Murray, Judith Sargent (1751–1820)
Murray, Judith Sargent (1751–1820)
American essayist, playwright, and poet who is considered North America's first important feminist. Name variations: (pseudonyms) Constantia, Mr. Vigilius, and Honora. Born on May 1, 1751, in Gloucester, Massachusetts; died on July 6, 1820, in Natchez, Mississippi; daughter of Winthrop Sargent (a shipowner and merchant) and Judith (Saunders) Sargent; tutored with brother as he prepared to attend Harvard College; married John Stevens (a sea captain and trader), on October 3, 1769 (died 1786); married John Murray (a minister and founder of the Universalist Church in America), in October 1788; children: (second marriage) George (b. 1789, died young); Julia Maria (b. 1791).
Published first essay in Gentleman and Lady's Town and Country Magazine under pseudonym "Constantia" (1784); first husband fled to West Indies and died there (1786); married John Murray (1788); published poems in Massachusetts Magazine as well as essay series "The Gleaner" (1792–94); wrote failed plays The Medium (1795) and The Traveller Returned (1796); published The Gleaner in three volumes (1798); edited and published husband's Letters and Sketches of Sermons (1812–13); edited and published husband's autobiography (1816).
"Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms" (essay, 1784); "The Gleaner" (essay series in Massachusetts Magazine, 1792–94); The Medium (play, 1795); The Traveller Returned (play, 1796); edited Letters and Sketches of Sermons (1812–13); edited Records of the Life of the Rev. John Murray, Written by Himself, with a Continuation by Mrs. Judith Sargent Murray (1816).
Born on May 1, 1751, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, writer and feminist Judith Sargent Murray was the first of Judith Saunders Sargent and Winthrop Sargent's eight children. Winthrop Sargent was a prosperous shipowner and merchant, and the family was wealthy and socially prominent. Murray was an unusually well educated female for her time, sharing her brother's tutoring as he prepared to enter Harvard. She was married in 1769 at the age of 18 to sea captain and trader John Stevens, and started to write in her 20s. After beginning with poetry she soon turned to essays to express her growing concerns regarding issues generated by the American Revolution: human rights, liberty, and, by extension, the status of women. Her first published essay, entitled "Desultory Thoughts Upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms," appeared in Boston's Gentleman and Lady's Town and Country Magazine in 1784, under the pseudonym "Constantia."
In 1786, facing debtor's prison, John Stevens fled to the West Indies, where he died soon afterward. In 1788, Judith married John Murray, a minister and the founder of the Universalist Church in America. She published several poems in 1790 in Massachusetts Magazine, and that year also published the influential essay "On the Equality of the Sexes," now considered one of the first feminist statements in America. In early 1792, she began a monthly column, "The Gleaner," for Massachusetts Magazine. These popular essays, published under the name "Mr. Vigilius," expressed Murray's opinions on various issues of the day, including equal educational opportunities for young women. She had opinions on women's need for education and economic independence compatible with those of Mary Wollstonecraft , whose Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, she read soon thereafter, although some of their political ideas differed. "The Gleaner" ran from February 1792 to August 1794, making Murray the first woman to become a regularly published essayist. Because of the ideas she espoused in those essays, she has also been called America's first "major" feminist.
Judith Murray tried her hand as a dramatist in 1793, writing two unsuccessful plays, The Medium and The Traveller Returned. In an effort to increase the family's income, her essays were compiled into three volumes and published by subscription (an effort headed by George Washington himself) in 1798 as The Gleaner. The essays are now considered an important part of American literature of that era, of the same stature as those by Noah Webster, essayist and critic Joseph Dennie, and poet and journalist Philip Freneau. Murray's writing slowed down thereafter, however, in particular after her husband suffered a stroke in 1809 and was paralyzed until his death in 1815. She edited his Letters and Sketches of Sermons, which was published in three volumes from 1812 to 1813, and also edited his autobiography, Records of the Life of the Rev. John Murray, Written by Himself, with a Continuation by Mrs. Judith Sargent Murray, which was published in 1816. Described by historian Doris Weatherford as "an unacknowledged mental giant of colonial days," Murray died at her daughter's home in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1820.
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Ellen Dennis French , freelance writer, Murrieta, California