First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence

First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence

First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence

First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence


Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), poet, essayist, playwright, and one of the most thoroughgoing advocates of women's rights in early America, was as well known in her own day as Abigail Adams or Martha Washington. Her name, though, has virtually disappeared from the public consciousness. Thanks to the recent discovery of Murray's papers--including some 2,500 personal letters--historian Sheila L. Skemp has documented the compelling story of this talented and most unusual eighteenth-century woman.

Born in Gloucester, Massachussetts, Murray moved to Boston in 1793 with her second husband, Universalist minister John Murray. There she became part of the city's literary scene. Two of her plays were performed at Federal Street Theater, making her the first American woman to have a play produced in Boston. There as well she wrote and published her magnum opus, The Gleaner, a three-volume "miscellany" that included poems, essays, and the novel-like story "Margaretta." After 1800, Murray's output diminished and her hopes for literary renown faded. Suffering from the backlash against women's rights that had begun to permeate American society, struggling with economic difficulties, and concerned about providing the best possible education for her daughter, she devoted little time to writing. But while her efforts diminished, they never ceased.

Murray was determined to transcend the boundaries that limited women of her era and worked tirelessly to have women granted the same right to the "pursuit of happiness" immortalized in the Declaration of Independence. She questioned the meaning of gender itself, emphasizing the human qualities men and women shared, arguing that the apparent distinctions were the consequence of nurture, not nature. Although she was disappointed in the results of her efforts, Murray nevertheless left a rich intellectual and literary legacy, in which she challenged the new nation to fulfill its promise of equality to all citizens.


In the early spring of 2002, I attended a conference in Natchez, Mississippi. Before I left Oxford for the coast, I received a call from Jim Wiggins, professor of history at nearby Copiah-Lincoln Community College, who offered to take me, along with two other intrepid souls, on a trip to Judith Sargent Murray’s grave. When I eagerly accepted his gracious offer, he made what appeared to me to be a strange request. “You’d better wear your hip boots,” he warned. Foolishly shrugging off his sage advice, I came clad in blue jeans and an old pair of sneakers. It had been raining for days, and the sky remained overcast and threatening as we drove toward a site I’d been longing to visit for over a decade. We had barely left Jim’s truck and begun our trek when I started to feel as though Natchez and civilization itself were hundreds of miles away. There were no sights or sounds of any other humans as we walked through a field dotted with old Indian mounds before reaching a dense woods. Ducking under branches that were so saturated with water that I imagined they would fall to the earth any minute, clambering over huge logs that were strewn randomly on the ground, we finally reached St. Catherine’s Creek. Creek, indeed. If that was a creek, what was a river? My guide informed me that we would have to walk across the rapids. Determined to avoid looking like a cowardly woman (surely Judith would disapprove if my resolve failed!), I plunged gamely into the cold, swiftly moving current. The tennis shoes, I realized were not long for this world. Good sport that I was, I waded determinedly across the creek. I had almost reached the other side when I heard an ominous sucking sound and realized that I was beginning to sink. Not to worry, I told myself as my body continued to descend slowly but steadily and inexorably into the bowels of the earth. My slide did not stop until the water was almost up to my waist. I laughed with illconcealed relief, Jim pulled me out, and we continued on our way.

We finally made it to the grave site. There, perfectly preserved inside an iron fence, lay the graves of Judith Sargent Murray, her daughter Julia Maria Murray Bingaman, and Judith’s granddaughter, Charlotte. Other graves in the enclosure had been destroyed by vandals, but thanks to some unknown providence, the ones that mattered most to me had remained untouched. There had been a time when these graves were easily accessible. Murray was buried in 1821 . . .

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