Today's History Highlights Archive

Judith Sargent Murray

Madame John StevensIn 1984, 20 volumes of 2,500 letters by an 18th century feminist were discovered in Natchez, Miss. They were written by Judith Sargent Murray, who copied all her correspondence starting at the age of 23. Historians are still trying to digest them all. Born in 1751 in Gloucester, Mass., Judith Sargent Murray was an extraordinary woman. Her well-to-do family followed the customs of the day and limited her education because of her sex. She was troubled by her lack of educational opportunity. She taught herself history and French, and began writing essays under masculine pen names. She advocated women’s equality, education and economic independence. Her groundbreaking essay, ‘On the Equality of Women,’ predated Mary Shelley’s plea for equality between the sexes by two years. In 1798, Judith Sargent Murray produced an influential three-volume book of essays and plays. Copies were bought by George Washington, John Adams, Henry Knox and Mercy Otis Warren.  She and her father established the first Unitarian-Universalist Church in America, and won a case before the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts allowing them to support the church they preferred. It was the first ruling in America for freedom of religion. She married twice and oversaw the education of 12 children, only one of which was her biological child. Her house is now a museum in Gloucester, where visitors can view paintings by a relative of hers, John Singer Sargent.

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