Professor Teresa Coronado
13 December 2012
A Look at Early Feminism
Judith Sargent Murray dedicated her life’s work to moving women’s education forward. As one will see through Murray’s education as a youth, at that time, women were only minimally educated in reading and writing. They were not taught much more than just housework. Murray was not happy about this, so throughout her life, wrote many pieces on equality. In particular, one of her first published works, “On the Equality of the Sexes” should be added to the canon of American Literature because it is one of the first pieces suggesting the necessity of progress and equality for women in America.
Judith Sargent Murray was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts on May 5, 1751. She grew up in a family that had become wealthy through trade in England and the West Indies. Growing up, her brother, Winthrop, was taught in order to go to Harvard. However, Murray was only taught rudimentary reading and writing and basic needlework before being prepared for marriage. She was a bit bitter by this and eventually dedicated her work to improving female education and getting voting rights for women (Smith).
In 1769, Murray married John Stevens, whose family owned a shipping company, at age 18. Eventually the couple adopted two orphaned relatives, but had no children of their own. During the American Revolution, where Murray “prayed for a peaceful resolution” (Smith), Stevens’ company lost a lot of money and he ran from Gloucester to avoid debtor’s prison. He died while setting up new business in the West Indies in 1786. While Stevens was away, Murray published her first essay in 1784 under the name “Constantia,” which she titled “Desultory Thoughts Upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, especially in Female Bosoms.” In this, she wrote what became the basis for future feminist writings, “I would, from the early dawn of reason address [my daughter] as a rational being” and “by all means guard [my daughters] against a low estimation of self” (Smith).
Murray’s romance with John Murray, a Universalist preacher from London, began in 1788 when he wrote her a love letter before leaving for a trip to England. They were married when he returned to America and had two children together. Their son, Fitz Winthrop (misreported as George in genealogy), was born in 1789, but survived just a few hours. Their daughter, Julia Maria, was born in 1791 (Smith).
The 1790s were the height of Murray’s writing. In 1790 she wrote the two-part essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” for Massachusetts Magazine. In 1792, she wrote two essay series for the magazine. The first, entitled “The Gleaner,” focused on federalism, citizenship, virtue, and female education and abilities. The second, entitled “The Repository,” focused on philosophy, reflection, and Universalist subjects. In 1793, John Murray was called upon by the Boston Universalists, so they moved there in 1794, where Murray was offered a column in a bi-weekly newspaper called Federal Orrery. She submitted just five essays entitled “The Reaper,” but they were too edited for her taste so she cut ties with the newspaper. She received backlash by the editor saying that her husband John did most of the writing (Smith).
In 1795 and 1796, Murray wrote two plays, both of which were performed. Her first play, The Medium, or Happy Tea Party was the first play to be shown at Boston’s Federal Street Theatre after the ban on live productions was lifted. Her second play was The Traveler Returned. Both plays were satires on American citizenship and virtue featuring strong female characters. In 1798 she published “The Gleaner.” It featured her earlier “The Gleaner” essays and her plays. In this, she acknowledged that “The Gleaner” and “Constantia” were the same person, though the book had her legal name, Judith Sargent Murray, on it. It was then that she was established as an advocate for female progress in America (Smith).
In the early 1800s she helped her cousin, Judith Saunders, and Clementine Beach open a women’s academy in Dorchester, Massachusetts. The Ladies Academy was opened in 1803, teaching scholarly subjects and domestic skills. She also continued publishing poetry in the Boston Weekly Magazine until1809 when John had a stroke. In 1815 John died at age 74 and two funeral services were held in Gloucester and Boston. Judith finished and published John’s autobiography in 1816. The last two years of Murray’s life were spent on her son-in-law’s plantation, Fatherland, in Natchez, Mississippi where she died and was buried in 1820. Murray has been recognized for her contributions to the progress of women since 1973 when Alice Rossi wrote The Feminist Papers (Smith).
Judith Sargent Murray, also known as Constantia, opens “On the Equality of the Sexes” with a poem. The poem really shows her feelings toward education and the oppression of women. One part in particular speaks to society silencing women’s voices and women being put down by men:
And by the lordly sex to us consign’d;
They rob us of the power t’improve,
And then declare we only trifles love;
Yet haste the era, when the world shall know,
That such distinctions only dwell below. (Murray 35-39)
She really feels like she is looked down upon and seems frustrated by this oppression. When she says, “And then declare we only trifles love,” it is as though men think that women only love and appreciate the little things that do not really matter, when in reality, they love and appreciate many of the same things that men do. This is also the basis of “On the Equality of the Sexes.” She wants to show that men and women are equal intellectually and rationally and should be taught the same way growing up.
Through “On the Equality of the Sexes,” Murray transforms educated women from a problem to a solution. She points out that women have potential, that their current education is wasting their potential, and that a classical education (what the males were getting) would save them from unhappiness (Galewski 86). She points out a women’s potential throughout the work, but she says it best when she writes, “Now, was she permitted the same instructors as her brother, (with an eye however to their particular departments) for the employment of a rational mind an ample field would be opened” (Murray). Here she is outright saying that if she, or any other woman, had been given the same instruction as their brother or any male, their minds would be just as rational as a man’s, which is part of her main argument throughout the essay.
Murray also says that the “conventional” education is a waste of potential (Galewski 86). It shows when she writes, “Is the needle and kitchen sufficient to employ the operations of a soul thus organized? I should conceive not. Nay, it is a truth that those very departments leave the intelligent principle vacant, and at liberty for speculation” (Murray). The conventional teaching of the time allowed women to learn housework and prepare to be a wife someday. Murray is arguing that this is not the way to stimulate the mind (“Judith Sargent…”) and that it is not allowing women to live to their fullest potential. All Murray wants is for women to get an education equal to that of men so that their minds can develop. She wants to be able to hold educated conversations with anybody and help the men with work.
Murray argues that getting a classical education like men would save girls from unhappiness. She really shows this in two separate quotes. The first speaks of a void to be filled:
At length arrived at womanhood, the uncultivated fair one feels a void, which the employments allotted her are by no means capable of filling. What can she do? To books she may not apply; or if she doth, to those only of the novel kind, lest she merit the appellation of a learned lady; and what ideas have been affixed to this term, the observation of many can testify. (Murray)
Without education and the ability to learn new things, Murray argues that women cannot be happy. She also writes, “She experiences a mortifying consciousness of inferiority, which embitters every enjoyment” (Murray). Because they are less educated, women feel, and are made to feel, like they are less than men. This leads to frustration and sadness that makes even the most enjoyable things in life not enough to make them happy. Thus, Murray believes that equal education is the best thing for women both intellectually and emotionally.
Throughout this essay, Murray contends that any intellectual inferiority that women have compared to men is due to how they were raised and not from natural abilities (“Judith Sargent…”). In “On the Equality of the Sexes,” Murray shows the differences in how men and women are brought up:
But from that period what partiality! How is the one exalted, and the other depressed, by the contrary modes of education which are adopted! The one is taught to aspire, and the other is early confined and limited. As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flowery paths of science. Grant that their minds are by nature equal, yet who shall wonder at the apparent superiority, if indeed custom becomes second nature… (Murray)
Murray shows the opposite ends of the spectrum, which in many cases may be far off, but it made her point. Her point is that males and females are born with the same mind, but males receive the nurturing and education that makes them more knowledgeable. Females are taught jobs and chores that do not require much thinking, which allows men to believe that they are superior.
Murray really relates this text to her own life. She was not formally educated, while her brother was educated so he could attend Harvard (Smith). Where she writes, “As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flowery paths of science” (Murray), she expresses her disappointment at not being allowed to learn about science and other subjects that her brother was taught growing up. I believe this is really what fueled her writings and helped her become the feminist leader for which she is known (Smith).
During Murray’s writing years, some incredible things happened with women’s education. After the revolution, Murray was involved in debates that led to social changes. The major social change related to Murray and her work was women’s education. Between 1790, when “On the Equality of the Sexes” was written, and 1816 the literacy gap closed between men and women. This was due to the expansion in educational facilities for women (Galewski 85), which started with the Ladies Academy in 1803 (Smith).
In the end, Murray was a fantastic writer who really focused on women’s issues in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Her ideas may have been radical for the time (“Judith Sargent…”), but they helped fuel reform in the country pertaining to women’s education and progress (Galewski 85). She wanted nothing more than to have the same education as her brother and to allow other women the same opportunity. Murray can be considered a pioneer in feminism and women’s rights, writing and speaking out when not many people would or could. She dedicated her life’s work to fighting for educational equality for women, arguing not only for herself, but also for her daughters. Her essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” was one of the first works in America that really stood up for women’s rights and helped pave the way for the feminist movement.
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” (1790).” Quarterly Journal of Speech 93.1 (2007): 84-108. Web. 19 Nov 2012.
“Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820).” National Women’s History Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov 2012.
Murray, Judith Sargent. “On the Equality of the Sexes.” University of Maryland Early Americas Digital Archive. Massachusetts Magazine (1790): 132-35, 223-26. Web. 1 Oct 2012.
Smith, Bonnie Hurd. “Judith Sargent Murray.” Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography. Unitarian Universalist Association, n.d. Web. 19 Nov 2012.