Judith Sargent Murray is such a person.
This eighteenth-century essayist from Gloucester and Boston, Massachusetts refused to sit silently on the sidelines when Americans were defining the New Republic. Women could not speak in public at this time, but they could write. And that is what she did -- compellingly -- insisting on improved female education, women's ability to earn and manage their own money, and their full participation as citizens legally and politically. She claimed equality -- politely, and with humor, but she claimed it nonetheless.
I first "met" Judith Sargent Murray 20 years ago, and she still knocks me out. Hers is a story that must be told because it is a tremendous source of inspiration for anyone who is faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but who also knows that one's life purpose means finding a way around them.
That takes courage at any time, and certainly in 18th-century America when options for women were limited.
In a nutshell, professionally, Judith Sargent Murray was:
first person to claim female equality in the public prints ("On the
Equality of the Sexes," Massachusetts
• Considered the first woman in America to self-publish a book, The Gleaner (1798).
• The first American to have a play produced in Boston (The Medium, 1795).
• The most important female essayist of the New American Republic, according to leading historians including Susan Branson.
• The earliest known female American Universalist author (Catechism, 1782).
• The co-founder of a female academy (in Dorchester, MA).
• The only eighteenth century woman known to have kept letter books in a consistent manner.
Judith Sargent Murray was also:
• A rigorous
• A keen observer and talented writer.
• A smart businesswoman.
• A proud patriot who challenged the new American nation to live up to its ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all.
• Unwavering in her Universalist religious views (which included equality) despite public humiliation.
• Determined to improve female education and women's economic, political, and legal rights for future generations.
• Admired by George Washington, John Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, and many other luminaries.
Personally, Judith was:
Passionately in love with her husband, Rev. John Murray, and his staunchest
supporter (this is a compelling love story).
• A devoted mother, adoptive mother, and aunt to numerous young people, including her own daughter.
• A fiercely loyal friend and member of her extended family.
• Undaunted by obstacles to her gender (but annoyed that they were there).
• Quite beautiful, and one of the only women painted by both John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart.
Judith Sargent Murray's story has faded from the American story largely because scholars believed her personal papers had been destroyed. However, they were not, and her letter books (blank volumes into which Judith made copies of her letters to family, friends, business associates, and political leaders -- including George Washington and John Adams) were discovered in the 1980s and have since been published on microfilm. Now, each letter book (there are 20) is being transcribed and indexed for publication to make the information accessible.
As the daughter of a merchant class family in the late 18th century, Judith Sargent Murray didn't really HAVE to do anything except marry and have children. She did both, but through her writing she also changed the national conversation for women and positively impacted future generations.
When an eighth grader in Gloucester -- a young man -- proclaimed at a public event, "Judith Sargent Murray is my hero," I thought, "My work here is done."
Except that it's not, because Judith Sargent Murray is an endless source of inspiration, wisdom, and courage, and we can all benefit from "knowing" her.
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.