Judith Sargent Murray

Early American Writer, Feminist, Universalist

Lap desk as was in use at the time of the American war for independence
Lap desk as was in use at the time of the American war for independence. MPI/Getty Images

Dates: May 1, 1751 (Massachusetts) - July 6, 1820 (Mississippi)

Occupation: Writer; essayist on political, social, and religious themes; letter writer; poet; dramatist
Known for: "The Gleaner" and an early feminist essay
Also known as: Judith Sargent Stevens, Judith Sargent Stevens Murray. Pen names: Constantia, Honora-Martesia, Honora

About Judith Sargent Murray:

Judith Sargent Murray was born the daughter of Winthrop Sargent of Gloucester, Massachusetts, a ship owner, and Judith Saunders.

She was the oldest of the eight Sargent children. Judith was educated at home, taught basic reading and writing. Her brother Winthrop received more advanced education at home, and went on to Harvard, and Judith noted that she, being female, had no such possibilities.

Her first marriage, in 1769, was to Captain John Stevens. Little is known of him, other than that he was in financial difficulties when the American Revolution interfered with shipping and trade. Judith began writing. Judith's first published essay was in 1784. Captain Stevens, in hopes of turning his finances around and to avoid debtor's prison, sailed to the West Indies, where he died in 1786.

Marriage to John Murray

The Rev. John Murray had come to Gloucester in 1774, bringing the message of Universalism. As a result, the Sargents -- Judith's family -- and the Stevens converted to Universalism, a faith that, in contrast to the Calvinism of the time, accepted that all human beings could be saved and taught that that all people were equal.

Judith Sargent and John Murray began a long correspondence and respectful friendship. After the death of Captain Stevens, the friendship turned to courtship, and in 1788, they married.  They moved from Gloucester to Boston in 1793, where they founded a Universalist congregation.

Writings

Judith Sargent Murray continued to write poetry, essays, and drama.

Her essay, "On the Equality of the Sexes," was written in 1779, though she did not publish it until 1790. The introduction indicates that Murray published the essay because there were other essays on the subject in circulation and she wanted to defend her essay's priority -- but we do not have those other essays. On the basis of this essay, Judith Sargent Murray is credited as an early American feminist.  She had written and published another essay on education for women in 1784, "Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms."

Judith Sargent Murray also wrote a series of essays for the Massachusetts Magazine called "The Gleaner," which looked at the politics of the new nation of America and at religious and moral themes, including women's equality.  She later wrote a series, also popular, called "The Repository."

Judith Sargent Murray wrote drama first in response to a call for original work by American writ (including to her husband, John Murray), and though they did not find critical acclaim, did achieve some popular success.

In 1798, Judith Sargent 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.

Travels

Judith Sargent Murray also accompanied her husband on his preaching tours, and they counted among acquaintances and friends many early leaders of the United States. 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.

Family

Judith Sargent Murray and her husband John Stevens had no children. In Judith's second marriage, she had a son who died shortly after birth, and a daughter, Julia Maria Murray.

John Murray, whose health had been frail for some time, had a stroke in 1809 which paralyzed him.

 In 1812, Julia Maria married a wealthy Mississippian, Adam Louis Bingaman, whose family contributed somewhat to his education while he lived with Judith and John Murray.

In 1812, Judith Sargent Murray edited and published John Murray's letters and sermons, published 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.

When Julia Maria's husband exercised his legal right to require his wife to accompany him there, Judith also went to Mississippi. Judith died about a year after moving to Mississippi. Both Julia Maria and her child died shortly after that.

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.

Bibliography:

  • Baym, Nina, editor. The Gleaner. (compare prices)
  • Detsi-Diamanti, Zoe. Early American Women Dramatists 1775-1860. (compare prices)
  • Field, Vena Bernadette. Constantia: A Study of the Life and Works of Judith Sargent Murray, 1751-1920.
  • Harris, Sharon M., editor. Selected Writings of Judith Sargent Murray. (compare prices)
  • Harris, Sharon M. "Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820, Massachusetts)." American Women Writers to 1800. (compare prices)
  • Kritzer, Amelia Howe. "Playing with Republican Motherhood: Self-Representation in Plays by Susanna Haswell Rowson and Judith Sargent Murray, in Early American Literature." Early American Literature Volume 31, 1996.
  • Skemp, Sheila L. Judith Sargent Murray: A Brief Biography With Documents. (compare prices)
  • Smith, Bonnie Hurd. From Gloucester to Philadelphia in 1790: Observations, Thoughts, and Anecdotes from the Letters of Judith Sargent Murray. (compare prices)
  • Smith, Bonnie Hurd. The Letters I Left Behind: The Judith Sargent Murray Papers, Letter Book 10.
  • Smith, Bonnie Hurd. Mingling Souls Upon Paper: An Eighteenth-century Love Story.