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An Examination of the Works and Legacy of Judith Sargent Murray

Erika VanHorne

Professor Johnson
March 15, 2013
HSTAA 401

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Imposing current value systems or definitions on the past invokes the dangers of
historical inflation or misinterpretation. To avoid this quandary, the influence of Judith Sargent
Murray has been a topic of debate. Forgotten by the nineteenth century and rediscovered by the
twentieth, Judith Sargent Murrays writings have only recently inspired scholarship. Is this
interest a variant of selection bias a result of searches to find a progenitor of American
feminism? To examine Murrays true impact, I analyzed essays pertaining to gender found in her
work The Gleaner, a self-compiled miscellany published in 1798 of her contributions to the
literary journal The Massachusetts Magazine from 1792-1794. I assert that Murrays work was
important in its contemporary context and for current study for the following reasons: its
representation and manipulation of gender constructs, its arguments for female education, its
concepts of womens relation to society, and its value for assessing the extent of change
instituted by the Revolution. To understand Murrays work, we first must understand the woman
behind it and her relation to her writings. As she was exceptional, it is necessary to recognize the
limitations of examining her ideas as representative of a larger population. Indeed, Murray does
not typify the average contemporary American woman in her education, upbringing, or religion.
Her formative years allowed her a more diverse education than most would deem proper, due to
her familys progressivism, affluence, and Universalism. Her marriage to her second husband
was also remarkably egalitarian, providing her with a difference in circumstance from most
women. Murrays work appeared in a time when the legacy of the Revolution was evolving, and
her presentation of gender issues reflects the times changing attitudes. Thus, the value of
analyzing The Gleaner lies not only in the work and persona, but in the increased understanding
of how to interpret a female voice within and outside of her time.

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Murray has gained modern fame due to her progressive views on the roles of women
within society. She published extensively as the female Constantia before her work as the
Gleaner, including her famous 1790 essay On the Equality of the Sexes. This work argued that
women possess the same mental faculties as men, yet are stunted by a lack of educational
development. The birth of her only surviving child in 1791, a daughter, further reinforced her
future works focus on female education. Her voice as Constantia is aggressive, directly
addressing male readers in sardonic phrases, Yes, ye lordly, ye haughty sex, our souls are by
nature equal to yours She even boldly subverts the biblical story of the Fall of Man, shifting
blame to Adam as Eve was only pursuing knowledge, a laudable ambition. This essay
displays a radicalism that was very much ahead of her time, yet deeply rooted in the
Revolutionary legacy of challenging authority. Indeed, her strategic choices of gender in
narration yield valuable insights into perceptions of women at the time. She assumed the male
pseudonym of The Gleaner for many magazine contributions, yet she chose to introduce and
conclude her compilation The Gleaner with Constantia. Because this voice was selected to
directly address readers, Murray may have felt that the voice was more genuine. Murray states
that a male persona was chosen for her work for many reasons, especially so that her opinions
would be viewed as independent and valid. This desire for anonymous credibility is likely why
Murray never assumes her own character, and relies on indirect storytelling. Despite this, she
makes no apologies for assuming identity, and even states that she wrote the series because she
was aspiring perhaps presumptuously so at the time, ambition was considered almost
exclusively a male trait that contrasted the female virtue of humility. Adopting a male persona
allowed her the opportunity to comment on American politics as a fellow-citizen, a position
of power barred to women. The gendered lenses complicate further in the Story of Margaretta, a

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serialized proto-novella comprised of individual essays that utilize a male narrator approving of
the actions of virtuous female characters, who all exchange correspondence with each other. This
fluidity of perspective and emphasis on epistolary exchanges allowed Murray to publish using
whatever gender or format best conveyed her purpose.
Murray challenged her societys perceptions and expectations of women, in her writings
and lifetime. Historian Mary Beth Norton notes that, despite the fact that Murray did not publish
substantially until the 1790s, she later declared that the American Revolution had initially
stimulated her to consider systematically the status of women, child-rearing methods, and marital
relationships. Indeed, this systematic inquiry can be observed as an effort to emulate the
rationalistic ethos of the era, placing her within the lasting ideological heritage of the
Enlightenment. In this way, Murray both participates in and generates intellectual history.
Indeed, much of her writing reflects the conventions and radical sensibilities of Revolutionary
literature, as she utilizes the popular format of the political essay, with significant poetic and
epistolary twists. Her arguments about the place of women use logical claims to advance her
thesis, typical characteristics of her tool of choice, the essay. In the essay Observations on
Female Abilities, the Gleaner persona presents a logical continuation of Equality with further
development of the concept that women possess equal intelligence, yet are limited by education.
To prove this, Murray systematically delineates the subqualities of intelligence, then provides
examples from history to support her assertion that females possess all of the stated qualities, and
by doing so concludes that exceptional women live also in her own time. Through her detailed
accounts of women ranging from Elizabeth I to Zenobia, Murray provided a step to the
development of womens history as a discipline. Her insistence on female capability extended to
womens ability to be independent as individuals. Widowed after her first husband fled from his

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debts, Murray resented the cultural expectations of single women and sought to live off her own
merits. This is manifested in the Gleaners encouragement of Margarettas self-sufficiency, We
are daily assuring her, that everything in future depends on her own exertions This displays
the subtle influence of the Revolutionary idealization of independence and her personal
experience on Murrays systematic deconstruction of societal notions.
Modern scholars should be cautious in identifying Murray as a feminist theorist, as she
reflects the conservative pace of social change in post-Revolutionary America. Many historians
hail Murray as a major theorist of Republican Motherhood, a philosophy that invested the
maternal function with political and social significance. Indeed, Murray argued that women
were essential to the Republic, and advanced womens education as a means to American
exceptionalism. She extols the daughters of Columbia as sensible, competent, moral women
who are rearing to maturity a promising family of children Surely the globe cannot produce a
scene more truly interesting. Murray focuses on inferior education, even stating it was what
gave women the propensity to read novels (at the time considered a feminine frivolity), and
subtly suggests reading history as a substitute that education could introduce. Murray directly
connects education and virtuous womanhood through her fable-like Story of Margaretta. The
character Mr. Vigillius states his approval of his wifes comprehensive and atypical plan of
education for their daughter Margaretta: including the arts, history, astronomy, and above all,
letter writing. The narrator notes that the program makes the woman a better companion and
mother, and despite her education Margaretta was not unfitted for her proper sphere and is
ever capable of making a pudding or ironing. The insistence that Margaretta could continue her
traditional duties displays the conservatism of the social changes Murray was describing, and
indeed serves as a counterbalance to the radicalism of her educational propositions. These

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assurances, along with the fictional format and the significantly less aggressive tone of the
Gleaner when compared to Constantia, may have reflected a desire to broaden readership and
thus the scope of the proposed societal changes and begs the question of whether Murray was a
proponent or manipulator of Republican Motherhood. This approach may have also reflected the
growing social conservatism of the 1790s fueled by popular fears about the radicalism of the
French Revolution, and the ensuing redefinition of the American Revolution.
By analyzing The Gleaner, I found that Murrays work was influential within her own
time because of the advancement of important concepts such as Republican Motherhood and
womens education. Despite Murrays atypical lifetime, the importance of her work within the
times intellectual and literary circles should not be dismissed. The Gleaner itself was successful,
with notable subscribers including the Washingtons and current President John Adams and
Abigail Adams. In this way, we can infer the impact of Murray within her contemporary
context as substantial. This contemporary significance signals these works importance to current
scholarship and its contributions to American womens, literary, intellectual and social history.
Her work is useful not only to this taxonomy, but also for its example of how to interpret gender
identities and feminism in works and lifetimes where these concepts didnt exist. Murrays slip
into obscurity displays the social values of the time she was forgotten the nineteenth century.
The conservative appropriation of Revolution in the aftermath of the French Revolution resulted
in the marginalization of its social message, and a fear of radical ideas. Simultaneously, the rise
of the cult of domesticity fostered a concept of womens roles that were more rigid in character
and religiosity than anything American women had yet experienced. Through study of Murray, I
have come to wonder how many other notable women have been forgotten or misrepresented in
the annals of history.

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Notes
1. Judith Sargent Murray, The Gleaner. Introductory Essay by Nina Baym.
(Schenectady, NY: Union College Press, 1992), viii, xi.
2. Ibid.,v-vi.
3. Judith Sargent Murray, Selected Writings of Judith Sargent Murray, ed. Sharon M. Harris
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 6.
4. Ibid., ix.
5. Ibid., 8.
6. Ibid., 12.
7. Murray, The Gleaner, 805.
8. Ibid., 13.
9. Ibid., 211.
10. Mary Beth Norton, Libertys Daughters. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company: 1980),
238.
11. Murray, The Gleaner, 711-727.
12. Sheila L. Skemp, Judith Sargent Murray: A Brief History with Documents. (Boston:
Bedford Books, 1998), 49-50.
13. Murray, The Gleaner, 63.
14. Norton, Libertys Daughters, 247.
15. Murray, The Gleaner, 705.
16. Murray, Selected Writings, 6. Murray, Gleaner, 60, 704.
17. Murray, The Gleaner, 61.
18. Ibid., 58-61.
19. Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American
Republic. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 1.
20. Murray, The Gleaner, iii.