Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"On the Equality of the Sexes." Marcus Owens

Marcus Owens
Professor Coronado
Eng 226
12 December 2012
                                    On the Equality of the Sexes and Early American Feminism
Judith Sargent Murray’s essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” serves as a shining example of not only her brilliance, but the intelligence and ingenuity of all women.  Murray’s feminist plea that women are just as capable as men and therefore should not be subjugated to the role of the dutiful wife and mother was innovative in its subject as well as its unapologetic tone. "On the Equality of the Sexes" is important to the canon of early American literature because, not only does it present the view of a woman living in the times, but one unsatisfied with the treatment of women as objects and not people. "On the Equality of the Sexes"  is significant for being a pioneer work on the subject of women’s equality, having been written  even before Mary Wollstonecraft’s infamous “A Vindication on the Rights of Women.“ Judith Sargent Murray championed the issues women faced at a time when not many women were able to come forth and make a stand. Judith Sargent Murray helped to lead the charge for women’s equality and rights in a time where women were greatly unappreciated and undervalued.
            Born May 1, 1751 in Gloucester, Massachusetts to a wealthy family, Judith Sargent Murray did not have much opportunity as a woman living in puritanical America. She was  uninterested with feminine chores as they provided no mental stimulation, nor was there much opportunity for learning at all when it came to women (“Judith” 2006). Her aptitude as an author showed from a very young age, as she wrote poetry at the age of nine which her father would often display for the family (“Judith” 2006). Murray later married a man named John Stevens and converted to the Universalist faith. However, they experienced financial hardships due to the American Revolution taking place in the background, so Murray took to writing professionally in the hopes of earning an income to help support the family (“Judith” 2006). She published her first work “Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms” in 1784 under the pseudonym “Constantia” (“Judith” 2006).  She continued to write under this assumed name for much of her career.
            Eventually her husband fell too far into debt and Stevens was forced to flee rather than face debtors prison (“Judith” 2006). He died in the west Indies and Judith remarried Universalist/Unitarian preacher John Murray in 1788 (“Judith” 2006). Murray continued to write, and as was so common during the times, always under an assumed identity. Her ongoing column within Massachusetts Magazine garnered her much attention and popularity with her topics spanning from loneliness to the treatment of women (“Judith” 2006). Her unconventional topics lent uniqueness to her column that other writers did not possess, the point of view of woman unsatisfied with her treatment and ready to make a change.
            On the Equality of the Sexes was published in March of 1790 in Massachusetts Magazine. At the time the essay was unique and one of the first of its kind. As Elizabeth Galewski argues in her article, The Strange Case for Women’s Capacity to Reason: Judith Sargent Murray’s Use of Irony in “On the Equality of the Sexes,” “Present-day scholars frequently point to this essay as one of the first instances in which an American woman argued for women's capacity to reason” (Galewski 84). The subject of the text revolved around the way women were treated in society and education. Within the essay, Murray condemns the idea that women are intellectually inferior to men and therefore should not be able to hold positions or status equal to that of a man. She makes the argument that not only are women just as smart, but they also possess just as much aptitude as men do, and it is the educational system which unequally benefits men by granting them access to higher forms of learning while disallowing and discouraging women from broadening their own minds (Murray). Murray believes that while boys are taught from an early age to strive for greatness, girls are stifled and domesticated; pigeon holed into the role of a housewife (Murray). What they were able to learn was limited, unless they had the means and resources to teach themselves, such as the case of Judith Sargent Murray. Murray touched upon a number of reasons as to why women were just as much entitled to anything that a man was.
            Murray makes her arguments well, making sure to cover her bases by pre-empting any possible counterarguments. For instance, she knew that some would try to argue that educating a woman would take time away from her housework. However, Murray argues that the domestic tasks given to women to fill their time require absolutely no mental evaluation, saying “I answer that every requisite in female economy is easily attained; and, with truth I can add, that when once attained, they require no further mental attention” (Murray). She believes that there is no room for women to improve and exercise their mental faculties by doing the same mindlessly repetitive tasks day in and day out. They are chores that are easily done and take up little time, therefore in the other time women have they could be learning. She also takes a theological approach, arguing that women were created by god just as men were, and as such should be given the same opportunities and treated with the same level of respect, given that their only differences are physical, not mental. She says “…the same breath of God animates, enlivens, and invigorates us…” (Murray). She takes a religious stand point to show that there was no difference in the creation of man and woman, and therefore should be no difference in their treatment. Her ability to argue her points so well probably aided in her popularity.
            Judith Sargent Murray’s writings became quite popular, despite their very forward thinking nature. Though there were criticisms of her essays and way of thinking, Murray tended to pay them no heed. In her column, The Repository, in Massachusetts magazine, Murray addressed the criticisms of her work, stating:
            What a censorious world says of me, cannot offend or permanently hurt me. Was it to commend me, it would do me no real service. I had rather have an unspotted conscience (I may be allowed the expression as far as it is relative to my fellow creatures) I had rather I say be possessed of an unspotted conscience, the acquitting plaudit of my own breast, and the rational award of a serene mind, than to have worlds for my admirers: Without the honed influence of this complacency, I could not but be miserable, nor with it, for any length of time wholly unhappy; and while I am fully resolved to act rightly, the rectitude of my intention cannot but fill my bosom with the most solacing reflexions. I despise then the low manners of an injurious multitude -- it is poor, poor indeed, and I will shield myself in the fair asylum of conscious innocence. (Murray “repository”)
Murray dismisses those who criticize her work stating that it cannot “offend or permanently hurt” her because they are only interested in censoring and silencing her views.  It only stands to reason that a world so determined to keep women oppressed would criticize a woman writing on the topic of gender equality and denouncing claims of a woman’s mental inferiority to that of a man’s. She mentions the “low manners of an injurious multitude” as if to say that their criticism of her work is classless and they wish to do her harm and stifle her ideas by discrediting her ideas rather than looking at them seriously and objectively.
            On the Equality of Sexes acted as a spark to light the fire of feminist writings and a call for equality within America. “On the Equality of the Sexes” gives the view of an educated woman, a woman who taught herself most of what she knows, and then used that knowledge to try to bring about change for other women who weren’t as fortunate to have her same resources. Not only did the essay achieve its aim in putting the idea out there that women were  capable of intelligence, but it also demonstrated that fact through Judith Sargent Murray’s writing. The legacy of this now immortalized essay is just as important now as it was in the late 1700s as feminist activists still use the text as an example and an argument that women are every bit as capable and intelligent as any man.

Galewski, Elizabeth. “The Strange Case for Women's Capacity to Reason: Judith Sargent Murray's Use of           Irony in “On the Equality of the Sexes.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech. 8 May 2007: 84-108.            Print.

“Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820).” National Women’s History Museum. August 2006. Web.

Murray, Sargent Judith. “On the Equality of the Sexes.”  Massachusetts Magazine. March 1970. Print.

Murray, Sargent Judith. “The Repository. No. IX.”  Massachusetts Magazine. May 1793. Print.

Primary Texticles


  1. I really enjoyed your introduction. I thought you did a good job of explaining the original text. It made me want to read the original work which I thnk is what a good introduction/summary should do.

  2. Marcus,

    You have a solid foundation for your introduction, but you could expand all your points and paragraphs a bit more. While your writing was clear and engaging, you should incorporate quotations and passages from Murray's text.

    You state, "She believes that there is no room for women to improve and exercise their mental faculties by doing the same mindlessly repetitive tasks day in and day out."

    This is one of a number of instances where you explain what Murray says. You should incorporate a quotation instances like this and, rather than explaining what she says, explain the importance of her statement. That will effectively introduce the text and why it is important for the larger canon.

  3. Marcus,

    You present a great case to why "On the Equality of Sexes" should be included within the canon of American Literature. There are few works available during this time period that tackle on the issue of gender equality (as you know, it didn't really exist then.)However, I would agree with Mark's suggestion of expanding your points a little further. The paper seems a little short and I would like to hear more about not only the work itself, but why you found it to be so important!

  4. I did like your introduction but I did find it a little short, and I would have liked to see more textual support for your thesis. It reads as a summary more than an appeal. With that said I agree with Christine that your introduction did made me want to read the original text, but I think using actual lines from said text would help.

  5. Marcus,

    I like that you present your argument for why you believe this piece should be included in the canon early on in your introduction. Also, the background information that you provide on Murray gave me helpful insight to better understanding the poem, and the use of quotes throughout the intro I thought were well incorporated. At times, however, your transitions between paragraphs seem a bit abrupt. When I reached your final paragraph I would have liked to see you elaborate a little more on the final connections you make between the time in which the piece was written and present day.

  6. This was a nicely written introduction for a well chosen text. There are a few minor errors, but most of them seem to be leftovers from revisions, so a quick sweep should clear up your paper. Some of your paragraphs could indeed be expanded a bit, but overall you;ve got a good paper here.

  7. Overall, I really think you make a great case for an inclusion of Murray's work into the canon. I agree with the previous comments that you could expand on a lot of these reasons to make your argument a bit more compelling. You have a lot of good ideas, but I think that if you went into more detail and backed them up with your sources, your introduction would be more solid. However, the biographical information you offered was very interesting because it's really a testament to how committed Murray was to the equality of women, and how she wasn't concerned with what people thought of her. All in all, you have a great introduction here, and with a little development, it will be amazing. Good work!


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