Infamous Scribblers

women writers of the long eighteenth century

Vindications in America: Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes”


Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women is rightfully celebrated today as a text which helped start discussions regarding women’s rights, education, social position, and general access to various opportunities. However, two years before the publication of this work, Judith Sargent Murray published “On the Equality of the Sexes” in the spring 1790 edition of Massachusetts Magazine. Stemming from a draft that she had been tinkering with since 1779, Sargent Murray’s essay covers many of the same themes and arguments as Wollstonecraft’s text, although this earlier work has sadly been neglected in conversations concerning eighteenth century thoughts on women’s rights.

“On the Equality of the Sexes” begins with debunking the basic assumption that women do not have the same intellectual capacity as men. Citing women’s endeavors in fashion and gossip, Sargent Murray asserts that although these activities may be morally questionable, they nonetheless show a general tendency toward imagination, creativity, and memory which are the hallmarks of all forms of intelligence.

Throughout the essay, she asserts that the only difference between men and women intellectually is founded in access to education. While men have full access to knowledge, women are destined to do without because of social constraints. In a move that is an early argument against the process of naturalization, she maintains that a lack of knowledge or intelligence is not an inherent state, but rather a position constructed by society in an effort to make inequality seem natural. This is not the only text where Sargent Murray makes such assertions, however. Her far more famous work, The Gleaner, a collection including essays originally published under the name Mr. Vigillius in Massachusetts Magazine along with several poems and plays, presents a running commentary on the educational opportunities and pitfalls of a fictional young orphan girl named Margaretta. Also, her plays, while exhibiting few outward arguments in this vein, do present female characters that equally match their male counterparts in exhibitions of wit and philosophical understanding.

Although Blake here is playing on the standard idea of sexual seduction, Adam does look a little oblivious.

“The Temptation and Fall of Eve,” from William Blake’s illustration of Paradise Lost, 1808. Although Blake is playing on the standard idea of sexual seduction, Adam does look a little oblivious.

For me, one of the most interesting arguments she makes in the essay involves an interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve. Departing from what was at the time a standard take on the biblical version of the fall of man, she maintains that Eve did not succumb to a seduction in the form of sexual desire, but rather a seduction based on the acquisition of knowledge. It was the Tree of Knowledge, after all, that bore the fruit Eve ate. This she sees as a “laudable ambition” compared to the actions of Adam, who only ate of the fruit because of his attachment to Eve. From this interpretation, Sargent Murray deduces that women have, from Eve onward, had the capacity and desire for knowledge and lack of educational opportunity and access is the only real bar to intellectual, and by extension, social equality.

A better understanding of the connection between Judith Sargent Murray’s essay and Wollstonecraft’s Vindication would only help illuminate the ways women around the Atlantic were presenting arguments for equality and education. At this point, what text is most famous or was written first is of little consequence. Uncovering the ways such texts created a conversation about women that is still happening today is far more important.

Quotes from “On the Equality of the Sexes”:

“As if a woman’s form must needs enroll,

A weak, a servile, an inferiour soul;

And that the guise of a man must still proclaim,

Greatness of mind, and him, to be the same:”

“As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is lead by the hand through all the flowery paths of science. Grant that their minds are by nature equal, yet we shall wonder at the apparent superiority, if indeed custom becomes second nature; nay, if it take the place of nature, and that it doth the experience of each day will evince.”

Works by Judith Sargent Murray:

The Medium or, Happy Tea-Party (1795)

The Traveller Returned (1796)

The Gleaner (1798)

Works about Judith Sargent Murray:

First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence. Shelia L. Skemp University of Pennsylvania Press 2013

Feminist Interventions in Early American Studies. Mary C. Carruth, ed. University of Alabama Press 2006 (This collection includes a section devoted entirely to Sargent Murray)

One comment on “Vindications in America: Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes”

  1. Kimberlee
    October 6, 2013

    Love it! Come visit us (virtually or in-person sometime) at the Sargent House Museum in Gloucester, Massachusetts. No doubt, we could share in some serious infamous scribbler discussion! 😉 -Kimberlee |

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This entry was posted on June 26, 2013 by .

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