Annual Armstrong Lecture: Virginia Scharff Speaks on 'The Women Jefferson Loved'

Dr. Virginia Scharff

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August 9, 2011

A capacity crowd of history students, faculty, and Peoria residents packed the Wyckoff Room in the Cullom-Davis Library on April 20 to hear Dr. Virginia Scharff deliver the Department of History’s annual Armstrong Lecture on 'The Women Jefferson Loved.'

Professor of history at the University of New Mexico and Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, Dr. Scharff is the author of several important books on the history of women and mobility, gender, and environment in the American West. Her lecture was a distillation of her most recent book, The Women Jefferson Loved (Harper Collins, 2010), which is the first major study of Thomas Jefferson’s female kin and intimate companions. Dr. Scharff brought together the stories of these diverse women who were separated by race but related by blood, including Jefferson’s mother Jane Randolph; his wife, Martha, and her half sister, Sally Hemings, his slave mistress; his daughters; and his granddaughters.

Putting Jefferson’s free and slave families into the same story, Dr. Scharff argued, reveals how Jefferson’s love for women shaped his ideas, achievements, and legacies. “Their lives, their revolutions, their vulnerabilities shaped the choices Jefferson made, from the selection of words and ideas in his Declaration [of Independence], to the endless building of his mountaintop mansion, to the vision of a great agrarian nation that powered his Louisiana Purchase,” Dr. Scharff told her audience.

While on campus, Dr. Scharff also led a public history colloquium for Bradley history students who are interested in careers and graduate study in public history. She explained that her career as a public historian has encompassed everything from Chautauqua character acting; to processing archival collections; to consulting on documentary films for PBS “American Experience” series; to serving as the Women of the West Chair at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles; to creating the gallery exhibit “Home Lands: How Women Made the West.”

Dr. Scharff encouraged students to seek out opportunities, such as completing a public history project for a class or volunteering at a local archive or museum, which will allow them to present historical scholarship to a public audience.