| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Judith Sargent Murray
Judith Sargent Murray’s literary career flourished during the
1790s, a time when America was struggling to define itself as
independent—politically and aesthetically—from Great Britain. Murray was
engaged in this period of change, voicing her opinions on literary nationalism,
the federalist system of government, the equality of women, and religious
universalism. The seeds of these interests were planted early in Murray’s life.
She was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the eldest child of Captain Winthrop
Sargent and Judith Saunders. A socially prominent family, the Sargents were
distinguished by their political activity: Winthrop Sargent served in the
provisional government during the Revolutionary War, and his son Winthrop was
honored by Washington for his military activities. At an early age Judith Sargent
exhibited so high a degree of intelligence that her parents encouraged her to
study with her brother, who was preparing with
a local Gloucester minister for entrance to Harvard. She thus gained an
education far superior to that given most women: she studied the Latin and
Greek languages and literatures and was introduced to the sciences, including
mathematics and astronomy. The Sargent family became strong supporters of John
Murray, who visited Gloucester in his mission to establish Universalism in America.
By aligning themselves with this liberal branch of Protestantism, the Sargents
elicited scorn from their religiously conservative neighbors.
At age eighteen,
Judith Sargent married John Stevens, a prosperous sea captain and trader; the
large Stevens house in Gloucester thereafter became a popular meeting-place in
the town. Dating from this period are the author’s earliest known writings,
including several poems and an important essay in which she introduces her
ideas on the equality of women, “Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of
encouraging a degree of Self-Complacency, especially in Female Bosoms” (1784).
She signed her early work “Constantia,” one of the many pseudonyms she would
use throughout her career.
When her husband died
in 1786, Stevens became a closer friend of John Murray, and they married in
1788. The couple shared both religious beliefs and intellectual interests. The
Murrays’ move to Boston in 1793 widened the author’s literary involvement, and
her career flourished. She wrote two plays for the newly reopened Federal
Street Theatre, thereby aligning herself with such writers as Royall Tyler.
With regular contributions to the Massachusetts Magazine—one of the most
prestigious journals of the late eighteenth century—Murray established herself
as a prominent essayist and poet. Her writings reflect the firm ideas she held
on education, the equality of the sexes, literary nationalism, federalism, and
Universalism. The three-volume edition of her Gleaner essays, published
in 1798, attracted over 700 subscribers, among them President Adams and George
After 1800, Murray
turned her attention to editing John Murray’s biography and religious writings.
Following the death of her husband in 1815, Murray moved to Natchez,
Mississippi, to live with her only child, Julia, who had married a wealthy
planter. Murray died in 1820.
An assessment of
Murray’s literary career must consider the fervor with which she addressed the
most important issues of her day. The major outlets for these ideas were her
two concurrent essay series—The Repository (largely religious in nature)
and The Gleaner—which ran in the Massachusetts Magazine from 1792
to 1794. The imaginary author of the Gleaner essays, Mr. Vigillius,
discussed such varied topics as the new Constitution, the dangers of political
factionalism, and the progressive nature of history. Within The Gleaner
series Murray included critical essays on drama at a time when many writers
were concerned about the future of American literature. According to Murray’s
federalist agenda, the new American drama should reflect the virtues of the new
republic: liberty, patriotism, and equality. By focusing on American virtues
and scenes—as she did in her plays, The Medium, or Virtue Triumphant and
The Traveller Returned,Murray upheld that national drama would be
revitalized and could break away from the British tradition.
Murray also turned her
attention toward a reconsideration of fiction with her brief novel, The
Story of Margaretta, included within the framework of The Gleaner. Unlike most heroines of sentimental fiction, Margaretta is able
to escape the cycle of seduction and destruction because of her superior
education: she proves herself to be wise and virtuous and is rewarded with a
loving husband. This link between education, virtuous filial conduct, and
reward is an important aspect of Murray’s philosophy. She argued that if women
were given equal opportunity to develop their rational capacities, they would
be able to exercise good judgment, thus escaping their supposedly female
susceptibility to passion and sentimental emotionalism (both considered bad
conduct). Murray predicts that advancements in education and thus in social
place would allow young women to form “a new era in female history.”
“On the Equality of
the Sexes” (reportedly drafted in 1779; printed in the Massachusetts
Magazine in April/May 1790, and signed “Constantia”) is perhaps Murray’s
most influential essay. Here she radically questioned the system that held
women subservient to men. She argued that the capacities of imagination and
memory are verifiably equal in men and women, and the apparent inequalities in
reason and judgment arise only from a difference in education. Murray argued
that housework and needlework are mindless activities, ones that deny women any
exercise of their intellectual faculties. If women were given the same
education as men, Murray maintained, their reason and judgment would develop
equally. It is interesting to note that Murray predicated the need for women’s
education not only on the equality of their rational capabilities but also on
the equality of their souls. Feminist reform was linked, in Murray’s theory, to
the egalitarian promise of the new republic. If America were to achieve its
destined level of greatness, it would have to develop and cherish the intellect
and virtue of all citizens.
Amy M. Yerkes|
Johns Hopkins University
In the Heath Anthology
Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms
On the Domestic Education of Children
On the Equality of the Sexes
Occasional Epilogue to The Contrast, a Comedy, Written by Royal Tyler, Esq.
The Gleaner, Massachusetts Magazine
The Repository, Massachusetts Magazine
The Medium, or Virtue Triumphant
The Traveller Returned
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?
There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.
An Illustrated Tour through Judith Sargent Murray's World
Interesting site offering images and text describing Murray's historical and spatial context.
Judith Sargent Murray Society
Information about the activities of the Society, and its dedication " . . .to honoring the life and legacy of the 18th-century author and activist who was among America's earliest champions of female equality, education, and economic independence."
Sunshine for Women
A description of Murray's impact on feminism.