Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Judith Sargent Murray and the Equality of the Sexes

Judith Sargent Murray (born 5 May 1751)

Born into a prominent and wealthy Massachusetts family of businessmen, Judith Sargent very early realized the disadvantages women faced in life--her younger brother was given an excellent education, one designed to prepare him for entrance to Harvard, while she did not have the same kind of instruction. Her brother had a private tutor for lessons in geography, history, the classics, science, mathematics, philosophy, and theology; she was taught basic reading and writing, sewing, and household management. As expected of a daughter, she married John Stevens in 1769, when she was eighteen. 

A portrait of Judith Sargent,
then Mrs. Stevens,
by the artist John Singleton Copley,
painted 1770-72
Always teaching herself through reading, she began writing too. She had begun a notebook preserving her correspondence in 1765; in 1773, she began writing personal observations of events she witnessed during the American Revolution, a series of notes she continued until 1783.

But in 1782 she began publishing, first a Catechism for her Universalist faith. This was followed by the publication of her first essay in 1784, "Desultory Thoughts Upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms."

In 1786, John Stevens died; Judith Sargent remarried two years later, in 1788, this time to the Universalist minister John Murray. Two crucial essays, "On the Domestic Education of Children," and her most important work, "On the Equality of the Sexes," were published in 1790. She continued writing until her death in 1820, composing plays, poetry, and essays, all of which were published pseudonymously; she frequently used a female pen name, like "Constantia," the author of her most famous essay, though sometimes she wrote as a man, most famously using the pseudonym "The Gleaner." She also edited and published John Murray's sermons, correspondence, and autobiography.

Judith Sargent Murray's life and work disappeared until 1974, when her essay "On the Equality of the Sexes" was rediscovered and published by Alice Rossi in The Feminist Papers. A wealth of information is now available. There is an excellent biography, Sheila Skemp's First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence, as well as a sampling of her writing, Sharon M. Harris's Selected Writings of Judith Sargent Murray,

But you might want to start with the Judith Sargent Murray Society's amazing website, by Bonnie Hurd Smith. There you will find a very full biography, a selection from Judith Sargent's correspondence and notebooks, and an archive of Judith Sargent Murray's publications, including "On the Equality of the Sexes." 

Update, 5 May 2021: Unfortunately, Bonnie Hurd Smith's website seems to be no longer online, nor can I find a link for the Judith Sargent Murray Society.The link I’ve included above now takes you to the site as it was preserved on the Wayback Machine. Sargent's "On the Equality of the Sexes" is available here.

(Bonnie Hurd Smith still promotes her Sargent website, though the site itself says "not currently available." I've maintained the info in the hope that it will be back online soon!)

Update, 5 May 2023: The Judith Sargent Murray Society website is still not available, but Bonnie Hurd Smith indicates she is working on it. If you follow the link she provides there, you can read Hurd Smith's essay on Judith Sargent Murray for Oxford Bibliographies. Hurd Smith's personal web page provides information about what she is doing now .