Objects of Speculation: Early Manuscripts on Women and Education by Judith Sargent (Stevens) Murray

By Schiff, Karen L. | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Objects of Speculation: Early Manuscripts on Women and Education by Judith Sargent (Stevens) Murray


Schiff, Karen L., Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


In the past few years, Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820) finally has received overdue scholarly attention. [1] She has gained respect as a writer who dared to publish during a time when it was rare for a woman to participate in the public sphere--especially as an intellectual--and who promoted women's rights and education when "only about half of American women could sign their names" (Cott 101). [2]

But Murray walked slowly along the path toward publishing. She knew that women of her time were consigned to the private sphere, so beginning in the 1770S she spent years writing in manuscript books at home. In 1782, after great hesitation, she anxiously allowed one work to be published. Precisely because of her anxiety, as well as her social context, some of her most witty and passionate writings about women's education have remained in manuscript from. [3]

The manuscripts that Lam now bringing into print come from the early 1780s, when Judith Stevens, as was her married name at the time, was first negotiating the tensions between private sentiment and public expression. Selections come from the copybook she called The Repository, or Miscellaneous Reflections Formed Upon Various Occasions and Interspersed with Events Highly Interesting to the Writer. [4] Stevens wrote in this book at least from 1777 through 1788, and its contents reveal an earnest valuing of education and a pervasive concern about women's rights. Entries are composed with a quick wit and a deft handling of language, and they are inscribed in an even, sloping hand.

The three selections of manuscripts represent different registers of discourse: the more "public" her implied audience, the less bold her claims and word choices. "Bidding Adieu to the Town" is a saucy sketch of a private party in which Judith Stevens lambastes a doctor for his unwitting slights against female opinion. "Education" is a speech Stevens delivered at a public gathering; its staid, grand tone rivals many of today's Commencement speeches. The final selection, "'REVERENCE THY SELF,'" is a draft of the essay that is often erroneously cited as Judith Sargent Murray's first publication, "Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms" (1784). [5] This manuscript represents Stevens's thoughts on young girls' education before a final, pre-publication editing process tempered her rhetoric.

PUBLIC/PRIVATE WRITING

Throughout her career, Judith Sargent Murray's writings on women's rights and education were mediated by her awareness of the audience receiving her words. This is not to say that she compromised her ideas, but rather that she chose her words and her argumentative strategies circumspectly. Presumably, as an intellectual who wanted her ideas to receive attention, she did not want her writings to inspire sufficient ill will in her readers to dissuade them from reading further. Also, in her historical moment, when "reputation was a woman's most prized possession" (Skemp 182), she wished to preserve her public image. Even as late as 1798, when she had established herself as a respectable writer, she notes in the preface to her essay collection The Gleaner, "I have penned every essay as cautiously as if I had been assured my reputation rested solely upon that single effort" (14). As noted, the goal of preserving her reputation arose mainly from a sense of social anxiety. For Murray, this goal also became tied to h er later wish to become famous in future generations--by the end of the century, she was hungry for fame and was no longer shy about admitting it. Still, when she writes about her ambitions in the preface to The Gleaner, she registers a slight worry that she has "presumptuously" aimed too high. Ambition was not a commonly accepted goal for a woman. As Linda Kerber observes, "Ambition, energy, originality--laudable in men--were to be distrusted in women" (11). Stevens writes, "My desires are, I am free to own, aspiring-- perhaps presumptuously so. …

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