture her, work her to death, sell her to an abusive master, for any reason or none, and she had nothing to say about it. Why is the fact that he could also force her to have sex with him so much worse?

    There are a lot of reasons not to see Jefferson as a saint. (And, I grew up in Virginia, so I know there are a lot of people who do see him as one.) He was an advocate of an English-style class system in America, he owned slaves and advocated slavery, he tried to bring the USA into the war between Britain and France; there’s probably a lot of other stuff I don’t even know about.

    But beating on the “Jefferson was a rapist” drum ignores the fact that there is more to relations between people, even master and slave, than who has the power.

    For one thing, the fact that masters usually wanted something more than just craven submission and cries of anguish out of their slaves gave the slaves some leverage, and in many cases, slaves were able to carve out some “rights” vis-a-vis their masters. (Cf. the book Roll Jordan Roll — the world the slaves made.) In a situation like Hemings, where there may well have been mutual love, focussing only on the power imbalance ignores not only the degree of freedom that she was apparently able to create within the relationship, but very possibly other things that may have been just as important to Hemings as her position as slave.

    For another, relationships are rarely truly “equal,” even in our modern enlightened times, and it’s not even clear that equality is the most important ingredient in a happy relationship. How much equality is needed before apparently consensual sex stops being called rape?

  92. Jim
    Jim August 21, 2009 at 2:24 pm |

    Crys T.,

    well, if two things aren’t the same, they should not be lumped together. I do realize that feminists don’t want to discuss a topic like this with the necessary emotional distance. I suppose I understand why that’s the case, but whatever the reasons, it’s no way to have a debate. Well, I don’t want to make your skin crawl, and I’m not willing to engage in a conversation with someone who calls me a “rape apologist”, so I respectfully disengage. It was an interesting experience.

  93. Tom Foolery
    Tom Foolery August 21, 2009 at 2:32 pm |

    I do realize that feminists don’t want to discuss a topic like this with the necessary emotional distance.

    Glad to see you’re looking to win hearts and minds here, Jim. Peace out!

    1. Cara
      Cara August 21, 2009 at 2:34 pm |

      Don’t let the door hit you on the way out . . .

  94. Drakyn
    Drakyn August 21, 2009 at 2:34 pm |

    Jim, you fail at life. Why are you bringing your racist rape-apologism (which, yes, is what your comments are) to a FEMINIST site? Why don’t you go back to MRA sites where your comments would be welcome?

    Renee, this post & your comments here are awesome. I sent this link to my little sister & she also thought your post was great; she’s 17 & had never heard of Sally Hemings before (we live in a mostly-white conservative area of southeastern MI, so I’m not surprised).

  95. chava
    chava August 21, 2009 at 2:36 pm |

    “The necessary emotional distance”???

    What the *&^%!@(!!!!!!!!!!.

    Not to be too too much of a feminazi, but what is it about THIS thread that brings the men out of the woodwork? Where are you guys on threads where, gee, maybe rape apologism isn’t even a potential threadjack?

  96. Faith from F.N.
    Faith from F.N. August 21, 2009 at 2:38 pm |

    “do realize that feminists don’t want to discuss a topic like this with the necessary emotional distance. ”

    Jim,

    The feminists here have already done the necessary processing and discussing while engaging in “the necessary emotional distance”. It is precisely because we have spent so much time discussing and considering these matters that men like you make our skin crawl and make some of us (like me) spit and sputter with shock and rage.

    You a man – and a white one I’d wager – came onto a blog post written by a black woman about the experience of a black woman and basically told her that she was wrong. You’re suffering from just a tad bit of arrogance and male/white privilege, to say the least.

  97. Faith from F.N.
    Faith from F.N. August 21, 2009 at 2:43 pm |

    “Not to be too too much of a feminazi, but what is it about THIS thread that brings the men out of the woodwork?”

    Threads/posts like these make them face the facts. That’s a difficult thing for the average man (particularly the average white man) to do.

  98. Abyss2hope
    Abyss2hope August 21, 2009 at 3:15 pm |

    @Jim “well, if two things [violent sexual aggression rape vs. all other rapes] aren’t the same, they should not be lumped together.”

    They may not be the same from your perspective or from Thomas Jefferson’s perspective, but to say they aren’t the same is to nullify the perspective of those who have been raped without the use of immediate and stereotypical violent sexual aggression. The “necessary emotional distance” seems to be an expectation that the full reality of those who have raped must be erased.

    Many rapists who cannot deny their actions try to excuse their actions by favorably comparing their actions to the actions of gun-toting rapists. Their claim that they would never kidnap some unknown person and rape them may be truthful but it only explains how they rationalize the rape(s) they did commit.

    Being raped at the point of a gun and being raped by someone who is naked but who can use their legal right to murder you and your lack of legal right to defend yourself from rape can both be terrifying. But the danger from the first type of rape may end the moment that rapist leaves or lets you go while the second type of rapist will be a danger until you are sold or one of you dies.

  99. Abyss2hope
    Abyss2hope August 21, 2009 at 3:17 pm |

    correction: the end of the 1st paragraph should be: the full reality of those who have BEEN raped must be erased.

  100. julian
    julian August 21, 2009 at 4:42 pm |

    If we were talking about a child that had been abused by an adult would any of you even consider presenting the argument that you are?

    Renee, I only wish this was a sound point…but unfortunately, all too often (especially in the case of children of color — even little girls can’t escape the racist idea of WoC being some sort of primal sex animal), even children are accused of “wanting it” (etc) when they come forward after being molested/raped/etc.

    Remember that case with the 10 year old girl who was gang raped by a group of teenage boys? (If I remember correctly, it was a girl of Australian Aboriginal descent.) The big defense was that she was the instigator, not the boys years her senior (at least one of whom was an adult, again, IIRC).

    Hell, I was raped systematically from the age of 5 through adolescence, and even though I am white (and male-bodied), I’ve had plenty of people tell me that I had to have consented or that it was somehow my fault.

    In a rape apologist’s mind, there is NO situation in which consent has been removed — not for children, not for slaves, not when you say “no,” not when you fight back, not when you dress in the equivalent of a burka, not when you’re a virgin, not when you’re married, not when you’re white, not when you’re sober and especially not when you’re drunk. To these men, your existence is consent to be used by them sexually.

    1. Cara
      Cara August 21, 2009 at 4:46 pm |

      All true Julian (and regular readers of my blog would know I’ve made the exact same argument many, many times), but I do believe in context, Renee was referring specifically to the feminist commenters of this blog. (Not all who have made the argument here identify as feminists, but many certainly do.) For which I’d expect and certainly hope the answer would be “no.”

  101. Sheelzebub
    Sheelzebub August 21, 2009 at 5:28 pm |

    Jesus H. Christ, Jim. How about this–pry your head out of your ass and drop your fucking condescending attitude? Emotional distance my ass. You’ve got your own dog in this fight, your own sense of privilege at stake. That you don’t recognize this is your blind spot. That you accuse us of being emotional and imply us of being irrational, that you lecture US about the proper way to debate this is ironic on several levels.

    The fact that you are a man does not make you somehow more rational or less emotional about this. I suggest you actually look at YOUR OWN biases and your OWN stake in this.

    And frankly, your hair-splitting about rape–can’t we call a violent rape rape but the “other” kind something else–makes my fucking skin crawl. Guess what? We’ve seen enough of that in modern times. Not beaten to a pulp? Well, it’s not exactly rape. . . Not kidnapped at gun point? Something different from rape. . .

    Seriously. Take your own advice. If you are actually interested in debating this, I suggest YOU put YOUR OWN emotions aside. They are on display for all to see.

  102. Meg
    Meg August 21, 2009 at 5:48 pm |

    “we DON’T know if Jefferson forced himself on Hemings. She lived in France when their physical relationship began and could have remained there as a free woman. According to her son Madison, she agreed to return to America on the condition that all of her children be freed…”

    So if I were to enslave your children, in a country where slavery was legal and so they were completely at my mercy, and tell you that I’d only free them if you agreed to have sex with me, that would not be rape. ‘Cause you agreed! Clearly a reasonable person, unattracted to me, would let hir kids suffer in perpetuity!

    The thing I hate most about reading rape apologist comments is that I can’t help but wonder how many of these people are applying this kind of logic in their own personal lives. If enslaving someone’s kids doesn’t count as coercion, then probably nothing short of a gun to the head does.

  103. stlthy
    stlthy August 21, 2009 at 6:12 pm |

    Jim, it sounds to me like you’re the one who’s unable to emotionally distance yourself here. It’s odd that you seem to be so desperate to believe the rapist and the young Black woman he owned really, really! loved each other, so it wasn’t *really* rape, and furthermore that the rapist loved Hemings so much that he was at the mercy of her feminine wiles, and that this somehow negated the power dynamics – race, gender, class and institutionalised slavery – that were stacked against Hemings.

    You probably think you’re being all romantic with the ‘love conquers all’ thing, but you’re really just showing how desperate you are maintain your white male privilege and engage in some really creepy rape denialism/apologism.

    Also loving the gratuitous ‘you feminists!’ attempt at a put down. Ever heard the expression ‘when you’re in a hole, stop digging’? That applies here.

    Anyway, thanks for this post, Renee. It was so common-sense, and I just cannot believe anyone would consider what you’re saying to be controversial. The points you’re making are just that unarguable.

  104. Austin
    Austin August 22, 2009 at 12:29 am |

    Jim, look at it like this: imagine someone went over to Africa, and kidnapped a fifteen year old girl. He took her home to a country where the police would do absolutely nothing about it. He then put her in a position where she would either have sex with him, or be abandoned, and left to a fate worse then death; and she did so. That wouldn’t be rape in your book?

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  106. Alexandra
    Alexandra August 22, 2009 at 9:13 am |

    Oh, my god.

    For once, I totally agree with Shah8 at comment # 89 –

    The spurious side argument that ALL WOMEN, not just black women or slave women, were in similar positions to Sally Hemmings, really irritates me. While clearly white women were institutionally disempowered by white men, and while clearly imbalances of power existed between married couples or lovers, such that the existence of real consent was dubious at best, it’s just… not the same as the rapes which were perpetrated by white slave owners upon their black slaves.

    There is a clear difference between being a woman who knows that if she defies her husband or lover, she may face illegal violence, quite possibly ignored by society, and being a woman who knows that the price of defiance is legal, condoned violence to the point of death or torture, or the death or torture of loved ones.

    Just… not even close.

    Also, on a more personal note — all of this talk of, “But did Sally Hemmings love Jefferson?”

    One, we can’t know, and I find it insulting to argue that a woman who was undeniably raped MIGHT – MIGHT – not have hated her rapist with such fervor and insistence. Two, why does everyone think that love and rape are incompatible? I fell in love with a man who raped me, but that doesn’t negate that for the duration of our relationship, our sexual encounters were ALWAYS frought with his history of violence toward me, whether or not I was consenting at the time. I think he also came to love me – one can never tell what’s inside someone else’s mind, but I suppose I’d know better than anyone but him. And even though he loved me and showed contrition, that didn’t make him a “good” rapist, or a “nice” rapist.

    It just made him a complicated human being vested with male privilege, living in a society clinging tenaciously to male supremacy, who loved a woman, and who abused her, and who may have regretted that abuse later.

  107. laprofe63
    laprofe63 August 22, 2009 at 2:28 pm |

    @ Abyss2hope: I agree with you. ‘His actions can’t be dismissed with, “he was a man of his day.” The most we should say is that his day helped him to rationalize his actions toward Sally Hemings.’

    I’d go farther and say that every man of any day always lives in a greater social and legal context in which his actions are rationalized. He has created this ‘rational’ world for himself and his own benefit, ensuring his success with brute force and emotional distance.

  108. zuzu
    zuzu August 22, 2009 at 3:10 pm |

    A gilded cage is still a cage, folks.

    Even if they had feelings for one another, and even if she was able to negotiate favorable terms for her captivity, she was still a piece of property, and he was her owner.

    Even though he wrote all this lovely stuff about freedom and Enlightenment principles, and the rights of man and all that, he owned human beings — including Sally Hemings, the sister of his wife and the mother of his children. Had she not secured an agreement that he would free her children if she returned from Paris with him, he would have owned his own children as well.

    So you can see the serious cognitive dissonance there. And it’s not like he wasn’t aware of what a hypocrite he was — he was forever getting dressed down by people like Abigail and John Adams, and the French, for his do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do ways.

    But speaking of the Adamses — if you read the big-ass biography of John Adams that recently came out, you learn that the real cherry on the shit sundae is *why* Jefferson didn’t free Sally Hemings and the rest of his slaves. Y’see, he was a profligate spender, always in debt, and though he faithfully wrote down every single purchase he made, he never balanced his books or did anything to cut his spending. And because he felt that he, as a Southern gentleman, *deserved* a certain standard of living, he refused to free his slaves, because the one thing he had that made any money was his lands. He did get Congress to buy his library (which became the Library of Congress), but basically, he retained ownership over his slaves despite the rank hypocrisy it represented because he liked nice things.

  109. Steph
    Steph August 22, 2009 at 3:26 pm |

    “They may not be the same from your perspective or from Thomas Jefferson’s perspective, but to say they aren’t the same is to nullify the perspective of those who have been raped without the use of immediate and stereotypical violent sexual aggression. The “necessary emotional distance” seems to be an expectation that the full reality of those who have raped must be erased. ”

    Well, from the perspective of having been a victim of violent stranger rape, it’s hard to think of rape in the context of an imbalance of power is the same thing. I recognize that is my selfish and myopic me-centric view, though, and I think this post and resulting discussion has opened my eyes to that reality a bit more.

  110. matlun
    matlun August 22, 2009 at 5:24 pm |

    Even though the “discussion” with Jim seems to have degenerated into flames, I would still be interested in the defintion of consent. Now, I am honestly requesting information here, so please be kind.

    As I have thought of consent, I would have said that there is definitely consent if

    1. The woman is intellectually and emotionally competent, and

    2. She truly believes she had sex because she wanted to (and not because she was forced to in one way or another)

    Clearly the board disagrees with this in the case where the power differential is large enough (?)

    PS. Since we can not read the mind of Sally Hemmings, this definition is not really applicable to the Jefferson case, but I find the discussion of the principle interesting…

    PS2. Someone else has probably already worked on this kind of question. Maybe someone can recommend a book or internet reference for discussions about it?

  111. Alyx
    Alyx August 22, 2009 at 7:19 pm |

    In defense of Thomas Jefferson,
    Most women at the age of 16 were uneducated and were often arranged in marriages. In a time when women did not have rights, especially black slaves, using your logic, you could very well suggest that most if not all men – not just Thomas Jefferson – were rapists.

    It is hard to really understand what went on in the mind of Thomas Jefferson in so far as his personal relationships and beliefs follow. He was a very quiet man, and while much has been written of him, we don’t know enough about his real intentions and feelings and we can only assume A) he was a bad person or B) He was a very good person.

    I am under the assumption that Thomas Jefferson was essentially a very, very good person who was far too ahead of his time.
    This is why I think he was a very, very, very good person:
    1) There is new light on the Declaration of Independence that suggests with the statement “All men are created equal” that Thomas Jefferson was opening the doors to abolish slavery. It wasn’t just “All american men(To suggest that slaves were not really american)” or “All citizens are created equal” to again, suggest slaves were not citizens. But it was “All Men are created equal.” In my opinion, Thomas Jefferson (Like John Adams) saw to the end of slavery.

    2) Thomas Jefferson was the only president of his time who believed that Native Americans deserved their rights as well. He believed in the immunization of Native Americans against European diseases, and researched many means to go about that. They are unsuccessful, unfortunately.

    3) Sally Hemmings did not have to go with Thomas Jefferson to France. The fact that he invited her and even freed her children suggests that he truly and absolutely loved her, to the point of even throwing away his prestige and voting chances to defend her. This might be an excellent point to also bring up that Thomas Jefferson married once, his wife died, and then he entered the affair never to marry again (Which is also unusual for a man of his time.)

    Thomas Jefferson was a very, very unusual man for his time. Hell, the man even re-wrote the new testament censoring all of the parts that he condemned “Fantasy” which was essentially anything involving a miracle or a conversation with god.

    A reinvestigation into his relationship with Sally Hemmings would be interesting and I appreciate that you’ve opened this dialogue. Unfortunately, we can only assume what his intentions were without knowing who he was. He was just that damn private, and quite a weirdo for his time.

  112. Alyx
    Alyx August 22, 2009 at 7:34 pm |

    Also:

    I understand what people are saying in the comments when it comes to rape. “Rape is still rape is still rape”. I understand that if the person is in a position of power over another (and it does not matter if they love eachother and are absolutely consenting to one another), it is still rape because the other person who ranks lower/is owned/controlled isn’t truly 100% consenting to sex. It is still rape.

    But… This just puts us in a whole new situation, beyond Thomas Jefferson. With that in mind, are you suggesting that all women in a sexual situation, including now where men still are the ruling party throughout the world, are being systematically and eternally raped?

    It makes me feel really uncomfortable, and the logic feels almost unfair.
    I’m not celebrating Rape at all, but in this context of “It doesn’t matter if she loved him” or “It doesn’t matter if she made sexual advances” or “It doesn’t matter if she initiated it” because she was his slave that still means she was raped.
    You could apply that same logic to every single living man in history, or even women like Queen Catherine of Russia who had more power, essentially owned every single man, and therefore every seduction committed by her was – in fact – a rape.

    Maybe someone can explain this to me, because this definition of Rape seems to over generalize men, women, and sex.

  113. A
    A August 22, 2009 at 7:36 pm |

    Victim blaming began with women of color and continues to this day.

    Victim blaming goes back a lot farther than Jefferson’s day and has affected women of all colors since the beginning of our species. Rape has been and still is blamed often on the victim, especially if the rapist is in a higher social status than his victim. In most societies, women have the least power in their particular social order and are the one’s to be blamed.

    I think a lot of our “heroes” have shadows we refuse to accept. I am not sure what we can do about it. Believing you can own another human being and do as you wish with them is also older Jefferson and is still going on. I’m not sure what we can do about that one either.

  114. Jim
    Jim August 22, 2009 at 8:02 pm |

    zuzu,

    “because he liked nice things.”

    if true, I think he cannot have truly loved her and as such, well, then he was a rapist. “Because he liked nice things” isn’t a categorical imperative.

  115. Azalea
    Azalea August 22, 2009 at 9:08 pm |

    My hesitation to label ANY woman a rape victim who has never ever claimed to be one and even reinforced this claim through her children and holding strong to a claim that she actually-as a person who was supposed to be the perpetual victim, one who NEVER gets a choice-made a decision to consent to something that other human beings of the time got to consent to.

    Do I think it was wrong? Yes as wrong as it is for a college professor to have sex with his student-, a boss to have sex with his employee, a landlord with his tenant he literally holds her future but who is to say she did not do it willingly. That the victimization was in the circumstance- not the act. Had Sally Hemmings been a white Irish slave I doubt this discussion would go far even though Irish slaves were treated just as badly as black slaves in many cases.

    This kinda reads that Sally Hemmings was the victim of a rape that she had not the good sense to realize was going on OR that she -like the stereotype of all black women- used her body to get what she wanted. That she stifled all her natural human emotions and desires or never had them because as a black female slave she was somehow unable to be THAT human. The only fact I can go by is what she’s written and what her descendants say.

    And yes a kidnapped child can believe with all her heart she’s in love with her captor, its called Stockholm syndrome.

    1. Cara
      Cara August 22, 2009 at 9:25 pm |

      This kinda reads that Sally Hemmings was the victim of a rape that she had not the good sense to realize was going on OR that she -like the stereotype of all black women- used her body to get what she wanted.

      You know, with regards to the first half of this sentence, and I say this as gently as possible . . . I find it really insulting that any woman who doesn’t recognize that she is being abused is lacking “good sense.” A lot of women don’t realize that what they’re being subjected to is abuse, because it’s considered normal, and I think that might even go extra when we’re talking about sexual abuse. So as someone who didn’t realize that she was being raped as she was being raped because she thought that this was just how life was, and this is what men do and what women are for, I find that statement really upsetting. Especially because it’s such a common notion, and one that often causes survivors to not receive the support they need and to be blamed for the abuse. So, while I know perfectly well that you weren’t talking about me, you might want to rethink that wording and its implications and consequences.

      As for the second half . . . I think there’s a big, huge difference between “using her body to get what she wanted” and “doing what she had to do to survive.” Want and survival are two vastly different things, and when it comes to whether or not your children are enslaved, I’m not really sure how “want” figures into the equation.

  116. Pat
    Pat August 22, 2009 at 11:00 pm |

    why is everyone getting so worked up about history, hasn’t the laws been changed, and someone said Jesus was white, nope he was jewish

  117. Pat
    Pat August 22, 2009 at 11:14 pm |

    these people who get so worked up should come back to Aug 22,09 and be a spokes person for the ones now a days that are getting raped and killed and in need of HELP from you who believe in what you are saying. or do you only look back. anger and cursing won’t help. Help to redo the law that if caught raping a child should be death not 15 years in prison, which they spend 3.5 years, and are let out to rape and kill the next time. Help with a rape victims get rid of the rapest rather it be man or woman.

  118. Raincitygirl
    Raincitygirl August 22, 2009 at 11:22 pm |

    If Jefferson really loved Sally Hemmings, he had OPTIONS, for fuck’s sake. He was already married to Martha Wayles Jefferson (Sally’s half-sister), so he couldn’t marry her. But he could’ve stayed in Paris with her where she would be a free woman, or he could’ve made financial provision for her and their children to stay in Paris even if he went back to Virginia.

    When I was a child visiting my grandparents in England, they had a friend in the village historical society whose great-great-grandparents had been Americans. Said friend told me all about them (I tried to explain that I was from CANADA, which was a whole different country, but it didn’t really register with her). Anyway, this elderly lady’s great-great-grandfather had come to England as a young man in the early nineteenth century to study law or something. He was from one of the slave states, and when he came to England he brought a young female slave with him, allegedly as a servant. In fact, she was his mistress. Now, given that she belonged to his family, she presumably had not had a whole lot of choice about whether or not to become his mistress in the first place.

    HOWEVER, once they were in England, the man in question decided not to return to his homeland, and ended up marrying her. He also arranged for her children from a previous relationship to be sent to England from his family’s estate. One child died of pneumonia or something shortly after arriving in England, but he ended up legally adopting the surviving child. All this was highly unusual in early nineteenth century England, but not illegal there.

    And this was pitched to me by their great-great-granddaughter (herself an elderly woman in the 1980′s) as a great love story. She also pitched it appropriately for my childish ears, such that her great-great-grandfather first became “sweet on” his slave back home, but nothing happened until they got to England and got married. Even at ten years old, my (unspoken) response to that was “Yeah, RIGHT.” Also, there was a good patch of time in between their arrival in England and their marriage, apparently.

    And he apparently tried to buy and bring to England some of her relatives, but eventually his relatives back home found out about his scandalous marriage and cut him off with the proverbial shilling. Given that the story I heard was several generations later, the lady who told me looked totally white. And ironically enough, according to my grandparents she’d had major friction with her own daughter when said daughter married a Nigerian man. I guess a long-dead slave great-great-grandmother is a whole lot easier to deal with than a black son-in-law and grandchildren in the here and now.

    Now, did Mrs “Biddenden” in fact love her owner/husband? I have no fucking clue. I doubt she felt much ability to refuse when the sexual relationship started (presumably while she was still in America and he was still her owner). And it seems pretty damn cruel for her to be separated from her children, even though said separation turned out to be temporary. And he may have used emotional blackmail on her (for all I know, sending for and freeing her children may have been conditional upon her agreeing to marry him or something). But it sounds like Mr. “Biddenden” did his best to mitigate the dubiously consensual circumstances under which the relationship started. He freed her, he freed her children (and not just the children they ended up having together, which could be justified as self-interest, but his stepchildren), he broke with his family and settled in a foreign country where their marriage would be considered strange but nobody could get arrested for it. Breaking with his family presumably meant walking away from some financial interest (although it sounds like by that point his family had already paid for him to learn a profession so he could earn a living in England and support his wife and children).

    Was he a nice person and a good husband and father? I don’t know. But I’d take a guess he was probably a nicer person than Thomas Jefferson. Admittedly, not that high a bar. And admittedly, the way Jefferson treated Sally Hemings was probably better than how a lot of slave “mistresses” got treated by their owners. But none of that makes Jefferson an objectively good person. He spent his entire life profiting from slavery and living off the income it gave him. The only slaves he ever freed were his own flesh-and-blood, and he never got round to freeing the mother of his children, the woman he supposedly loved. Sally Hemings’s life could have been worse, if Jefferson had been a worse man (he could’ve broken his promise to free their children. Certainly she had no way of holding him to said promise. He could’ve even sold their children away from her). But her life could’ve been a lot better too. Jefferson couldn’t have married her, but he could’ve settled in France and treated her as his common-law wife, made sure their children were raised in a society where they were automatically free as opposed to needing to be specially freed. Mr. “Biddenden”‘s story may be unusual, but I’m sure he wasn’t the only favoured son of the slave system ever to break away from the system and move his family somewhere they wouldn’t be property. Jefferson could’ve done the same. He didn’t.

    P.S. Please note that I’m not romanticizing late eighteenth century France or early nineteenth century England. Slavery may have been illegal THERE, but that didn’t stop them from making a fortune off the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They just didn’t get their hands dirty by letting the ships stop there along the way anymore. And it wasn’t necessarily illegal because they were so enlightened, but because both Britain and France had a large white peasantry to fill the need for cheap labour. Even after slavery on British soil was abolished in 1807 Lloyd’s of London made a fortune insuring slave cargoes. And even after the trans-Atlantic slave trade was officially abolished, it took a very, very long time for it to be enforced strictly enough that the trade stopped being profitable. And we all know about British and French actions in their African colonial possessions, actions which mostly took place after the abolition of slavery. However, all that having been said, if you were a slave who made it to, say, England after 1807, your life would probably be better than if you’d been kept in America or the Carribean. Assuming, that is, that you either had the means to support yourself and your family (i.e. weren’t a young pregnant woman with few marketable skills, like, say, Ms. Hemings) or that you were being financially supported by your partner.

  119. T
    T August 23, 2009 at 12:28 am |

    I believe at any time past or future if you are forced to have sex or do sexual things to a male or female it is called rape. As far as it being a man of power yeah they will do what pleases them.

  120. T
    T August 23, 2009 at 12:40 am |

    As far as rape i has been going on fir generation and they are all terriable acts of sexual satification for the one who is raping the other they all need prayer and to be delt with properly

  121. Alyx
    Alyx August 23, 2009 at 12:41 am |

    These are very strong accusations. And it makes sense that in Hemmings situation, since she was the property of Thomas Jefferson, that she was – indeed – raped.

    What he did at the time may not have been considered a violation due to current race and gender relations, however; today we can correctly name his actions. Sally did not have the power to consent to his advances even if she was so inclined; this simple fact must be affirmed not only to honour the memory of Hemings but to change the social understanding that Black women’s bodies are unrapeable

    But couldn’t this same logic be applied to all women of that time period, white or black? Especially in Britain where women could not even own property, and were considered the property of others. Were they too essentially raped whenever sexual advances were made, regardless of what their choice was?

    Taking your logic of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson’s relationship a step further, and applying the power politics in that direction, it does accentuate history in a very dark light. For these reasons, this claim is extremely strong. If you are going to apply the logic that Sally was owned by Thomas Jefferson and he raped her (even if she may have consented to sex on all accounts), then you could very well apply this to the millions of marriage contracts worldwide historically in which women could not own property and were – essentially – slaves.

    I don’t know if I like that logic. Women’s history seems to be a bit more dynamic, complex, and I don’t know if I like overgeneralizing the relationship between a man and a woman (In this case Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings) as rape. I may not like it, but whose to say it isn’t true?

  122. SunlessNick
    SunlessNick August 23, 2009 at 1:34 am |

    For those still wondering why I use the word Whiteness, this thread is a perfect example. - Renee

    Quoted for truth.

    Really, a lot of the white posters in this thread ought to be looking at why they’re so afraid of what Renee has to say.

    I do realize that feminists don’t want to discuss a topic like this with the necessary emotional distance. - Jim

    Because “emotional distance” is just the comfort sought by those who are afraid that detached words on a page won’t get to the truth of something viscerally played out on bodies and souls.

  123. SunlessNick
    SunlessNick August 23, 2009 at 1:39 am |

    And yes a kidnapped child can believe with all her heart she’s in love with her captor, its called Stockholm syndrome. - Azalea

    So can a slave. Doesn’t change the truth though.

  124. lyons
    lyons August 23, 2009 at 3:45 am |

    Have any of you guys seen that movie with Nick Nolte about this? I think that would make your heads explode! Thandie Newton was Hemings. Nolte was sleeping with her while romancing this French lady at the same time. It was an odd movie, and I didn’t think the director could really make up his mind how he wanted to portray Jefferson.

    Of COURSE Jefferson was a bastard. Life was cheap and brute force ruled the day back then. They knew better, too, so that is no excuse. There were already a lot of people opposed to slavery; Quakers and stuff, and others.

    They had great handwriting, though.

  125. eibhear
    eibhear August 23, 2009 at 7:12 am |

    Wonderful post! Hear, hear!

  126. Sheelzebub
    Sheelzebub August 23, 2009 at 7:13 am |

    You know, Azalea, I was going to reply, but I’ll just second what Cara said.

    Good god. Everytime I check in on this thread, it’s just another plate of WTF for breakfast served up.

  127. Faith from F.N.
    Faith from F.N. August 23, 2009 at 8:32 am |

    “And yes a kidnapped child can believe with all her heart she’s in love with her captor, its called Stockholm syndrome.” – Azalea

    What’s bothering me is this seeming belief that as long as one person – or both people – in such a situation love each other, then the relationship is perfectly acceptable. Love doesn’t negate, validate, or erase social inequalities. I’ve been in love with a man who had a tremendous amount of power over me. Power that he abused. The fact that I loved him did not change the fact that our relationship was seriously fucked up.

  128. Rebecca
    Rebecca August 23, 2009 at 10:24 am |

    Oh my god.

    My hesitation to label ANY woman a rape victim who has never ever claimed to be one and even reinforced this claim through her children and holding strong to a claim that she actually-as a person who was supposed to be the perpetual victim, one who NEVER gets a choice-made a decision to consent to something that other human beings of the time got to consent to.

    After puzzling through that paragraph, I’m going to offer you a scenario: You and your children are kidnapped. The kidnapper says he will kill your children if you do not have sex with him. Even if you refuse, he might rape you anyway, and you’ll have no way of redress. In this scenario where you are the victim, would you consider a decision to have sex with him a decision to consent?

    Do I think it was wrong? Yes as wrong as it is for a college professor to have sex with his student-, a boss to have sex with his employee, a landlord with his tenant he literally holds her future but who is to say she did not do it willingly. That the victimization was in the circumstance- not the act.

    This just doesn’t make any sense. She was in a circumstance where she could not meaningfully consent, yet when Jefferson had sex with her without her consent, … ?

    Had Sally Hemmings been a white Irish slave I doubt this discussion would go far even though Irish slaves were treated just as badly as black slaves in many cases.

    You did not go there. Please, tell me this is sarcasm.

    This kinda reads that Sally Hemmings was the victim of a rape that she had not the good sense to realize was going on OR that she -like the stereotype of all black women- used her body to get what she wanted. That she stifled all her natural human emotions and desires or never had them because as a black female slave she was somehow unable to be THAT human. The only fact I can go by is what she’s written and what her descendants say.

    Let’s stick with the scenario above: You decide to have sex with your kidnapper in order to keep your children from being killed. You then all manage to escape, and the police miraculously catch the kidnapper and try him for kidnapping and rape. The defense attorney argues that because you complied in order to save your children, his client is blameless. If you agree with him, should the police drop the charges? If he argues that maybe you were just desperate for sex?

    And yes a kidnapped child can believe with all her heart she’s in love with her captor, its called Stockholm syndrome.

    So what you’re saying is that if a kidnapper rapes a child he or she has kidnapped, that’s perfectly okay.

  129. Moira
    Moira August 23, 2009 at 10:43 am |

    key words in YOUR article, Renee:

    “it is rumoured”
    “It was widely suggested…”
    “It is my belief…”
    “Assuming that….”

  130. Faith
    Faith August 23, 2009 at 11:23 am |

    I just had to chime in here. The excuses made by the majority of commenters is to be expected. They are idiots. They are indoctrinated in their white privilege and racism so to expect enlightenment is rather futile, no?

  131. Abyss2hope
    Abyss2hope August 23, 2009 at 11:51 am |

    @laprofe63 I agree with your statement which goes farther than mine. Men of all times who choose to enslave others or rape them look to their own time for the rationalizations they need to do that harm without accountability.

    @zuzu you make excellent points which thoroughly debunk the claim that TJ was just a man of his time. Even in his own time his actions weren’t what all men in his time were doing.

  132. Natalia
    Natalia August 23, 2009 at 12:41 pm |

    Thanks, zuzu, for reminding everyone of Jefferson’s own financial background in relation to this issue. I honestly had no idea. Picture is even grimmer than you think. Yuck.

  133. Patrick J McGraw
    Patrick J McGraw August 23, 2009 at 1:13 pm |

    Excellent post. I would argue that it is still possible that Jefferson and Hemmings loved each other – people can be very, very irrational. But there simply isn’t the evidence to determine one way or the other.

    But whether there was any love on either side, as you said: “Sally did not have the power to consent to his advances even if she was so inclined.” Jefferson was a slave-keeper and a rapist either way.

    (And kudos to those here who have so neatly dismantled the atrocious, undying “he was a man of his times” argument. The abolitionist movement predated Jefferson, and if he truly had any abolitionist leaning he would not have, you know, enslaved people.)

  134. Rebecca
    Rebecca August 23, 2009 at 3:57 pm |

    these people who get so worked up should come back to Aug 22,09 and be a spokes person for the ones now a days that are getting raped and killed and in need of HELP from you who believe in what you are saying. or do you only look back. anger and cursing won’t help. Help to redo the law that if caught raping a child should be death not 15 years in prison, which they spend 3.5 years, and are let out to rape and kill the next time. Help with a rape victims get rid of the rapest rather it be man or woman.

    History matters. The people in this comment thread saying that her inability to deny consent didn’t matter if she was in love with him are the same ones who, on August 22nd, 2009, will rape women and say that it wasn’t rape because she loved them, or she didn’t fight back, or she was using her feminine wiles to get that promotion.

  135. Faith from F.N.
    Faith from F.N. August 23, 2009 at 5:25 pm |

    This thread just keeps getting more bizarre and more bizarre and more bizarre. Did some MRA asshat link to this post or something? Is that where all these “well, I just don’t want to believe it” and “oh, love – sweet, sweet love” folks are coming from?

    I keep waiting from Ashton Kutcher to jump out of my monitor and scream, “YOU’VE BEEN PUNK’D!!”

  136. Abyss2hope
    Abyss2hope August 23, 2009 at 11:22 pm |

    @pat (127): “these people who get so worked up should come back to Aug 22,09 and be a spokes person for the ones now a days that are getting raped and killed and in need of HELP from you who believe in what you are saying.”

    Your assumption is provably wrong for all those you are attacking whom I know of beyond this post. Renee speaks out against current sexual violence. Cara does as well. Ditto for other commenters I haven’t listed. I’m a volunteer currently helping with primary prevention of sexual violence in MN and I volunteered for over 9 years answering my local rape crisis line.

    With the number of children and adults being controlled today as sex slaves this subject is highly relevant.

  137. Raincitygirl
    Raincitygirl August 24, 2009 at 2:09 am |

    With the number of children and adults being controlled today as sex slaves this subject is highly relevant.

    Now, now, Abyss, you’re lacking the proper emotional distance to discuss this sensibly. Tut, tut. If you but only had a penis (preferably a white one), you wouldn’t be so foolish and emotional. It’s a darn good thing these detached, lightning-intellected fellows have shown up to teach us poor feeble creatures the error of our ways.

    P.S. It’s all clear to me now. Despite all the evidence, some white guy on the internet doesn’t like to think about the great Thomas Jefferson as a sexual predator. So, logically, Jefferson isn’t one. And Sally Hemmings disappears once again. Barely a footnote in history because heaven knows we wouldn’t want anybody reading today to feel *uncomfortable.*

  138. kitsy
    kitsy August 24, 2009 at 3:38 pm |

    Yeah, because 16 year old girls would never consent to having sex with a rich, powerful, handsome older man…

  139. Your Monday Random-Ass Roundup: Back to Beck « PostBourgie

    [...] Renee from Womanist Musings guest-blogs at Feministe, and reminds us that the sweet, sweet love affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was actually, um, rape. [...]

  140. Raincitygirl
    Raincitygirl August 24, 2009 at 7:59 pm |

    Uh, Kitsy, the rich (but constantly in debt), powerful (okay, I’ll give you that one), handsome (?????) older man OWNS the sixteen year old girl in question. Literally. Don’t you think that might make a tad bit of a difference?

  141. Dan
    Dan August 24, 2009 at 8:35 pm |

    To me this was rape.

    That said, I am surprised that so many people here and in “anti-opression” sites such as Racialicious declared that Sarkozy was wrong banning the burka on the grounds that some women may want to wear it “voluntarily”. But ¡sn’t this situation similar? If we are assuming coercion in the case of Hemings (as we should), why so many people believe that women declaring that they wear the burka voluntarily (and I’ve never heard of one yet) are not under coercion from their parents and husbands? Why so many people assume that their consent is somehow more authentic than Hemings’?

    And this is not about muslims, but about those muslim cultures that enforce the burka. As you know, they treat women pretty much as propierty. Why the difference of opinion?

  142. Kristen J.
    Kristen J. August 25, 2009 at 7:31 am |

    Kitsy,

    Fixed it for ya! ;)

    Yeah, because 16 year old girls would never cannot consent to having sex with a rich, powerful, handsome older man…

  143. Crys T
    Crys T August 25, 2009 at 8:23 am |

    All kidding aside, what kind of mentality thinks that just because a child* would say yes** to sex with a much-older adult, that adult isn’t morally culpable for having sex with the child? God, there are creepy people out there.

    *yes, I know: Americans seem to have some weird idea that only tiny children can be referred to as “children” (maybe something to do with rationalising prosecuting them as adults?) and tend to protest teenagers ever being referred to as children, but the rest of the world doesn’t agree with you on that one. Deal with it.

    **which, as Kristen illustrates, is NOT the same as giving consent

  144. Sheelzebub
    Sheelzebub August 25, 2009 at 9:05 am |

    Especially when said 16-year-old girls are legally owned by said rich, powerful, handsome older man.

    This thread glows with the stupid. Truly it does.

  145. Raincitygirl
    Raincitygirl August 26, 2009 at 9:31 pm |

    Dan, actually a strikingly high percentage of veiling Muslimahs living in Western countries do so AGAINST the wishes of their male relatives. That woman sitting next to you on the bus with her face covered, more than likely her husband/father/brothers would prefer she didn’t veil. Many Muslim women veil to make a public statement of their faith, so they can’t be ignored. Many Muslim men are worried that their female loved ones will be discriminated against and/or become targets for anti-Muslim violence if they cover. Example in point: Egyptian-born German resident who recently got stabbed to death in a freaking courtroom by her neighbour. He had started out merely complaining about her veil, and it escalated from threats to violence.

    Also, some women wear the veil as a political statement. In pre-Revolutionary Iran, for example, it was illegal for women to appear fully veiled in public, because the Shah wanted his country to present a modern and Western image to his Western backers. Women who turned up in public fully veiled in the 1970′s did so as a political statement against an undemocratic and corrupt political regime. And many of those women risked arrest and beatings from the Shah’s security forces for making this political statement.

    As for the global picture, I would be very cautious in assuming that a majority-Muslim country is *necessarily* oppressive towards women. Some are, some aren’t, like most countries in the global West, women’s rights exist on a continuum. The average (veiled) Muslimah in, say, Malaysia is going to have a different experience, and very different rights under her country’s laws, than a veiled Muslimah in, say, Saudi Arabia. So a blanket statement along the lines of “countries where women routinely wear veils are just as oppressive to women as Confederate Virginia was to black men and women.” Well, a statement like htat wouldn’t just be inflammatory, it’d also be factually incorrect.

  146. Rebecca
    Rebecca August 26, 2009 at 9:52 pm |

    That said, I am surprised that so many people here and in “anti-opression” sites such as Racialicious declared that Sarkozy was wrong banning the burka on the grounds that some women may want to wear it “voluntarily”. But ¡sn’t this situation similar? If we are assuming coercion in the case of Hemings (as we should), why so many people believe that women declaring that they wear the burka voluntarily (and I’ve never heard of one yet) are not under coercion from their parents and husbands? Why so many people assume that their consent is somehow more authentic than Hemings’?

    And this is not about muslims, but about those muslim cultures that enforce the burka. As you know, they treat women pretty much as propierty. Why the difference of opinion?

    Dan, all the explanation you need is in the thread here on Sarkozy and the burqa.

  147. gwallan
    gwallan August 27, 2009 at 6:37 am |

    I was sexually abused as a child. However at the time of this experience it was not technically “against the law”. The legal aspects have been rectified and they provide no statute of limitations. Regardless, one of the reasons I would never seek legal redress is because it wasn’t illegal at the time. The individual concerned had little reason to understand their actions to be wrong or illegal.

    Just sayin’.

  148. Raincitygirl
    Raincitygirl August 27, 2009 at 7:38 pm |

    I’m not sure I understand your point, gwallan.

  149. Dan
    Dan August 27, 2009 at 10:12 pm |

    @Raincitygirl

    That was an elegant response on your part. I agree that the veil can be worn voluntarily, even if it is just to avoid the western tyranny of female beauty. Nevertheless, my intention was to speak specifically about the burka and the cultures that enforce it (such as the Taliban). The veil can be seen as just clothing, but the burka to me is very different. It’s a prison. During the debate about the ban in France I was wondering what these women were thinking, but I never heard their voices, which is telling.

    Going back to the topic. I wonder if people here would be able to state that all married Afghan women have been raped and that all their husbands are rapist. Was it possible for Afghan women to be in love with their husbands under a regime where they were treated as property?

  150. gwallan
    gwallan August 28, 2009 at 7:05 am |

    @Raincitygirl…

    Re-read the last sentence of my main paragraph.

    This discussion both startles and saddens me. In some quarters it seems that even a celibate male would be hard pressed to escape the label “rapist”.

    But that, on it’s own, wouldn’t normally entice me to come out of hiding.

    No matter how benevolent my acts may seem today I sometimes wonder if they will be viewed so positively, say, a hundred or a hundred and fifty years hence. I would hope those future observers would recognise changing cultural values as a factor should they view me negatively.

    I am not American. However I do know the potted history being refered to in this discussion(thus goes the modern cultural hegemony I guess). Even through this rather negative portrayal I still get a sense that Jefferson likely adored this woman. And that she exerted considerable infleunce over him in at least some respects. I find myself thinking “well done young lady”. Seems she got the things she most desired.

    Still, never mind me. Let the character assassination resume.

  151. La Lubu
    La Lubu August 28, 2009 at 7:38 am |

    Seems she got the things she most desired.

    Well let’s see now: she didn’t get her freedom. She didn’t get her children by Jefferson formally recognized as his children, with the same rights to inheritance as his other children. She not only didn’t get to have him as a husband, she didn’t even get recognition as his mistress. “Well done young lady” indeed. You know goddamn good and well she didn’t have the ability to have her “no” heard, so regardless of what decisions she had to make in a tight spot in order to survive, any “adoration” Jefferson may have claimed to have felt (though certainly not publically, where it counts—-y’know, if you can’t stand up and shout to the world how much you love someone, it isn’t love) is meaningless. Absofuckinglutely meaningless.

    He “adored” her enough to keep her as his slave. That says it all. Actions, people. Not words.

  152. mary gilmartin
    mary gilmartin August 28, 2009 at 9:42 am |

    >Especially in Britain where women could not even own property, and were considered the property of others. Were they too essentially raped whenever sexual advances were made, regardless of what their choice was?

    Basically and in a very real way yes. These sort of inequalities are very very wrong.

    I was reading a look recently that talked about the old days of repression and slavery in ireland. The men of the big house used to sleep with their tenants wives and daughters. If they said no, the whole family was evicted and they died on the street.

    This is basically the same thing. Without the ability for one person to say no, then what you are doing is wrong.

  153. gwallan
    gwallan August 29, 2009 at 6:29 am |

    And resume it does.

    @La Lubu…

    You know nothing real of either of the individuals concerned nor the time in which they lived.

    Neither you nor I are positioned to really make any determination as to what went between those two folk. Personally I will not permit hatred to lead me in my judgement of anybody particularly if that hatred stems from class politics.

  154. La Lubu
    La Lubu August 29, 2009 at 10:32 am |

    You know nothing real of either of the individuals concerned nor the time in which they lived.

    Strange comment to be coming out of someone who declared, “seems she got the things she most desired.” You sure the hell positioned yourself to make a determination about what “she most desired.”

    Do you honestly believe that one of Sally Hemings’ most deepest desires was to be a slave? She certainly didn’t want that for her children; what makes you think she wanted that for herself? Have you even read any slave narratives? Here’s a news flash for you pal, people do not want to be enslaved.

    And for what it’s worth, this attitude is far from something that exists in the past. People are enslaved in the here and now. Women are enslaved in the here in now. Ever hear of sex trafficking? Sex tourism?

    I judge people based on their behavior rather than their words. Behavior is a better indicator of one’s true intent. Behavior reveals what words mask.

    As for “class politics”, funny you say “class politics” rather than “race politics” or even “class and race politics”. Funny your use of the word “politics”, as if Sally Hemings had any ability to “politic” at all, as an enslaved, disenfranchised individual. Your use of the term “politics” is to mask the tremendous power differential that quite clearly existed between Jefferson and Hemings. I prefer the term “oppression” to indicate what is really going on—both then, in this example with Hemings, and now all over the damn world.

    Now with that said, you’d be a rapist’s best friend on a jury, what with this, “oh, we don’t really know what happened; it’s all he said/she said. She’s still alive after all, so it couldn’t have really been rape.

  155. New Initiatives at Indiana U; Tulane University (and more!) | Change Happens: The SAFER Blog

    [...] in the past couple of weeks and I wanted to take a moment to highlight some of her great work. There was an interesting post on Thomas Jefferson and the dishonest implications of the use of the term “love affair” to describe his [...]

  156. Anon
    Anon September 2, 2009 at 5:09 am |

    I agree with this post entirely, save for one portion that I will devote a whole rant to because it hit one of my pet peeves right on the head.

    “Due to the patriarchal nature of gender relations, many men believe that they exist with the right to access women’s bodies and that is specifically grounded in the power imbalance between the genders.”

    There is something very, very wrong with this. There is no power imbalance between the “genders”. In our human culture, we are primarily patriarchal (however flexible, with some matriarchal societies), in which men control politics and resources, but to say that males and females are somehow ‘at war’ and that males are always dominant over females in nature simply isn’t true see meekats, elephants, bonobos ect. Also, humans are highly sentient. Have you noticed? We set up democracies and stuff. That means that we have more will and control over our actions than other animals. And while it may be true that in our society in which we choose our leaders we have an overwhelming tendency to choose males, many realize that it is an instinctual reaction to thousands of years of patriarchal leaders.

    I think you have some serious hang-ups about your own genitalia. I’ve been there. You hear about all the women who are massacred by their husbands, you remember your pathetic mom scrubbing the floor maybe, maybe your dad liked to storm into the house all self-important, maybe you were raped, I don’t know. Whatever happened to you, it’s making you look at yourself like your cunt makes you “submissive” in a society, and it doesn’t. I am so sick of girls putting themselves in that place, putting THEMSELVES in that place. And when men hear you describing yourself as sexually submissive somehow because of your gender that is how they will see all women (they are like babies that way), and will have to be violently (pleasurably?) corrected by their next wild girlfriend. Or they’ll date another woman like you, and continue for the rest of their lives thinking women are all sexually insecure. And they base opinions on this narrow pool of information, tell their friends, this forms into a stereotype that ultimately gets reflected back onto ME and girls like me.

    Totally off-topic, but I think some young woman out there needed to hear it. I’m sick of hearing males discribed as dominant, I’m sick of archaic human sexual behavior coloring how we view all biological life, including our own (note: archaic). I’m sick of having women describe penetration, sex, ect, as a “submissive” or “passive” act on their part. If it is, you’re either playing a “game” or you’re doing it wrong!

  157. S.A. Small
    S.A. Small September 4, 2009 at 2:22 pm |

    I have neither the inclination nor the time to go point by point over all the bullshit you just spewed (I have a paper due), so lemme address this:

    And while it may be true that in our society in which we choose our leaders we have an overwhelming tendency to choose males, many realize that it is an instinctual reaction to thousands of years of patriarchal leaders.

    If it’s “instinctual,” then it’s not something we “choose.” You insist that we are more sentient and thus have more free will, but in order to explain the–pardon the phrase–persistence of patriarchy, you fall back on an explanation where free will is decidedly absent. Or, what you’re really trying to say is that the “tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” If, then, you believe that history matters, then I have a hard time seeing how you can say there is no power imbalance (historical or otherwise) between women and men.
    Either way, you’ve completely contradicted yourself in a rather sad attempt to derail the thread. (Maybe I’m just feeding a troll?)

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