Biography of Judith Sargent Murray, Early Feminist and Writer

Lap desk as was in use at the time of the American war for independence
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Judith Sargent Murray (May 1, 1751–July 6, 1820) was an early American feminist who wrote essays on political, social, and religious themes. She was also a gifted poet and dramatist, and her letters, some recently-discovered, give insight into her life during and after the American Revolution. She is especially known for her essays about the American Revolution under the pseudonym "The Gleaner" and for her feminist essay, "On the Equality of the Sexes." 

Fast Facts: Judith Sargent Murray

  • Known For: Early feminist essayist, poet, novelist, and dramatist.
  • Born: May 1, 1751, Gloucester, Massachusetts.
  • Parents: Winthrop Sargent and Judith Saunders.
  • Died: July 6, 1820, Natchez, Mississippi.
  • Education: Tutored at home. 
  • Published Works: On the Equality of the Sexes, Sketch of the Present Situation in America,Story of Margaretta, Virtue Triumphant, and The Traveller Returned.
  • Spouse(s): Captain John Stevens (m. 1769—1786); Rev. John Murray (m. 1788–1809).
  • Children: With John Murray: George (1789) who died as an infant, and a daughter, Julia Maria Murray (1791–1822).

Early Life

Judith Sargent Murray was born Judith Sargent on May 1, 1751 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, to shipowner and merchant Captain Winthrop Sargent (1727–1793) and his wife Judith Saunders (1731–1793). She was the oldest of the eight Sargent children. At first, Judith was educated at home and taught basic reading and writing. Her brother Winthrop, who was intended to go to Harvard, received more advanced education at home, but when their parents recognized Judith's exceptional abilities she was allow to share Winthrop's training in classical Greek and Latin. Winthrop went did go on to Harvard, and Judith later noted that she, being female, had no such possibilities.

Her first marriage, on October 3, 1769, was to Captain John Stevens, a well-to-do sea captain and trader. They had no children, but adopted two of her husband's nieces and one of her own, Polly Odell.

Universalism

In the 1770s, Judith Stevens turned away from the Calvinism of the Congregational church she was raised in and became involved in Universalism. Calvinists said that only believers could be "saved," and nonbelievers were doomed. In contrast, Universalists believed that all human beings could be saved and all people were equal. The movement was brought to Massachusetts by Rev. John Murray who arrived in Gloucester in 1774, and Judith and her families the Sargents and the Stevens converted to Universalism. Judith Sargent Stevens and John Murray began a long correspondence and respectful friendship: in this she defied custom which suggested it was suspect for a married woman to correspond with a man who was unrelated to her.

By 1775, the Stevens family had fallen into serious financial difficulties when the American Revolution interfered with shipping and trade, difficulties that may have been heightened by Stevens' mismanagement of finances. To help out, Judith began writing; her first poems were written in 1775. Judith's first essay was "Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms," which was published in 1784 under the pseudonym Constancia in the Boston periodical, Gentleman and Lady's Town and Country Magazine. In 1786, Captain Stevens, to avoid debtor's prison and in hopes of turning his finances around, sailed to the West Indies, but he died there in 1786.

After the death of Captain Stevens, the friendship between John Murray and Judith Stevens blossomed into courtship, and on October 6, 1788, they married. 

Travel and a Widening Sphere

Judith Sargent Murray accompanied her new husband on many of his preaching tours, and they counted among acquaintances and friends many early leaders of the United States, including John and Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin's family, and Martha Custis Washington, with whom they sometimes stayed. Her letters describing these visits and her correspondence with friends and relatives are invaluable in understanding the daily life in the federal period of American history.

Throughout this period, Judith Sargent Murray wrote poetry, essays, and drama: some biographers suggest the loss of her son in 1790 and her own survival of what would be called postpartum depression today spurred a burst of creativity. Her essay, "On the Equality of the Sexes," written in 1779, was finally published in 1790. The essay challenges the prevailing theory that men and women are not intellectually equal, and among all of her writings, that essay established her as an early feminist theorist. She added a letter including her interpretation of the biblical Adam and Eve story, insisting that Eve was equal, if not superior, to Adam. Her daughter, Julia Maria Murray, was born in 1791.

Essays and Drama

In February, 1792, Murray began a series of essays for the Massachusetts Magazine titled "The Gleaner" (also her pseudonym) which focused on the politics of the new nation of America as well as religious and moral themes, including women's equality. One of her common early topics was the importance of educating female children—Julia Maria was six months old when her mother began her column. Her novel, "The Story of Margaretta," was written in a series among "The Gleaner" essays. It is the tale of a young woman who falls prey to an sinister lover and rejects him, and she is portrayed not as a "fallen woman" but rather as an intelligent heroine who is capable of forging an independent life for herself. 

The Murrays moved from Gloucester to Boston in 1793, where together they founded a Universalist congregation. Numerous of her writings reveal her role in shaping the tenets of Universalism, which was the first American religion to ordain women.

Murray wrote drama first in response to a call for original work by American writers (also directed to her husband, John Murray), and though her plays did not find critical acclaim, they did achieve some popular success. Her first play was "The Medium: or Virtue Triumphant," and it opened and quickly closed on the Boston stage, nevertheless the first play dramatized there by an American author.

In 1798, Murray published a collection of her writings in three volumes as The Gleaner. She thereby became the first American woman to self-publish a book. The books were sold on subscription, to help support the family. John Adams and George Washington were among the subscribers. In 1802 she helped to found a school for girls in Dorchester.

Later Life and Death

John Murray, whose health had been frail for some time, had a stroke in 1809 which paralyzed him for the rest of his life. In 1812, her daughter Julia Maria married a wealthy Mississippian named Adam Louis Bingaman, whose family had contributed somewhat to his education while he lived with Judith and John Murray.

By 1812, the Murrays were experiencing painful financial issues. Judith Murray edited and published John Murray's letters and sermons that same year, as Letters and Sketches of Sermons. John Murray died in 1815, and in 1816, Judith Sargent Murray published his autobiography, Records of the Life of the Rev. John Murray. In her last years, Judith Sargent Murray continued her correspondence with her family and friends; her daughter and husband supported her financially in her later life, and she moved to their home in Natchez, Mississippi in 1816.

Judith Sargent Murray died on July 6, 1820, in Natchez at the age of 69.

Legacy

Judith Sargent Murray was largely forgotten as a writer until late in the twentieth century. Alice Rossi resurrected "On the Equality of the Sexes" for a collection called The Feminist Papers in 1974, bringing it to wider attention.

In 1984, Unitarian Universalist minister, Gordon Gibson, found Judith Sargent Murray's letter books in Natchez, Mississippi—books into which she kept copies of her letters. (They are now in the Mississippi Archives.) She is the only woman from that period of time for whom we have such letter books, and these copies have allowed scholars to discover much about not only Judith Sargent Murray's life and ideas, but also about daily life in the time of the American Revolution and early Republic.

In 1996, Bonnie Hurd Smith founded the Judith Sargent Murray Society to promote Judith's life and work. Smith provided useful suggestions for details in this profile, which also drew on other resources about Judith Sargent Murray.

Sources

  • Field, Vena Bernadette. "Constantia: A Study of the Life and Works of Judith Sargent Murray, 1751-1920." Orono: University of Maine Studies, 2012. Print. 
  • Harris, Sharon M., ed. "Selected Writings of Judith Sargent Murray." New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
  • Murray, Judith Sargent [as Constancia]. "The Gleaner: A Miscellaneous Production, Volumes 1–3." Boston: J. Thomas and E.T. Andrews, 1798. Print.
  • Rossi, Alice S., ed. "The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir." Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1973.
  • Smith, Bonnie Hurd . "Judith Sargent Murray and the Emergence of an American Women's Literary Traditions." Farmington Hills, Michigan: Gale Researcher Guide, 2018. Print.
  • Kritzer, Amelia Howe. “Playing with Republican Motherhood: Self-Representation in Plays by Susanna Haswell Rowson and Judith Sargent Murray.” Early American Literature 31.2, 1996. 150–166.  
  • Skemp, Sheila L. "First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence." Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. Print.