Judith Sargent Murray: Colonial Advocate for Women’s Education

“We can only reason from what we know, and if an opportunity of acquiring knowledge hath been denied us, the inferiority of our sex cannot fairly be deduced from thence.”

Not only is Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820) one in a long line of women throughout history who have spoken out against the gender-based double standards in their respective societies, but she used these women in her writings to support the argument that women had the same intellectual capabilities as men.

Murray grew up in Gloucester Massachusetts to a family wealthy enough to be able to provide an education to their children. She was taught to read and write and had a passable understanding of French, but she was denied the opportunity to study beyond those subjects. When her brother Winthrop, who was two years her junior, was given the opportunity to study the Classics, she became aware of how society cut off the potential of women through denying them access to a full education.

In response, Murray became self-taught. She specialized in history, and devoted herself to writing on the idea that women have the same intellectual capacity as men, and that education was the key to female empowerment and success. She put forth these ideas in her 1790 essay, On the Equality of the Sexes.

Her first essays regarding gender equality were published under a male pseudonym (typically “Mr. Vigilius”) so that her words would be taken seriously by male readers. However, her landmark 1798 three volume work, The Gleaner, was published under her own name; this work dealt with such issues as philanthropy, pacifism, and gender equality, and was purchased by such people as George Washington and John Adams.

She also made vast inroads for freedom of religion in the new American republic, and for the role of women within Universalist Christianity. Her name was included in documents used to expel the Gloucester Universalists for refusing to pay taxes to the Congregational church, and that expulsion led to the first freedom of religion ruling (by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, in this instance) in the United States of America.

After her first husband died in the West Indies, Judith married John Murray, a celebrated Universalist theologian and preacher, and the first Universalist preacher in the United States. She helped him edit and publish his books, and she is considered by historians of Universalist Christianity to be the reason why women of that denomination have always had access to leadership roles.

Most fascinating about Murray, however, is her awareness of her place within history. At the age of 23, she began to create copies of all of her letters, essays, and books in order to create a historical record of herself for future researchers and historians. These copies—comprising 20 volumes in all—were discovered in 1984. They are currently held in the collections of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and are available for researchers in microfilm form. This collection of her works is one of the few surviving collections of female writings from the Early Republic period of American history.

Because of the relative newness of the discovery of her work, scholars have only recently begun to study her impact, legacy, and contributions.

Portrait (ca. 1770-1772 by John Singleton Copley) courtesy of the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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