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
"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. …