Judith Sargent Murray

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Judith Sargent Murray
John Singleton Copley - Portrait de Madame John Stevens.jpg
Portrait of Mrs. Judith Sargent Murray. Portrait by John Singleton Copley, Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection
Born (1751-05-01)May 1, 1751
Gloucester, Massachusetts
Died June 9, 1820(1820-06-09) (aged 69)
Natchez, Mississippi
Occupation Women's rights advocate, essayist, playwright, poet, and letter writer.
Spouse(s) John Stevens, John Murray

Judith Sargent Murray (May 1, 1751 – June 9, 1820) was an early American advocate for women's rights, an essayist, playwright, poet, and letter writer. She was one of the first American proponents of the idea of the equality of the sexes—that women, like men, had the capability of intellectual accomplishment and should be able to achieve economic independence. Her landmark essay "On the Equality of the Sexes," published in the Massachusetts Magazine in March and April 1790 predated Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which was published in Britain in 1792 and in Philadelphia in 1794.

Life and career[edit]

Early life and family[edit]

Judith Sargent was born on May 1, 1751, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, to Winthrop and Judith Saunders Sargent. She first noticed the gender inequalities of her day when her brother Winthrop Sargent, two years her younger, began studying the classics, a subject that her parents—in keeping with the usual practice of the eighteenth century—refused to provide for their daughter. She learned to read and write, and had a passable knowledge of French, but although she considered herself as capable as her brother, her educational experience was far inferior to his. Thus, even as a young girl, she was painfully aware of the way her society circumscribed the aspirations of women.[1]

Primarily self-taught, Murray believed that with quality education, women's accomplishments would equal those of men's. She believed women would succeed in life for two reasons: 1) education, 2) parents who raised their daughters to "reverence themselves," as she put it in one of her essays.

A student of history, Murray used examples of women's accomplishments dating to ancient times to prove her points and to provide leadership in what would become a long struggle for women to fulfill their potential and become fully empowered members of society.

Early career[edit]

Judith Sargent Murray wrote anonymously under assumed names including "Constantia," "The Reaper," "Honora Martesia," and, most famously, as her male persona "Mr. Vigilius" or "The Gleaner." She adopted this masculine pen name because she wanted her readers to consider her ideas and not dismiss them as merely derived from the pen of a woman. Murray's three-volume 1798 book of essays and plays titled The Gleaner, established her as a leading author and intellect, and as an advocate for women's equality, education, and economic independence. Essays in The Gleaner also championed the new republic; considered citizenship, virtue, and philanthropy; decried war and violence of any kind; and discussed Universalism, Murray's chosen faith. The book was purchased by such prominent figures as George Washington, John Adams, Henry Knox, and Mercy Otis Warren.

At approximately age twenty-three, Judith Sargent Murray began making copies of her correspondence to create a historical record for future generations. These letter books—twenty volumes in all—were found in 1984 and were published on microfilm by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History where the original volumes reside. Containing approximately 2,500 letters, Murray's letter books make up one of the few surviving collections of writings by women from this period in American history. (The letter books are currently being transcribed and published by the Judith Sargent Murray Society.)

Judith Sargent Murray was among the group of people in Gloucester, led by her father, Winthrop Sargent, who first embraced Universalism. Her name was included in the public documents that expelled the Gloucester Universalists from First Parish (Calvinist/Congregational) for refusing to attend and pay taxes to the established church. The Universalists took their case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and won the first ruling in America for freedom of religion, meaning, the right to support their own church, their own minister, and not pay taxes to First Parish. This ruling affected religious groups throughout the nation.

The minister they wanted to support in their own Universalist church was John Murray, who is considered the founder of organized American Universalism. A native of England, John Murray first arrived in the colonies in 1770 and settled in Gloucester in 1774. Like Judith's father, people up and down the Eastern seaboard had already embraced the Universalist interpretation of the Bible put forth by the Welsh-born James Relly. John Murray, one of Relly's protégés, was the first preacher of the new faith in America. He was charismatic and convincing, and he succeeded in dismantling the dark, gloomy promises of Calvinism in favor of a more hopeful view of the present and life after. He organized fledgling groups into established Universalist churches and societies.

Marriages and Universalism[edit]

After Judith's 1st husband, John Stevens, died in the West Indies where he fled to escape debtors' prison, she and John Murray married in 1788, in Salem, Massachusetts. At the end of John Murray's life, Judith helped him publish his book Letters and Sketches of Sermons. She also edited, completed, and published his autobiography after his death. Universalist historians consider Judith Sargent Murray's involvement in Universalism among the reasons why women have always held leadership roles in the Universalist church, including as ministers.

Judith and John Murray had two children: a son, Fitz Winthrop who was stillborn, and a daughter, Julia Maria, who survived to adulthood but died at the age of 31. During her first marriage, Judith adopted two of her first husband's orphaned nieces, Anna and Mary Plummer, and briefly housed another young orphan to whom she was related, Polly Odell. During her years with John Murray, Judith oversaw the education of twelve children, including her daughter; they were the children of her brothers, or those of family friends. When she traveled, she befriended more young people and maintained a regular correspondence with them. She helped found a female academy in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1802-3, and her 1782 catechism, written for children, which is considered the earliest writing by an American Universalist woman. Throughout her life, Murray was a dedicated teacher to all of the young people with whom she came into contact.

Judith Sargent Murray died in Natchez, Mississippi, June 9, 1820. She is buried in the Bingaman family, Hurricane Plantation cemetery, which was donated to the state owned "Grand Village" archaeological park by Bingaman descendant, Mrs. Grace MacNeil, in 1978.



Judith Sargent Murray's legacy is a subject of much contemporary discussion. Because her letter books were only fairly recently discovered, no one has been able to produce a complete biography of her life, though "A Brief Biography with Documents" (by Sheila L. Skemp) is useful in understanding her life's contributions to the study of intellectual history. Alice Rossi's 1974 landmark book The Feminist Papers starts with Murray's "On the Equality of the Sexes." Rossi began the reinstatement of Murray's voice to the American story. Since the discovery of the letter books at "Arlington", in Natchez, Mississippi, 1984, by the Rev. Gordon Gibson, a Unitarian Universalist minister, and through the work of the Judith Sargent Murray Society, the letter books are being transcribed, indexed, and published for researchers to use. David McCullough included one of Murray's letters in his biography of John Adams. Cokie Roberts used Murray's letters in Founding Mothers.

Selected works[edit]

List of works taken from the Judith Sargent Murray Society[3]


  • Some Deductions from the System Promulgated in the Page of Divine Revelation: Ranged in the Order and Form of a Catechism Intended as an Assistant to the Christian Parent or Teacher published anonymously (1782)
  • The Gleaner: A Miscellaneous Production (1798)
  • Life of the Rev. John Murray (1816—Judith Sargent Murray was the editor and author of the "continuation")


  • A Universalist Catechism (1782)
  • Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms (1784)
  • On the Equality of the Sexes (1790)
  • On the Domestic Education of Children (1790)
  • The Gleaner (1792–94)
  • The Repository (1792–94)
  • The Reaper (1794)


(a partial list)

  • A Rebus (1803)
  • An Hypothesis (1808)
  • Apology for an Epilogue (1790)
  • Birth-day Invitation (1803)


  • The Medium, or Happy Tea-Party; later renamed The Medium, or Virtue Triumphant (1795)
  • The Traveller Returned (1796)
  • The African (1798)


  1. ^ Sheila L. Skemp, First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Women's Rights, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009
  2. ^ "MSU Literature Online biography". Murray, Judith Sargent, 1751-1820. Retrieved July 14, 2008. 
  3. ^ a b "Judith Sargent Murray Society". Judith's Essays and Poems. Archived from the original on June 4, 2008. Retrieved July 14, 2008. 
  • Judith Sargent Murray Society web site [1]

External links[edit]