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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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 Washington.

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 (1784)
On the Domestic Education of Children (1790)
On the Equality of the Sexes (1790)
Occasional Epilogue to The Contrast, a Comedy, Written by Royal Tyler, Esq. (1794)

Other Works
The Gleaner, Massachusetts Magazine (1791-1794)
The Repository, Massachusetts Magazine (1792-1794)
The Medium, or Virtue Triumphant (1795)
The Traveller Returned (1796)

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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.

Secondary Sources