Judith Sargent Murray Society
JSM's dates: 1751-1820
The Gleaner. No. LXXXIX.
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This essay was published in Judith Sargent Murray's book The Gleaner in 1798. It continues her essay on female abilities.


The Gleaner. No. LXXXIX.

The historic page with many a proof abounds,
And Fame's loud trump THE SEX'S worth resounds;
The patriot's zeal, the laurell'd warrior's claim,
The scepter'd virtues, wisdom's sacred name,
Creative poetry, the ethic page,
Design'd to form and meliorate the age,
With heroism, with perseverance fraught,
By honour, truth, and constancy enwrought,
And those blest deeds which elevate the mind,
With female genius these are all combin'd:
Recording story hands their virtues down,
And mellowing time awards their fair renown.


Plutarch, in one of his in valuable compositions, speaking of men and women, thus expresses himself — "The talents and the virtues are modified by the circumstances and the persons, but the foundation is the same." This celebrated and truly respectable biographer has yielded every thing that we wish; and the testimony of so nice a distinguisher must be considered as a very powerful auxiliary.

It is not our purpose to analyze the properties of mind; we are inclined to think, that accurately to discriminate, or draw the intellectual line, is beyond the power of the best informed metaphysician within the purlieus of humanity. Besides, as we write for the many, and as it is notorious that a number of well attested facts have abundantly more weight with the multitude, than the finest spun systems which ever issued from the archives of theory, we shall proceed to summons our witnesses, arranging their testimonies with as much order, as the cursory turning over a number of volumes, to which a deficiency in memory necessitates us to apply, will permit: and here, (lest the patience of our readers should reluct at the idea of the motley circle, to which they may apprehend they are to be introduced) we take leave to inform them, that we shall be careful to abridge, as much as possible, the copious depositions which may present.

Many centuries have revolved, since the era, when writers of eminence, giving a catalogue of celebrated women, have made the number to amount to eight hundred and forty-five: From these, and succeeding attestators, we shall select a few, not perhaps the most striking, but such as occur the most readily. Our object is to prove, by examples, that the minds of women are naturally as susceptible of every improvement, as those of men. In the course of our examination, an obvious conclusion will, we conceive, force itself on every attentive an ingenuous reader. If the triumphs and attainments of THE SEX, under the various oppressions with which they have struggled, have been thus splendid, how would they have been augmented, had not ignorant or interested men, after clipping their wings, contrived to erect around them almost insurmountable barriers. Descartes expatiated on the philosophical abilities of the sex; and, if their supporting themselves with astonishing equanimity under the complicated oppressions to which they are not unfrequently subjected, may be called the practice of any branch of philosophy, the experience of every tyrant will evince the their proficiency therein. But the highly respectable an truly honourable court, is, we presume, convened; the jury are empanneled, and we proceed to the examination of the witnesses, leaving the pleadings to those silent suggestions and interferences, which, we are assured, will voluntarily enlist themselves as advocates in every ingenuous bosom. The pending cause, as we have before observed, involves the establishment of the female intellect, or the maintaining the justice and propriety of considering women, as far as relates to their understanding, in every respect, equal to men. Our evidences tend to prove them —

First, Alike capable of enduring hardships.
Secondly, Equally ingenious, and fruitful in resources.
Thirdly, Their fortitude and heroism cannot be surpassed.
Fourthly, They are equally brave.
Fifthly, They are equally patriotic.
Sixthly, As influential.
Seventhly, As energetic, and as eloquent.
Eighthly, As faithful, and as persevering in their attachments.
Ninethly, As capable of supporting, with honour, the toils of government. And
Tenthly, and Lastly, They are equally susceptible of every literary acquirement.

And, First, They are alike capable of enduring hardships. A proposition so self-evident, supercedes the necessity of wither arguments of witnesses. On the women of Brittan, and the females among the savages of our own country, fatigues almost incredible are imposed. Imbecility seems to have changed the sexes; and it is in these instances, masculine weakness and feminine vigour, THE SEX, enervated and sinking amid the luxuries an indulgencies of an Asiatic climate, are elsewhere hardy and courageous, and fully adequate to all those exertions requisite to the support of themselves and their supine oppressors; and these well authenticated facts, are, I conceive, alone sufficient to prove the powerful and transforming effects of education and subsequent habits. But we need not take a voyage to Brittany, nor penetrate the haunts of savages, to prove that women are capable of suffering. They are the enduring sex; and, by the irreversible constitution of nature, they are subjected to agonies unknown to manhood; while I do not recollect that they are exempted from any of the calamities incident to humanity.

Secondly, They are equally ingenious, and fruitful in resources. Female ingenuity will not, we apprehend, be controverted; every day furnishes fresh proof of their invention, and their resources are a consequence. We select, however, a corroborating instance, which, from its salutary effect, seems to claim a preference.

A certain sovereign, of avaricious memory, was so fond of amassing treasure, that he arbitrarily compelled a very large proportion of his subjects to labour in the mines; but while his majesty's ingots were rapidly augmenting, the grounds remained uncultivated; famine advanced with hasty strides, and the dreary prospect every moment gathered darkness. No one possessed sufficient intrepidity to remonstrate — the despot's nod was fate — from his decrees there was no appeal — and the love of life, although its eligibles may be in great measure diminished, is generally a paramount passion. In this emergency, the ingenuity of the queen suggested a resource that snatched the nation from the horrors of that dearth which had seemed so inevitable. She secretly employed an artist to produce an exact imitation of those luxuries, in which the king most delighted, a variety of fish and fowl — bread and fruits of the most delicious kind, made of pure gold, were expeditiously completed, and displayed in order on the costly board — the table was highly decorated — and, when everything was complete, the king, (after having been purposely diverted from taking his customary refreshment) was ushered into the banqueting-room. His Majesty took a seat — for a moment, astonishment suspended event he clamours of hunger, and his mind was occupied by admiration of the imagination of the queen, and the deceptive abilities of the artist. The event was proportioned to the most sanguine expectations of the lady. The mines were suddenly de-peopled, and the earth again produced the necessary support.

Thirdly, Their fortitude and heroism cannot be surpassed. Listen to a woman of Sparta, reduced by melancholy casualties to a state of servitude — She was captured, and afterwards sold as a slave. The question was put by him on whom her very existence seemed to depend, "What knowest thou?" "To be free," was here characteristic reply: But the unfeeling despot, uninfluenced by indubitable indications of a noble mind, proceeded to impose his ignominious commands; to which she dispassionately returned, "you are unworthy of me;" and instantly resigned herself to death. Fortitude and heroism was a conspicuous trait in, and gave uncommon dignity to, the character of the Roman ladies. Arria, the wife of Paetus, a Roman of consular dignity, is an illustrious instance of that transcendent elevation, of which the female mind is susceptible. With persevering firmness, and a tenderness not to be exceeded, she continued unwearied in her endeavours to procure the life of her husband — long the cherished hope; but, when the pleasing violin fled, and the portending storm was bursting over their heads: In that tremendous moment, while the disappointed man, trembling on the verge of dissolution, ha not the courage to point the deadly weapon — with that exquisite delicacy, true fortitude, and faithfulness of affection, which is so highly sexual, she first imprinted on her own bosom the characters of death; and, animated by that sublime consciousness becoming a being more than half celestial, she then presented him the pointed dagger, with this consolatory assurance — "Paetus, this gives me no pain."

But fortitude and heroism are not confined to the Greek and Roman ladies; we have pledged ourselves not to multiply examples unnecessarily, otherwise a crowd of witnesses presenting, we could with difficulty supress their testimony. Yet we find it impossible so speedily to close this part of our examination; and from the multitude of examples in the Island of Great Britain, we produce the Lady Jane Gray, who seemed an exemplification of every virtue and every grace which has been attributed to the male or female character. The excellent understanding she receive from nature was opened and improved by uniform application. At sixteen, her judgment had attained a high degree of maturity. She was at that age an adept both in the Greek and Latin languages; and she was able to declare that her Greek Plato was a more pleasing entertainment to her than all those enchanting pleasures usually so captivating to the unexperienced mind. Nurtured in the bosom of parental affection, and of tender friendship — happy in the distinguished regards of her sovereign, and permitted the sublime enjoyment of intellectual pursuits, she had no ambition for the pageantry of royalty, and her advancement to the throne was an era, over which she dropped the melancholy tear. We are sensible that in adverting to these traits in a character, affectingly interesting, we do in fact anticipate other divisions of our subject; but, contemplating a mind thus richly furnished, it is difficult to consider separately, endowments so nicely blended, and reflecting on each other such unusual lustre.

The passage of Lady Jane, from the throne to the scaffold, was very short — her imposed queenship continued only ten days; yet she seemed displeased at their duration, and she received, with heroic fortitude, the message of death. The lover and the husband, whose vows she had recently accepted, was also under sentence of death; and, on the morning assigned for their martyrdom, he solicited for a parting interview; with solemn firmness she refused his request — yet her resolution originated not in a deficiency of tenderness but it was nerved by an apprehension that her sensibilities, thus stimulated, might surmount her fortitude. With modest resignation she pursued her way to the place of execution — the officers of death, bearing the body of her husband, while the headless trunk yet streamed with blood, met her on her passage — neither of them had completed their seventeenth year — she looked— she sighed — and then, reassuming her composed sedateness, desired her conductors to proceed — she mounted the scaffold with an accelerated step — she addressed the surrounding spectators — she committed the care of her person to her woman; and, with a countenance descriptive of serene dignity, bowed her head to the executioner. Thus perished a spotless victim of despotism and of bigotry in the bloom of youth and beauty, rich in innocence, and adorned with every literary accomplishment and sexual grace. Latest posterity will lament her fate, and many hearts will join to execrate the sanguinary measures which procured it. Under this head we produce but on more testimony.

Miss Anna Askew, a young lady of great merit, and possessed also of a beautiful exterior, lived during the tyranny of Henry VIII of England; a despot, who seemed to conceive the female world created on purpose to administer to his pleasures, or to become the victims of his cruelty and implacability. Miss Askew was arraigned as a transgressor; her crime was a denial of the real presence in the Eucharist; and for this atrocious offence, she was rigorously imprisoned, and subjected to a series of barbarities that would have disgraced even savage inhumanity. Yet, in a situation which, involved trials, that in a succeeding reign proved too mighty for the resolution even of the virtuous Cranmer, her heroism and fortitude continued unshaken. With unyielding firmness she vindicated the truth of her opinion, and her hourly orisons were offered up to her Father God. The chancellor, a bigoted Catholic, sternly questioned her relative to her abettors; but she nobly disdained to present an accusation, the consequences of which she so rigorously experienced: Her unbending integrity furnished the pretence, and she was, without further delay, put to the torture; but still her fortitude receded not; and her heroic silence evinced her abundantly superior to the unmanly cruelties. The enraged chancellor, in whose presence she suffered, transported with diabolic zeal, grasping with his own hands the cords, violently stretched the rack, and almost tore her body asunder; while yet unappalled, her fortitude forsook her not, and her triumph over her barbarous tormentors was complete.

Her death-warrant was next made out, and she received the sentence which condemned her to the flames, as an emancipation from every evil. All her joints dislocated by the rack, she was borne to the place of execution; and there, after being bound to the stake, was offered her life on condition of retracting her supposed error; but she consistently rejected the existence to be purchased only by the forfeiture of that consciousness of rectitude, which the virtuous so well know how to prize; and as the flames that were her passport to regions of blessedness, enkindled around her, a song of thanksgiving was on her lips, and her exultation evidently augmented.

Fourthly, They are equally brave. Bravery is not a quality which figures gracefully in the list of female virtues, nor are we anxious it should take rank in the catalogue — far from it; we should rather lament to see it become a characteristic trait. We would have women support themselves with consistent firmness under the various exigencies of life, but we would not arm them with the weapons of death: Yet, when contending for equality of soil, it may be necessary to prove the capability of the female mind, to rear to perfection whatever seeds may be adventitiously implanted therein. We therefore proceed to produce a witness or two on this part of the question; and, consulting our records, we assign the precedence, all circumstances considered, to a young woman of Lemnos, an island in the Archipelago.

This magnanimous female beheld the streaming wounds of her expiring father, in the fatal moment in which he was slaughtered on the field of battle; and, instead of yielding to those tender sensibilities originating in nature, and generally associated with valour — instead of lamenting his fate by sighs and tears, or the worldly exclamations of clamorous sorrow, she undauntedly seized the sword and shield now rendered useless to the venerable warrior, and, arming herself therewith, reanimated the dispirited soldiers, led them once more to the charge; bravely opposed the Turks, who, having forced a gate, were rapidly advancing; and gloriously avenged the death of her father, by driving them to the shore, and compelling them to take refuge in their vessels.

Jane of Flanders next presents: This lady, during the imprisonment of her husband, nobly supported the declining honours of her house: With her infant son in her arms, she met the assembling citizens, and pathetically deploring her misfortunes, she secured their exertions in her favour. She sustained with unyielding firmness the attacks of a vigilant and active foe. In the frequent follies made by the garrison, she herself led on the warriors. At the head of three hundred horse, with her own hand she set fire to the tents and baggage of the besiegers, thus necessitating them to desist from the general assault which they were in the moment of commencing; and, although intercepted in her return to the citadel, she nevertheless sought her way through one quarter of the French camp, and rejoined her faithful friends in triumph!

Margaret of Anjou is a decisive proof that courage is not exclusively the property of man — Brave, indefatigable and persevering — fruitful in resources — supported by her genius and her exertions a pusillanimous husband — repeatedly emancipating him from prison, and replacing him on the throne which he had lost by imbecility, and which he was unable to retain — and equal to everything which depended on undaunted courage, she headed her armies in person; directed their arrangements; and proceeded from rank to rank, animating them by her undaunted intrepidity and judicious conduct; and, when borne down by misfortunes, and apparently destitute of every resource, suddenly she emerged, and, followed by numerous armies, again appeared in the field; nor did she submit to fate, until she had fought, as a general and a soldier, twelve decisive battles!!!

The French woman — Charlotte Corde — But our depositions unexpectedly multiply, a recollection of our engagement can alone suppress their evidence.

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2008 © Bonnie Hurd Smith

 

Independent scholar and author Bonnie Hurd Smith is 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.