Prominent Essayist and Advocate for Women’s Equality
Judith Sargent Murray was a poet and playwright, and the most prominent woman essayist of the eighteenth century. She was also among America’s earliest champions of financial independence and equal rights for women. She argued forcefully for improved female education and for women to be allowed a public voice.
Judith Sargent was born May 5, 1751 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, to the wealthy merchant family of Winthrop and Judith Saunders Sargent. Contrary to Sargent family legend, Judith did not study alongside her brother Winthrop while he was tutored to enter Harvard. Although she considered herself as capable as her brother, her parents provided a typical education for a merchant-class daughter – reading, writing and training in the domestic skills of sewing and household management to prepare her for married life.
Judith never forgot the discrepancies between male and female education she had experienced. She believed that with quality education women’s accomplishments would equal those of men’s if parents raised their daughters to “reverence themselves,” as she put it in one of her essays. The Sargent family library was vast, which allowed her to read history, philosophy, geography, and literature.
Like most children in Gloucester, Judith was raised in First Parish Church whose Congregational ministers ruled religious and civic life. She learned that only a few people were predestined for heaven, while most would spend eternity in hell.
In 1769, Judith fulfilled the one role expected of her and married John Stevens, a well-to-do ship’s captain from a prominent Gloucester family who spent most of his time at sea. The young couple resided with John’s parents until they could build a house of their own, allowing Judith to live within a short distance of the Sargent and Saunders homes. The couple had no children.
In 1770, Judith’s father Winthrop Sargent read James Relly’s book, Union. Relly’s Universalism was characterized by its doctrine of universal salvation – that all of humankind could be saved, not just the elect. It was a radical departure from traditional doctrine, and Judith was among those who embraced Relly’s hopeful view of this world and the hereafter.
In 1774, when Winthrop Sargent learned that one of Relly’s proteges British Universalist preacher John Murray was lecturing in Boston, he invited him to visit Gloucester. On November 3, John Murray visited the Sargent family home where Judith met him for the first time. She knew right away that in Murray she had found a mentor, spiritual teacher and intellectual companion.
Judith was among the group of people of Gloucester, led by her father, who first embraced this liberal religious belief, and her father provided financial support for Murray’s work. While Murray moved to Gloucester shortly thereafter, he traveled frequently to other parts of New England. Judith asked Murray if he would like to correspond with her and he accepted.