Judith Sargent Murray held many ideas about women’s education that were extremely radical for the late 1700s, and perhaps even for today. She felt that the typical chores of women’s lives did not offer any intellectual stimulation and that if women did not find more uses for their intellect, they would use it for ill purposes. She also believed that the accusation that women were intellectually inferior stemmed not from their natural abilities, but from the way they were raised, as boys were encouraged to learn while girls were neglected. Unlike many other women, she never taught school nor worked as an educational administrator; instead, she arguably can be termed a pioneering philosopher. Clearly capable of abstruse and original thought, she did not limit herself to educational philosophy, but wrote eloquently and wittily on aesthetics, ethics, politics, and more.
Judith Sargent was born on May 5, 1751 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, one of eight children born to the wealthy merchant family of Winthrop Sargent and Judith Saunders Sargent. Only three of her siblings, however, survived into adulthood. Despite her wealthy background, there were few opportunities for her to receive any formal education beyond reading and writing. Like many girls of her time, much of her knowledge was self-taught. The Sargent family library was vast, which allowed her to read history, philosophy, geography, and literature. At as young as nine years old, she began writing poetry, which her father read to family members with pride in his daughter’s abilities.
In 1769, at age eighteen, Judith Sargent married John Stevens, a ship captain who spent most of his time at sea. They moved into a still-extant Gloucester mansion, probably built for them by her father, but the couple had no children; they eventually adopted his niece and a young cousin of hers. She was very concerned that the children be reared in the Universalist faith, which the Sargent family had begun following in 1770 after Winthrop Sargent read a book on the new religion. Judith Sargent Stevens soon became friends with preacher John Murray on a visit he made to Gloucester. She considered him to be her mentor, and the two carried on correspondence for many years. Because of her adoption of these new beliefs, she was ex-communicated from Gloucester’s First Parish Church in 1780, and the Sargent family then donated the land on which John Murray built America’s first Universalist/Unitarian meetinghouse.
Meanwhile the American Revolution was raging, and Gloucester’s shipping business particularly suffered from the insecure seas. When the revolution finally ended in 1783, John Stevens was deep in debt, and his wife began to publish in the hope of income. Her first piece, published in Gentleman and Lady’s Town and Country Magazine in 1784, was a feminist one: “Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms.” Like most women of her time – and even men who wanted to hide their identity – she used a pseudonym, “Constantia.” Despite her efforts, John Stevens was forced to flee to the West Indies to avoid imprisonment for debt, and he died there in 1786.
Two years later, his widow married John Murray. At age 38, Judith Sargent Murray gave birth to a son who lived only a few hours; in 1791, the year that she turned forty, she delivered her only child, a daughter. By then, Judith Sargent Murray had developed a long but private literary life: as early as 1774, when she was just 23 and a lonely sea captain’s wife, she began copying all of her outgoing letters into blank books before mailing them. She enjoyed studying history, which perhaps was her motivation for recording her correspondence. Another motivation could be her belief in the importance of teaching girls about women’s past achievements to empower them. Her letter books included correspondence to family, friends, as well as some of the most important American citizens of the time, such as President George Washington.
She went on to publish additional essays and used additional pseudonyms, including “Honora” and “Martesia.” Other feminist essays include “On the Equality of the Sexes” and “On the Domestic Education of Children.” These essays focused on women’s education and the equal value men and women should have. Her writing proved quite popular, and when her name changed with her remarriage, Murray could easily adopt a new pseudonym for the column she began in 1792 for the new Massachusetts Magazine.
Calling herself “The Gleaner,” she assumed identity of a man. The family moved to Boston the next year, where Judith Sargent Murray’s play, The Medium (1795), probably was the first by an American author to be produced on a stage. (Others, including Mercy Otis Warren, had written plays that were read, but the Puritan ban on acting prevented them from being staged.) Murray wrote another, The Travelled Returned (1796), and also saw it produced.
John Murray was no better at money management than John Stevens had been, and in 1798, the need for income motivated publication of “The Gleaner’s” collected columns. By then Judith Sargent Murray’s identity was well known, and to ensure a profit, she recruited some 800 presales “subscribers,” as well as endorsements from President George Washington and Vice President John Adams.
During those same years, Murray educated her daughter, Julia Marie, at home until she was old enough to attend an academy. In 1802, Murray helped her cousin, Judith Saunders, and Clementine Beach open a female academy in the town of Dorchester, just south of Boston; she placed advertisements for the school and helped recruit students. Because Boston was New England’s center of learning, she also oversaw the educations of several nieces, nephews, and the children of family friends who attended school there. Some of them boarded with the Murray family.
In addition to essays and plays, Murray also published a good deal of poetry, but financial strain continued and worsened after John Murray suffered a stroke in 1809. He lived on until 1815, and most of his brilliant wife’s energy had to be expended on his care. Their daughter married a wealthy Harvard student, Adam Louis Bingamon, in 1812, and when her husband died, Judith Sargent Murray completed and published John Murray’s autobiography. She then moved to Natchez, Mississippi to live with the Bingamons.
The Mississippi Territory was still very much a frontier, and the mental giant from Boston, the center of national intellect, was isolated from any outlet for her thoughtful writing. She died in Natchez on June 9, 1820, at age 69, and was buried in the Bingamon Cemetery on St. Catherine’s Creek, near a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Murray’s letter books were discovered at a nearby Natchez plantation 164 years later. Ten of them have been published so far.
Judith Sargent Murray was a staunch believer in improved educational opportunity for women. Her essays were important to the post-Revolution “Republican Motherhood” movement, which aimed to produce intelligent and virtuous citizens required for the success of the new nation. Led by Abigail Adams and others, these people made the argument that the education of patriotic sons – who would be voters -- rested largely in the hands of mothers, something of great importance to the success of the world’s first experiment in governance without a monarch or other permanent authority. At the same time, many people also held the belief that women were incapable of logic and that mental exercise harmed their physical ability to bear children. Murray suggested that the female brain was not inherently inferior, explaining that women are not naturally less intelligent but that their intelligence was stifled by the way they in which they were reared.
She had written – but did not publish -- “On the Equality of the Sexes” in 1779, a decade after her first marriage and well before the 1792 publication of Vindication of the Rights of Woman by England’s much more famous Mary Woolstonecraft. Part of that 1779 essay demonstrates her highly original insight, as she makes an argument that feminists repeat today:
“Will it be said that the judgment of a male of two years old, is more sage than that of a female's of the same age? I believe the reverse is generally observed to be true. 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”(1).
The Judith Sargent Murray Society
Judith Sargent Murray Biography
The Sargent House Museum