By Liv H. C.
Judith Sargent Stevens Murray was born in 1751 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, into a family of elite merchants and shipowners. As one of the first recognized feminist authors in the United States, she was known for advocating for improved education for women and girls, the separation of church and state, and personal freedom of religion. Murray showed signs of high intelligence as a child, leading her parents to allow her to be tutored with her younger brother as he prepared to study at Harvard. However, she never received a proper formal education.
She wrote the first draft of her essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” in 1779, but did not send it to the Massachusetts Magazine until 1790, when it was published under her pen name “Constantia.” The essay, which is prefaced by a poem by Murray on the same topic, emphasizes the potential of both women and men to pursue intellectual improvement and advocates for the normalization of educating girls—a change that must have seemed possible in the messy and disorganized aftermath of the Revolutionary War. Her success as a feminist writer resulted in part from the support of First Ladies Martha Washington and Abigail Adams. Murray is remembered for being one of the first female American authors to use satire “as a means of challenging patriarchal values and advocating social change,” inspiring generations of future feminist authors.
“THAT minds are not alike, full well I know,
To heights surprising some great spirits soar,
With inborn strength mysterious depths explore;
And Genius, led by Study, wears the crown.
But some there are who wish not to improve
Who never can the path of knowledge love,
Weak is the level’d, enervated mind,
And but while here to vegetate design’d.
Yet cannot I their sentiments imbibe,
Who this distinction to the sex ascribe,
As if a woman’s form must needs enrol,
A weak, a servile, an inferiour soul;
And that the guise of man must still proclaim,
Greatness of mind, and him, to be the same:
And in past times some men have sunk so low,
That female records nothing less can show.
But imbecility is still confin’d,
And by the lordly sex to us consign’d;
They rob us of the power t’improve,
And then declare we only trifles love;
Yet haste the era, when the world shall know,
That such distinctions only dwell below;
The soul unfetter’d, to no sex confin’d,
Was for the abodes of cloudless day design’d.
Is the needle and kitchen sufficient to employ the operations of a soul thus organized? I should conceive not, Nay, it is a truth that those very departments leave the intelligent principle vacant, and at liberty for speculation. Are we deficient in reason? 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.
Will it be said that the judgment of a male of two years old, is more sage than that of a female’s of the same age? I believe the reverse is generally observed to be true. But from that period what partiality! how is the one exalted, and the other depressed, by the contrary modes of education which are adopted! the one is taught to aspire, and the other is early confined and limitted. As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flowery paths of science. Grant that their minds are by nature equal, yet who shall wonder at the apparent superiority, if indeed custom becomes second nature; nay if it taketh place of nature, and that it doth the experience of each day will evince. At length arrived at womanhood, the uncultivated fair one feels a void, which the employments allotted her are by no means capable of filling.
[E]very requisite in female economy is easily attained; and, with truth I can add, that when once attained, they require no further mental attention. Nay, while we are pursuing the needle, or the superintendency of the family, I repeat, that our minds are at full liberty for reflection; that imagination may exert itself in full vigor; and that if a just foundation is early laid, our ideas will then be worthy of rational beings. […] Should it still be vociferated, “Your domestick employments are sufficient” – I would calmly ask, is it reasonable, that a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, an intelligent being, who is to spend an eternity in contemplating the works of the Deity, should at present be so degraded, as to be allowed no other ideas, than those which are suggested by the mechanism of a pudding, or the sewing the seams of a garment? Pity that all such censurers of female improvement do not go one step further, and deny their future existence; to be consistent they surely ought.
Yes, ye lordly, ye haughty sex, our souls are by nature equal to yours; the same breath of God animates, enlivens, and invigorates us.
I AM aware that there are many passages in the sacred oracles which seem to give the advantage to the other sex; but I consider all these as wholly metaphorical.
Confiding faith is prefigured by Abraham, yet he exhibits a contrast to affiance, when he says of his fair companion, she is my sister. Gentleness was the characteristick of Moses, yet he hesitated not to reply to Jehovah himself, with unsaintlike tongue he murmured at the waters of strife, and with rash hands he break the tables, which were inscribed by the finger of divinity. David, dignified with the title of the man after God’s own heart, and yet how stained was his life. Solomon was celebrated for wisdom, but folly is write in legible characters upon his almost every action. Lastly, let us turn our eyes to man in the aggregate. He is manifested as the figure of strength, but that we may not regard him as any thing more than a figure, his soul is formed in no sort superiour, but every way equal to the mind of her who is the emblem of weakness and whom he hails the gentle companion of his better days.”
- After reading this excerpt of Murray’s essay, how successful do you think it might have been when it was first published in 1790? Why?
- Why do you think Murray was still so quick to assure readers that women would still be able to complete their domestic duties while educating themselves in their free time?
- How do you think the inclusion of Biblical references in the latter part of Murray’s essay might have affected its reception by the public?
- Considering the influence Murray had upon future American writers, can you think of any more recent people or pieces of writing that this essay reminds you of? Look for specific examples in the text.
Copley, John Singleton. Portrait De Madame John Stevens (c. 1770). November 5, 2010. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:John_Singleton_Copley_-_Portrait_de_Madame_John_Stevens.jpg.
Galewski, Elizabeth. “The Strange Case for Women’s Capacity to Reason: Judith Sargent Murray’s Use of Irony in ‘On the Equality of the Sexes’ (1790).” Taylor & Francis, May 8, 2007. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00335630701326852.
Harris, Sharon M. “Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820).” Legacy 11, no. 2 (1994): 152-60. Accessed April 14, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25679133.
Sargent Murray, Judith. “On the Equality of the Sexes” (Massachusetts Magazine, 1790). A Celebration of Women Writers. University of Pennsylvania. Accessed April 14, 2021. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/murray/equality/equality.html.