Press "Enter" to skip to content

A new tour at Monticello tells the story of its revolutionary women

Visitors at Founding Father Thomas Jefferson’s estate-turned-museum often begin their tour gazing up a brick pathway at Monticello’s four-column front, while behind them a vista overlooks rural Albemarle County.

A new tour at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, however, begins in a small, unassuming room that most on the mountaintop — even those who work there — have never entered.

The “Revolutionary Women at Monticello” tour starts in the estate’s first completed structure at the end of the south terrace where Jefferson and his bride, Martha, spent their honeymoon.

Only offered during the month of March, recognized as Women’s History Month, the new tour guides guests through many of the same buildings general tours offer (honeymoon cottage aside), but this time the focus is entirely on the women, enslaved and free, who lived at Monticello alongside Jefferson, third U.S. president, founder of the University of Virginia and author of the Declaration of Independence.

Some of the revolutionary women discussed on the tour lived most, if not all, of their lives on the mountaintop: Martha Randolph and Maria Eppes, daughters of Thomas and Martha Jefferson; Ursula Granger, an enslaved woman trained as a pastry chef and brewer; and Harriet Hemings, daughter of Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings. Others were frequent visitors, such as Dolley Madison, wife of Thomas Jefferson’s fellow Founding Father James Madison. And one never stepped foot on the grounds: Sacagawea, the Lemhi Shoshone woman who guided the Lewis and Clark expedition.

“I am excited to have a tour that focuses on the perspectives of women here at Monticello, to understand Monticello, to understand Thomas Jefferson and this early founding of the United States,” Ashley Hollinshead, team lead for Monticello’s education and visitor programs department, told The Daily Progress. “We need to look closer at women’s stories, and I think this tour provides a great opportunity to look at this site through a different lens and perspective.”

One room placed under an entirely new lens is the big house’s parlor. On a typical tour, the room is noted for its sizable art collection; on the “Revolutionary Women at Monticello” tour the art is not necessarily the focus. Both of Thomas Jefferson’s daughters with his wife were married in the parlor; Harriet Hemings, the daughter he had with Sally Hemings after his wife’s death, was not given the same privilege.

Tour guide Alice Wagner navigates often difficult conversations in the parlor about the Founding Father’s relationship with Sally Hemings as well as the struggle of Monticello’s enslaved families, including those descended from Thomas Jefferson. Two of his children with Sally Hemings, Harriet and Beverly Hemings, managed to pass as White and moved to Washington, D.C., living the remainder of their lives in a freedom many of their friends and family back in Virginia would never know.

As she did on several occasions during a recent tour, Wagner will often pose a question to the group to contemplate and discuss: “What did Harriet have to sacrifice in order to pass as White?”

Similar to the parlor, instead of discussing Thomas Jefferson’s appetite for knowledge or the great political works he composed in the library, Wagner uses the room as a chance to talk about some of the inequalities women faced in Thomas Jefferson’s time, specifically regarding education. In the man’s own words, “A plan of female education has never been a subject of systematic contemplation." Women, including Thomas Jefferson’s own legitimate daughters, often had to fight to gain access to the same level of education as men, working toward equality at a professional level outside the classroom and library.

Wagner used the Native American art and artifacts hanging in the house’s great hall as a means to discuss Sacagawea, who never met Thomas Jefferson or visited his residence but was nevertheless critical to the expedition west that the Founding Father famously sponsored.

A teenager married to a French Canadian fur trapper, Sacagawea delivered her first child on the expedition with explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; Lewis assisted with the labor. She served as a diplomat to other Native American tribes they encountered, negotiated the purchase of horses for the party and even participated in the first recorded vote of an Indigenous woman. (In the end, the men did not heed Sacagawea’s vote and set up their winter camp on the south side of the Columbia River where they faced illness and scarce food).

The tour highlights various features and experiences that are “hidden in plain sight,” according to Jane Kamensky, the new president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit group that owns and operates Monticello.

Despite Kamensky’s scholarly background in women’s history in America (she came to Monticello from Harvard University), the work researching and structuring the “Revolutionary Women at Monticello” tour was already well underway when she came on board in January.

“Women’s history is close to my heart,” Kamensky told The Daily Progress. “I’m really excited to see how this one developed. I think it’s really special to be able to show our visitors the people who made the house home in any way, even though they weren’t the headliners in the newspaper of the day.”

Hollinshead, who led the curation of the tour, said her department began working on the concept about a year ago. In part, the tour is inspired by a women-focused conference hosted by the foundation at the end of March in addition to preparing for the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence taking place in July 2026.

Only a handful of Monticello’s tour guides received the training and education required to lead the tour — all of them women. Wagner likened the additional study time to taking a graduate course. Hollinshead, who also guides tours, said that in many ways every tour of Monticello is a women’s history tour: The majority of people who lived on the mountaintop were women.

“We are building on the research that has been ongoing for decades; that research began close to 100 years ago,” said Hollinshead. “So, we’re really building on the research that was already there and that we use every day on tours of Monticello.”

As Wagner quotes at the start of her tours, “well-behaved women seldom make history,” so a key challenge for this tour was accumulating enough puzzle pieces to create a complete picture for visitors. During Thomas Jefferson’s time, women often served as a household’s record keepers while the accounts of their own lives were often ignored or discarded.

“Much of what we know about the ambiance of the house in the period of Jefferson’s retirement comes from female witnesses and Washington socialites who wrote extensive descriptions of social life at Monticello,” said Kamensky.

One frequent visitor whose letters informed a significant portion of the knowledge on what life at Monticello was like was Dolley Madison.

“Her pen is part of how we know what we know,” said Kamensky.

The one-hour “Revolutionary Women at Monticello” tour is only offered once a day starting at 2:15 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays throughout March. Tickets are $42.

The foundation plans to assess the tour’s popularity to determine whether to continue offering the exclusive look into what life was like for the women on the mountaintop after March.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

Be First to Comment

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *