Judith Sargent Murray Society
JSM's dates: 1751-1820

Judith Sargent Murray on Women, Money,

and "Reverencing" Ourselves



Bonnie Hurd Smith's
brief biography of
Judith Sargent Murray
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In 1793, Judith Sargent Murray of Gloucester, Massachusetts, wrote in an
essay, “Was I the father of a family … I would give my daughters every
accomplishment which I thought proper, and to crown all, I would early
accustom them to habits of industry, and order; they should be taught
with precision the art economical, they should be enabled to procure
for themselves the necessaries of life, independence should be placed
within their grasp, and I would teach them ‘to reverence themselves.’”

Her essay, written under the male pen name “Mr. Gleaner,” appeared in
the Massachusetts Magazine, which circulated throughout the young
American nation and “across the pond” to Great Britain. At the time,
women could not vote or own property, with some minor exceptions. Very
few methods of earning money were available to them, and they certainly
could not control it. Simply put, girls were expected to marry, have
children, and be taken care of by men — period. As Judith wrote in the
same essay:

“Our girls, in general, are bred up with one particular view, with one
monopolizing consideration, which seems to absorb every other plan that
reason might point out as worthy their attention: an establishment by
marriage; this is the goal to which they are constantly pointed, the
great ultimatum of every arrangement; an old maid, they are from
infancy taught, at least indirectly, to consider as a contemptible
being, and they have no other means of advancing themselves but in the
matrimonial line.”

Not relying marriage

Judith was not at all against marriage — in fact, her marriage to the
Universalist preacher, John Murray, was one of a “warm, mutual, and
judicious attachment.” Her concern was for women’s ability to function
as full and capable human beings, with the God-given right to equality
and a life of choice and accomplishment.

What’s more, marriage was in no way a “sure thing.” Judith herself had
been widowed and left very poor, with few options, when her first
husband, John Stevens, went bankrupt after the Revolutionary War, fled
Gloucester for the West Indies, and died. Judith inherited his debt;
other widows inherited only a tiny portion of what they had enjoyed
during married life, or nothing at all. Based on her own experience, in
1792 Judith (as “The Gleaner”) urged America to improve female
education as a means to economic opportunities for women, including
older women:

“Learning, certainly, can never with propriety be esteemed a burthen,
and when the mind is judiciously balanced, it renders the possessor not
only more valuable, but also more amiable, and more generally useful …
The accomplished, the liberally accomplished female, if she is destined
to move in the line of competency, will be regarded as a pleasing, and
instructive companion — whatever she does will connect an air of
persuasive elevation — wherever she may be adventitiously called,
genuine dignity will be the accompaniment of her steps — she will
always be attended to with pleasure, and she cannot fail of being
distinguished — should she, in her career of life, be arrested by
adverse fortune, many resources of relief, of pleasure, and of
emolument, open themselves before her — and she is not necessarily
condemned to laborious efforts, or to the drudgery of that unremitted
sameness, which the routine of the needle presents.”

Her impact

What effect did Judith’s words have on policy makers in the new
American government or on public opinion? We may never know, although
Boston women in the next generation continued her calls for reform. We
do know that historians like Susan Branson consider Judith Sargent
Murray the most important female essayist of the New Republic, that her
essays were read and discussed, and that her 1798 book The Gleaner,
which contained old and new “Gleaner” essays, was subscribed to by
almost 750 leading citizens and read by many more.

In The Gleaner, Judith wrote optimistically:

“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 noble expansion conferred by a liberal education will
teach them humility; for it will give them a glance of those vast
tracts of knowledge which they can never explore, until they are
accommodated with far other powers than those at present assigned them;
and they will contemplate their removal to a higher order of beings, as
a desirable event … 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 1776, in a private letter, Abigail Adams had asked John Adams to
“remember the ladies” in the new code of laws he was writing in
Philadelphia. He (and others) did not, and as a consequence we can look
back on over two hundred years of struggle for women to achieve the
equality promised in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S.
Constitution. (The same may be said for everyone else who wasn't a white,
male landowner.)

What about today?

Fast forward to today and the subject of female financial literacy. Is
Judith Sargent Murray rolling in her grave because even though women
have the legal right to earn and control their money they still lag
behind men? Probably. Given her own painful and embarrassing
circumstances (despite her upbringing in a wealthy family), I think she
would be disheartened and deeply concerned for the welfare of women.

However, Judith was ever the optimist, and I can easily picture her
urging women of all ages to “reverence themselves” and take hold of
their financial lives. I can easily imagine her urging parents,
teachers, and other adults in girls’ lives to send them this critical
message of self-esteem. Now that women can speak in public, which they
could not in the eighteenth century, I can see Judith taking to the
stage AND writing to proclaim that women are once again “forming a new
era in female history” in the area of economic equality.

From the 1790s to today, Judith Sargent Murray’s words ring true
— and they are right on the money.

_______________________________

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.