The Pioneer in Women's Rights Who Was on the Wrong Side of History


Ms. Skemp, Clare Leslie Marquette Chair in American History, University of Mississippi, is the author of First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence (Penn Press, 2009).

Everyone is familiar with the expression, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  It is a maxim that historians—who are committed to documenting and explaining change—can ignore at their peril.  What looks like change, as a step in the direction of “modern” thought or practice, is often more traditional than the casual observer might realize. 

Take, for example, the case of Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), often praised as America’s first feminist.  Her three volume miscellany, The Gleaner, published in 1798, is best known today for its four-part “Observations on Female Abilities,” a ringing endorsement of women’s innate equality coupled with a demand that women should endeavor to soar to the loftiest heights.  More boldly and consistently than any other American woman of her time, Murray made the case for women’s intellectual equality to men.  Thus she wanted education for all women.  She thought that women should be raised to be economically “independent.”  And if she was not especially interested in voting, she did believe that women could—if necessary—lead armies or head countries as well as any man.

It is no wonder, then, that virtually every historian familiar with her work sees Murray as a modern woman whose failure to achieve the recognition she deserved can be explained by the “fact” that her view of women’s rights was so far ahead of its time.  A careful analysis of Murray’s conception of gender and class, however, reveals that her attitudes rested on a distinctly old fashioned intellectual foundation, and were already becoming obsolete.  In some ways, she was not a forward-looking character at all—she was someone whom history would soon pass by. 

Murray subscribed to what historians describe as the “one sex model.”  This was an idea that stretched back in America to the early seventeenth century, and in the western world to the ancient Greeks.  It argued that there was just one sex, that men and women were not fundamentally different, and that there was no sharp dichotomy dividing the sexes.  Everything was on a continuum. Thus, Murray constantly sought to blur the differences between men and women, arguing that women and men might meet in the middle and be virtually the same. Men, she insisted, could be kind and sentimental, and cry a manly tear or two.  Women could be strong, rational, and brave.  Murray’s problem was that this entire construct was being challenged in the mid- eighteenth century.  People were beginning to talk about a “two-sex model,” moving toward notions of “separate spheres,” and arguing that men and women were fundamentally different. They were opposites who complimented and needed one another, but were not at all like one another. 

If Murray’s demand for equality was based on an increasingly obsolete definition of gender, her attitude toward class was similarly rooted in the past.  A member of Gloucester, Massachusetts merchant elite, Murray was always proud of her position as a “Sargent of Gloucester, Massachusetts.” Today, critics often accuse her of hypocrisy because she was such an elitist, so wedded to social hierarchy, even as she demanded equal rights for women.  She would have been puzzled by such an accusation.  For her, there was no inconsistency between an argument for women’s equality and the maintenance of strict class distinctions.  Indeed, the one was built upon the other.  This was because Murray believed that class was real, and sex was not.  This seems totally counter intuitive to a modern sensibility, in a world that is comfortable with democracy and uncomfortable thinking that class, especially in America, is important at all.   On the other hand, most people assume that sex (if not gender) is very real—indeed it is one of our most important identities.    

But Murray believed, in the parlance of her day, that the “mind has no sex.”  She recognized that while men and women—temporarily—lived in different sexual bodies, in intellectual or spiritual terms, men and women were indistinguishable from one another. Body (and hence sex) was irrelevant—it was transient, inferior, and ultimately unimportant.  The body did not determine what people believed or what they were capable of doing. There was no connection at all, Murray said, between “intellect and any particular combination of matter.”  Sex was a mere accidental and ephemeral construct.  Sexual differences were irrelevant because they were purely physical.

Class, however, was a mental concept, and as such it was real and important.  If sex was inherited, in America at least, status was earned—people got where they did because they were morally and intellectually superior to those beneath them.   And if people stayed on top or rose, they were fundamentally different from those people—men and women, black and white—who had failed to reach the heights that they had attained. 

It was her status as a member of the New England elite that gave Murray a sense of her own merit.  In terms of the things that mattered—class—she was superior.  In terms of the things that were as she put it a “mere accident of birth, a physical frailty,” she faced insuperable limits.  Proud of her name and her ability, she could not tolerate a society that said no to her simply because she was a woman.  

Ironically, Murray’s sense that she deserved to be respected was based on her elite status.  But that same claim actually undermined her ability to be recognized and admired as America’s first feminist writer. While Murray claimed to write in universal terms, demanding equality for “all women,” the women who were most likely to be inspired by her words were a talented and privileged group.  The examples she used to prove women’s ability were invariably directed at the intelligent, educated, relatively leisured women who were barred from the “road of preferment.” Ordinary women would vainly search the Gleaner’s pages for examples to which they could relate.  The women warriors Murray extolled were generals, not privates.  She ignored everyday school girls in favor of the “lady” from Bologna who once delivered a Latin oration to an assemblage of erudite gentlemen.  When she described women challenging male-dominated governments, she did not mention the housewives of Paris who marched on the Bastille, demanding bread for their families.  She talked instead of queens whom an accident of history had thrust into the spotlight.  The poets and playwrights she praised are similarly genteel. 

Murray was not deliberately excluding women of the lower orders from her vision of equality.  She simply did not see them.  She always complained that women were the “sport of contingencies,” that being born a woman was an accident that kept members of her sex from realizing their potential.  But she never seemed to realize that lower class men and women were also limited by chance.   Nothing was holding the lower orders back.  No physical impediment—like sex—stopped them.  They must—by definition—be inferior. 

It was Mary Wollstonecraft, not Judith Sargent Murray, who resented class as well as gender bias, who was able to indict her society with a broad and penetrating analysis.  She never forgot that the circumstances into which she was born had made her a woman and someone who had to support herself.  For her, justice required that all unjust distinctions be eradicated, that the social order be totally transformed.

The irony was profound, and for Murray, unfortunate.  It was an English woman who intuitively understood the direction in which western society—especially America was moving.  Murray’s commitment to a hierarchical social order was not yet moribund, but it was fast becoming so, as the nation inched toward the promise of white male equality.  America would have to wait until the mid-nineteenth century to grow the heroines that future generations would remember.  Murray, it turns out, was on the wrong side of history.  She and the views she espoused were destined for oblivion.   Consequently, she was not vilified.  She was simply forgotten.     

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