Judith Sargent Murray Society
JSM's dates: 1751-1820

A Young Judith Sargent Murray
Claims Her Power and Self-Educates

A Brief Biography of Judith Sargent Murray

Bonnie Hurd Smith's
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Judith Sargent Murray
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Girls born into the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the mid-eighteenth century did not receive the same education as boys. That would be an understatement. At the time, the inherent inferiority of the female intellect was simply "understood" to be the norm. Since the Biblical "Fall of Eve" myth, which "proved" in Christianity that women were inferior, standards of intelligence and expectations were, sadly, lower than those for men. Why should girls be educated well? What was the point?

Naturally, the trouble with this notion is that it's dead wrong! Women are not inherently inferior to men in any way. Judith Sargent, born in 1751 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, had the intelligence and the temerity to figure this out as a young girl. Many years later, as a professional essayist, Judith wrote, "To argue against facts is to contend with both wind and tide."

Judith was the oldest of four surviving siblings, and the daughter of two wealthy, successful families - the Sargents and the Saunderses. The traits enjoyed by the Sargent and Saunders men - business acumen, entrepreneurial thinking, self-confidence, political engagement, views inspired by the Enlightenment - were clearly passed on to young Judith.

But even in her progressive, merchant class family, Judith only received the rudiments of education - very basic reading and writing skills provided by an "ill taught Preceptress," as Judith described her in a letter. Primarily, Judith was taught the dozens of domestic tasks associated with caring for a merchant class household to prepare her for the only thing expected of her -- marriage.

Meanwhile, Judith's brother Winthrop, two years younger than she, was being tutored to prepare him for Harvard. He was studying history, science, philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics, Latin, and Greek, using books in the Sargent family library.

A family story has been perpetuated over the years that Judith studied alongside him, but I know from reading her letters that this was not the case. "I have, through life, mourned the want of early instruction," she wrote to Winthrop when she was 57 years old. And, indeed, it is this inequity between their educational advantages that drove Judith to make things better for her own daughter and for future generations of girls.

What Judith did do, however, was to make use of the family library and she began a lifelong process of self-education that surpassed any expectation of her.

We know that Judith's favorite book when she was sixteen years old was The Oeconomy of Human Life, a book of ancient Brahmin Indian lessons on morality, so we know that from a fairly early age Judith was interested in ethics, philosophy, and in determining for herself a moral truth. On the end paper of the book, she wrote, "the best book that ever was written."

Judith was also "a scribbler" from a very young age, she later told the Rev. William Emerson, meaning, a writer. "Ere I had completed my ninth year," she told him, "I had written a little work, which in the simplicity of my years, I determined an history." She made "humble attempts at poetry," as well. All of this she was allowed to do only after her domestic chores had been completed. Her mother extended her this freedom, and her father showed off her compositions to family members -- facts whose importance cannot be overstated and throughout Judith's adult life, until her parents passed away, she remained deeply grateful and loyal to these two unusual eighteenth century parents -- the "Authors of her Being," as she called them.

With this patchworked early education and a whole lot of spirit and determination, Judith Sargent Murray went on to become the most important female essayist of the New American Republic, according to the historian Susan Branson.

In her essays, Judith denounced the prevailing notions of female inferiority pointing directly to the sorry state of girls' education. In her landmark essay, "On the Equality of the Sexes," published in 1790 by the highly regarded Massachusetts Magazine, Judith wrote:

"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 Deity, should at present be so degraded, as to be allowed no other ideas, than those suggested by the mechanism of a pudding, or the sewing [of] the seams of a garment?... Are we deficient in reason? We can only reason from what we know, and if opportunity of acquiring knowledge hath been denied us, the inferiority of our sex cannot fairly be deduced from thence."

Judith Sargent Murray not only recognized and claimed her own power, she claimed it for her own daughter and for future generations of girls and women.

We are all her beneficiaries.

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2010 © Bonnie Hurd Smith
I
ndependent scholar, author, and public speaker Bonnie Hurd Smith specializes in telling women's history stories that inform, inspire, and motivate.  She is also the president and CEO of History Smiths, a marketing company that works with businesses to incorporate history -- their own and their community's -- into their branding, marketing, and community outreach to attract customers, boost customer loyalty, and secure a high status reputation in the communities they serve.