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An early feminist revealed in her own letters

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 29, 2000



As an undergraduate studying history and women's studies, Bonnie Hurd Smith thought she was familiar with all the early advocates for women's rights. But when a relative mentioned Judith Sargent Murray, one of the first American champions of equality for women, Ms. Smith could only ask: "Judith who?"

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Smith, then a student at Simmons College in Boston, was intrigued. Eager to learn more, she visited the elegant Georgian mansion in Gloucester, Mass., where Mrs. Murray lived in the late 1700s. It is now the Sargent House Museum.

That day changed Smith's life. Staff members let her borrow Murray's 1798 book of essays, "The Gleaner." The writings amazed her. "They were so political, so outspoken, so expressive," she says. "I couldn't believe I had never heard of this woman."

Although Murray had been well known in her lifetime as an author and playwright, she faded into obscurity after her death.

She wrote the first published work in America asserting women's equality with men, predating Mary Wollstonecraft. In addition, she and Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren were considered the three outstanding women intellects of their time.

Smith made Murray the subject of her senior honors thesis. Even after graduation, her interest continued. Today, nearly 20 years later, she ranks as the nation's foremost Murray scholar, determined to make her, if not a household word, at least a respected figure in history books.

"It is a passion," says Smith, now director of the Boston Women's Heritage Trail and president of her own graphics-design firm in Cambridge, Mass. She also founded the Judith Sargent Murray Society to honor the early feminist's life and work.

Judith Sargent was born in Gloucester in 1751 into an educated, upper-class family that prized reading, thinking, and learning. Her brother was tutored so he could attend Harvard, but most of her education revolved around domestic skills and learning how to run a household. "A tutor was not available to her," Smith says. "But the family library was."

She began writing poetry in early adolescence. "Her father thought what she was doing was wonderful," Smith says. "In the 18th century, when women were just supposed to get married and have children, her father supported her."

Judith also became an avid letter writer. Aware of the value of leaving behind written records, she bought a blank leather notebook in which she could copy her outgoing correspondence - a laborious task in those pre-Xerox days.

"The concept of letter books was not unusual if you were an important white male," explains Smith. An early president of Harvard kept a letter book. So did Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. But historians believe Murray was the only woman of her time to do so.

"Women didn't keep letter books," Smith says. "Before the American Revolution, women were [for the most part] illiterate. They were busy keeping house. Upper-class women were taught to read so they could read the Bible. They were taught how to write so they could write letters for social graces."

Judith Sargent Murray's correspondence went far beyond mere social graces, extending to family, friends, and political figures. She also wrote essays under several assumed names. Her subjects ranged widely, from death, friendship, courage, and compassion to motherhood, nature, and spirituality.