An early feminist revealed in her own letters

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?"

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.

In 1790 she published an essay in Massachusetts Magazine, "On the Equality of the Sexes," under the pen name Constantia. A few months later, the magazine printed another of her essays, "On the Domestic Education of Children."

As a passionate advocate of education, Murray argued that women must be educated so they could better raise the next generation. Education, she explained, also helped women become economically self-sufficient themselves, challenging the assumption that women should be financially dependent upon men.

Five years after her first marriage at the age of 18, Judith met John Murray, a leading Universalist. The two became close friends, and after her husband died, she married Murray. "His work for religious tolerance forever changed the country," says Smith.

During a six-month journey to Philadelphia, where Judith and John Murray attended a Universalist convention, she met George Washington, attended sessions of Congress, and described areas of the country. Smith has collected the 65 letters she wrote during that trip into a book, "From Gloucester to Philadelphia in 1790." It also includes a lengthy biographical essay.

By the end of Murray's life, she had copied 2,500 letters into letter books. They span nearly half a century, beginning when she was 21. The 20 volumes, together with her published writings, offer a window on life in late 18th- and early 19th-century America.

Yet not until 1984 did anyone know the letter books even existed. That year a Universalist minister discovered them on a dusty shelf in Natchez, Miss., where they had stood since Murray's death in 1820. The books, bound in soft-brown leather, were ravaged by mildew in the humid Southern climate. Some pages were torn or rotted.

Smith has transcribed half the letters. It is a daunting task. Because paper was very expensive, Murray "wrote in really tiny print to fill up every available space," Smith says. "Her vocabulary is enormous, her punctuation is not. This was before Noah Webster published his dictionary. It's like learning another language."

The letters show Murray to be deeply spiritual and "determined and unsinkable against enormous odds." Despite a lifetime marked by illness, the loss of loved ones, including her firstborn child, a son, and depression, she remained a tireless champion of women's equality.

Ironically, Smith believes it was Judith's connection with John Murray and Universalism that has contributed to her invisibility. "People today are uncomfortable with people who are leaders of religious movements," she says. "If she had married anybody but John Murray, we might well have heard quite a lot of her."

Today Judith Sargent Murray is beginning to get long-overdue recognition. "She's sort of a hot property right now," Smith says with obvious satisfaction. One woman is working on a biography. Other scholars are writing dissertations on her plays, poetry, theology, and philosophy.

Smith's next book will include excerpts of Murray's letters, comments by Smith, and images representing Murray's times. After that, Smith plans to publish the transcribed letters. Recording Judith Sargent Murray's life and works is essential, she says, "to make women's story more complete and well rounded. She's someone whose place in history must be restored."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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