While writing a book on the nationalism of Thomas Jefferson, Brian Steele, PhD. had a moment of insight that formed the basis for his winning entry in the 2006 Frederick Connor Prize in the History of Ideas.
Steele, assistant professor in the department of History, will be honored Tuesday, Nov. 28, at 3:30 p.m. in the Mervyn Sterne Library Henley Room for his essay, Thomas Jefferson’s Gender Frontier: The ‘Natural Equality’ of Women and American National Identity.

Gender and a nation
In this work Steele reveals Jefferson as a man certain that gender roles determined the degree of civilization in any society and who was anxious to protect a uniquely American form of civilization that exempted its women from manual labor and political entanglements.

In short, it was the domesticity of American women — their focus on hearth and home — that separated this new world culture from that of native Americans or Europeans.

Steele writes:” From Jefferson’s perspective, domesticity for women was by no means an exclusion of women from the ‘self-evident’ right to pursue happiness. Rather it was the fulfillment of this right … Only civilization protected women from the oppression to which they were liable in savage cultures, affording them their ‘natural equity’ and happiness.”

Jefferson argued that American gender roles were a testament to American prosperity that were not evident in less republican societies abroad, where women were permitted or compelled to labor or exploited through prostitution, Steele says.

Jefferson equally emphasized the roles that men must embrace to make this possible, including fidelity and industriousness that permit women to assume their natural equality.

But, Steele noted: “Jefferson believed that only a certain kind of society would encourage these kinds of sacrifices and make them viable choices for individuals and families. So Jefferson’s concern about proper gender roles was not a simple-minded moralism exhorting individual females to be virtuous, but, rather, rested on assumptions about national character and the factors that shaped it.”

Fresh look
Tackling a voluminous topic, a person, about whom so much is written is a bold move for a historian just two years into his first tenure-track position. Yes, Steele acknowledges that untold numbers of scholars have combed through these same materials, and the risk he assumed when selecting the Founding Father as the focus of what would be his first manuscript.

“If you want to write a new book about Jefferson,” Steele says in truth and jest, “you owe the public an explanation.”

Steele approached his research with an intent to “ask new questions of old texts” and to offer a “a fresh way of thinking about old sources” while examining Jefferson’s discourse about gender and nationalism during the period in which he was the American minister to France.

The research began as an effort to resolve some apparent contradictions between Jefferson’s strong nationalist passions and his preference for limited government intrusion into the affairs of the people. But it also revealed other conundrums.

As, Steele noted in his essay: “His commitment to ‘natural aristocracy’ — that those with talent and merit should rise to the top and govern — stalled at the boundaries of race and gender, which, of course, he understood to be natural and therefore proper boundaries.”

Winning analysis
The Conner Prize judging committee rewarded the analysis Steele provided. One commented:  “This carefully nuanced essay offers an important and lucid analysis of Jefferson’s liberalism and the ways Jefferson balanced his egalitarian ideals against the boundaries if gender, nation, race and class.  It constitutes a major contribution to American history.”

Said another: “This essay speaks to the conflicted and often paradoxical views of an intellectual giant.  The author addresses Jefferson’s ideas of women and gender roles with thoughtful clarity.  It makes a genuine contribution to the historiography of Jeffersonian thought and literature.”

The Conner Prize is awarded for an essay in the history of ideas written by any member of the faculty or administration of UAB. The prize carries an award of $250. The award is named for Frederick W. Conner, former dean of School of Arts & Humanities at UAB.