Judith Sargent Murray was at the center of the discussion over women’s nature that informed the debates about gender and class of her day. Born on 1 May 1751, she was the oldest child of Winthrop Sargent and Judith Saunders Sargent, both of whom were wealthy and respected members of the merchant elite in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Murray’s first husband, Gloucester merchant John Stevens, died insolvent in 1787. Her second husband, John Murray, was the first Universalist minister in America. He, too, was unable to maintain his wife in the style to which she had been accustomed.
As someone whose life was characterized by downward social mobility and who embraced a religion that most Americans viewed with distrust, Judith Murray occupied the margins of polite society. At the same time, her inherited status gave her a sense of entitlement that she never lost. This sense that she somehow deserved better gave her the confidence to challenge what she saw as the unfair disadvantages under which eighteenth-century women operated. In particular, Murray resented the deficiencies in education that even the most privileged women of her day took for granted. Taking a page from philosopher John Locke, she argued that women and men were intellectual equals but that a lack of education turned women into the silly and frivolous creatures that she disdained.
To prove her point, Murray wrote and published poetry and essays. Two of her plays, The Medium (1795) and The Traveller Returned (1796), were produced at Boston’s Federal Street Theater, making her the first American-born woman to see her work performed in the Massachusetts capital. The Gleaner (1798), a three-volume compilation of essays, plays, and poetry, brought her at least a modicum of the fame that she so fervently sought. The volumes include her novel-like story of “Margaretta” and her most well-known piece, a four-part essay, “Observations on Female Abilities.” In style and in substance, her poems, plays, and especially her essays blurred the intellectual lines dividing men and women. Simply by writing about politics and war as well as philanthropy and piety, she was claiming the right as a citizen to comment directly on public affairs. Because she always wrote under a pseudonym, appearing sometimes as the female “Constantia” and other times as the male “Gleaner,” “Reaper,” or “Mr. Vigillius,” her disguises personified the fluidity of gender identities.
While she spent most of her life in either Gloucester or Boston, Murray moved to Natchez in 1818 to live with her daughter, Julia Maria Murray Bingaman, and son-in-law, planter and lawyer Adam Bingaman. Historians know virtually nothing about Murray’s short life in Mississippi. A New Englander to the core, she no doubt was puzzled and perhaps repelled by her new home. She had always expressed her doubts about the institution of slavery, although like most of her compatriots she disliked the system for the way that it corrupted white owners rather than for the harm it did to African Americans. She thought the southern climate was unhealthy and that it did special damage to New Englanders not used to the heat and humidity. And as a staunch Federalist, she felt uncomfortable in a society whose inhabitants tended to be Jeffersonian Republicans. Finally, she saw the frontier as an uncivilized place, full of “ferocious and savage people” who lacked the polish and gentility of the men and women who inhabited her native New England. A whiff of the discomfort with which she viewed her adopted home appears in a codicil to her will, devised on 5 July 1820, the day before she died. She wanted to be buried in “some sequestered spot,” safe from the “invasions of the Planter, or from intrusion of any description.” It was also her “express wish, that said spot be enclosed by a decent railing.” And she wanted her grave marked with a “monumental marble” that would announce the place of her birth and her parents’ names. Natchez was too wild and forbidding for someone whose notion of nature was redolent of fields tamed by the plow and land marked by neatly defined boundaries. As she requested, her gravestone in Natchez’s Bingaman Cemetery continues to proclaim for future generations that she was a Sargent of Gloucester, Massachusetts.
- Find a Grave website, www.findagrave.com
- Madelon Jacoba, Studies in the Humanities (December 1991)
- Amelia Howe Kritzer, Early American Literature (January 1996)
- Judith Sargent Murray, Selected Writings of Judith Sargent Murray, ed. Sharon M. Harris (1995)
- Sheila L. Skemp, Judith Sargent Murray: A Brief Biography with Documents (1998)