But what was Judith to do against such daunting obstacles? How did this young girl come to believe in her own abilities and to champion ours?
Luckily, Judith lived in an upper class family that valued learning and intellectual inquiry. The Sargent family on her father’s side, and the Saunders family on her mother’s side, were engaged in maritime trade in other parts of the world including England. There, Enlightenment thinking had taken over, stressing the intrinsic value of each individual as a thinking, feeling, acting being. The Sargents and Saunderses were also politically engaged citizens and civic leaders. They thought and played big.
The Sargent family home in Gloucester contained books procured by Judith’s father, Winthrop Sargent, a significant detail in these days before public libraries and easily purchased publications. Judith made use of this family library, reading history, theology, philosophy, and great literature from a very young age. While her parents had only given her a very rudimentary education – which was typical even for merchant class families -- they did allow her to read anything she wanted to and also to write.
At the same time, Judith’s father had encountered a new, enlightened, theological interpretation of the Bible that came to be known as Universalism. Universalism rejected the angry God put forth by Calvinists, and the dark, depressing hallmarks of that faith. Instead, Universalism upheld a loving God, in whose love the faithful comprised a “Universal family of man” that was saved, AND the core belief that all souls were equal in God’s eyes – male and female.
As a Universalist, Judith rejected female inferiority early on. Then, when she read history, it put starch in her backbone. For her, the question of whether or not women had the ability to lead politically, go to battle, contribute as citizens, or manage economically was baffling – they already had. To deny or abridge female abilities was, well, stupid at best and against God’s plan at worst!
In 1798, in her book, The Gleaner, Judith wrote:
“And, first, by way of exordium, I take leave to
congratulate my fair country-women, on the happy revolution which the few past
years has made in their favour; that in these infant republics, where, within
my remembrance, the use of the needle was the principal attainment which was
thought necessary for a woman, the
lovely proficient is now permitted to appropriate a moiety of her time to
studies of a more elevated and elevating nature. Female academies are every
where establishing, and right pleasant is the appellation to my ear.
Yes, in this younger world, 'the Rights of Women' begin to be understood; we seem, at length, determined to do justice to THE SEX; and, improving on the opinions of a Wollstonecraft, we are ready to contend for the quantity, as well as the quality, of mind. The younger part of the female world have now an inestimable prize put into their hands; and it depends on the rising generation to refute sentiment, which, still retaining its advocates, grounds its arguments on the incompatibility of the present enlarged plan of female education, with those necessary occupations, that must ever be considered as proper to the department and comprised in the duties of a judiciously instructed and elegant woman; and, if our daughters will combine their efforts, converts to the new regulations will every day multiply among us. To argue against facts, is indeed contending with both wind and tide; and, borne down by accumulating examples, conviction of the utility of the present plans will pervade the public mind, and not a dissenting voice will be heard….
I may be accused of enthusiasm; but such is my confidence in THE SEX, that I expect to see our young women forming a new era in female history….
The idea of the incapability of women, is, we conceive, in this enlightened age, totally inadmissible; and we have concluded, that establishing the expediency of admitting them to share the blessings of equality, will remove every obstacle to their advancement. In proportion as nations have progressed in the arts of civilization, the value of THE SEX hath been understood, their rank in the scale of being ascertained, and their consequence in society acknowledged. But if prejudice still fortifies itself in the bosom of any; if it yet enlifteth its votaries against the said despot and its followers, we produce, instead of arguments, a number of well attested facts, which the student of female annals hath carefully compiled.”
Judith’s essay continues with descriptions of the patriotic women of ancient Sparta, Hungarian women who stood against the Ottoman Empire, Hebrew women who clung to their language and religion against Christians, Mary Queen of Scots, Catherine the Great of Russia – you get the idea.
With spirit, force, and an armload of historical facts, Judith Sargent Murray asks, “Does it make sense to doubt female abilities?” and then she inundates her readers with proof that the answer is a resounding NO!
Have women achieved full equality in America today? No. But we are better off for having had women like Judith Sargent Murray push the rock uphill for us all those years ago.
2010 © Bonnie Hurd Smith
Independent 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.