Note: This lesson is adapted from materials contained in the Bill of Rights Institute’s U.S. History resource entitled Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: A History of the American Experiment. This free online resource covers 1491 to the present day, is aligned to the College Boards AP U.S. history framework, and is available for use in the 2020 school year. To learn more and to receive updates, visit our website.
Judith Sargent Murray was among America’s earliest champions of female equality. Murray was the oldest of eight children born to a wealthy ship-owning family in the colonial seaport of Gloucester, Massachusetts. As a child, Murray received a typical education for a daughter in a wealthy merchant family: reading, writing, and domestic activities such as sewing. Much of her knowledge beyond these topics was self-taught from perusing her family library. Murray wrote poetry from a young age but did not publish publicly until 1784, under the pen name Constantia. Her landmark essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” appeared in the March and April issues of the Massachusetts Magazine in 1790. More poems, plays, and a book entitled The Gleaner followed in 1798.
- What was Judith Sargent Murray’s position in society?
- What was Murray’s purpose in writing this essay?
- Who was her intended audience?
- Under what four categories does Murray classify intellectual powers?
- What two examples does Murray give to illustrate women’s power of imagination?
- What is Murray’s tone in providing these examples? How do you know?
- What does Murray argue about women’s capacity for reason?
- Murray places the phrases “to those only of the novel kind” in italics for emphasis. What does this reveal about her opinion on women’s reading choices?
- Murray places the phrase “learned lady” in in italics for emphasis. What connotations did this phrase carry for Murray, and how do you know?
- How does Murray challenge the argument that educating girls will interfere with their domestic duties?
Historical Analysis Questions
- Based on Murray’s examples and arguments in this passage, what were the expectations of a woman in the revolutionary and founding period?
- How does Murray respond to those expectations?
- Why do you think Murray is willing to argue that women are equal to men but stops short of asking for a political voice (i.e., the vote)?
|partial (adj): biased inventine (adj): thinking originally slander (n): false or damaging information prolifick (adj): prolific or plentiful despoiled (v): to rob or ruin faculty (n): mental power deficient (adj): lacking loquacious (adj): talkative||Is it upon mature consideration we adopt the idea, that nature is thus partial in her distributions? Is it indeed a fact, that she hath yielded to one half of the human species so unquestionable a mental superiority? I know that to both sexes elevated understandings, and the reverse, are common. But, suffer me to ask, in what the minds of females are so notoriously deficient, or unequal. May not the intellectual powers be ranged under these four heads-imagination, reason, memory and judgment. The province of imagination hath long since been surrendered to us, and we have been crowned and undoubted sovereigns of the regions of fancy. . . . Observe the variety of fashions (here I bar the contemptuous smile) which distinguish and adorn the female world: how continually are they changing. . . . Now what a playfulness, what an exuberance of fancy, what strength of inventine imagination, doth this continual variation discover? . . . Another instance of our creative powers, is our talent for slander; how ingenious are we at inventive scandal? what a formidable story can we in a moment fabricate merely from the force of a prolifick imagination? how many reputations, in the fertile brain of a female, have been utterly despoiled? how industrious are we at improving a hint? suspicion how easily do we convert into conviction. . . . Perhaps it will be asked if I furnish these facts as instances of excellency in our sex. Certainly not; but as proofs of a creative faculty, of a lively imagination. Assuredly great activity of mind is thereby discovered, and was this activity properly directed, what beneficial effects would follow. Is the needle and kitchen sufficient to employ the operations of a soul thus organized? I should conceive not. . . . Are we deficient in reason? we can only reason from what we know, and if an opportunity of acquiring knowledge hath been denied us, the inferiority of our sex cannot fairly be deduced from thence. Memory, I believe, will be allowed us in common, since everyone’s experience must testify, that a loquacious old woman is as frequently met with, as a communicative man. . . .|
|sage (adj): wise learned lady: Note: The Learned Ladies (Les Femmes savantes) was a sarcastic comedy written by the French playwright Molière in 1672. Murray is demonstrating her own education by using a play on this title.||Yet it may be questioned, from what doth this superiority, in this determining faculty of the soul, proceed. May we not trace its source in the difference of education, and continued advantages? Will it be said that the judgment of a male of two years old, is more sage than that of a female’s of the same age? I believe the reverse is generally observed to be true. But from that period what partiality! how is the one exalted, and the other depressed, by the contrary modes of education which are adopted! the one is taught to aspire, and the other is early confined and limitted. As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flowery paths of science. Grant that their minds are by nature equal, yet who shall wonder at the apparent superiority, if indeed custom becomes second nature; nay if it taketh place of nature, and that it doth the experience of each day will evince. At length arrived at womanhood, the uncultivated fair one feels a void, which the employments allotted her are by no means capable of filling. What can she do? to books she may not apply; or if she doth, to those only of the novel kind, lest she merit the appellation of a learned lady; and what ideas have been affixed to this term, the observation of many can testify. . . . Now, was she permitted the same instructors as her brother, (with an eye however to their particular departments) for the employment of a rational mind an ample field would be opened. . . .|
|superintendency (n): the function of directing or supervising, in this case the family avocation (n): hobby vociferate (v): to shout or yell||Will it be urged that those acquirements would supersede our domestick duties. I answer that every requisite in female economy is easily attained; and, with truth I can add, that when once attained, they require no further mental attention. Nay, while we are pursuing the needle, or the superintendency of the family, I repeat, that our minds are at full liberty for reflection; that imagination may exert itself in full vigor; and that if a just foundation is early laid, our ideas will then be worthy of rational beings. If we were industrious we might easily find time to arrange them upon paper, or should avocations press too hard for such an indulgence, the hours allotted for conversation would at least become more refined and rational. Should it still be vociferated, “Your domestick employments are sufficient”-I would calmly ask, is it reasonable, that a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, an intelligent being, who is to spend an eternity in contemplating the works of the Deity, should at present be so degraded, as to be allowed no other ideas, than those which are suggested by the mechanism of a pudding, or the sewing the seams of a garment? Pity that all such censurers of female improvement do not go one step further, and deny their future existence; to be consistent they surely ought.|
|Yes, ye lordly, ye haughty sex, our souls are by nature equal to yours; the same breath of God animates, enlivens, and invigorates us. . . . I dare confidently believe, that from the commencement of time to the present day, there hath been as many females, as males, who, by the mere force of natural powers, have merited the crown of applause; who, thus unassisted, have seized the wreath of fame . . . for equality only, we wish to contend.|