Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820)

    Contributing Editor: Amy M. Yerkes

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    The central issue that emerges in a first reading of Murray's writings is the apparent contradiction between her conservative Federalist agenda and her more liberal platform for feminist reform. Murray maintained that society must be based on a strict adherence to order--political, social, family, and personal order--while promoting a change of women's place within that order. This hierarchical Federalist platform is also in conflict with Murray's Universalist religious beliefs, which argue for each individual's ability to establish a direct link with God. By placing her writings within their historical framework, however, some of this tension can be resolved.

    An awareness of the central debates of the early Republic--debates on the structure and role of government, on the role of women in the new Republic, on the proper education for the new citizenry--will allow students to appreciate why Murray's responses to these debates were so complex. Reading the selections from The Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, as well as the writings of John Adams, Paine, and Thomas Jefferson (all included in the anthology) will help students to understand the historical framework for Murray's work.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    In addition to those themes just outlined, Murray was engaged in a struggle to define and create a truly "American" literature. Students might therefore examine her choice of subject matter in the essays, her epilogue to Tyler's play The Contrast, and her novel The Story of Margaretta. While the latter work has not been included in the anthology, it is available both on microfilm in the Evans series and in Nina Baym's new edition of The Gleaner (Union College Press, 1992). Murray's novel continues her exploration of the role and education of women in the new nation.

    Murray was also engaged in a reevaluation of history and subscribed to the belief that history was fundamentally progressive. By her own commitment to bettering the education of women and by reevaluating past women's history, Murray hoped to usher in a "new era in female history."

    As with many of her contemporaries, Murray drew heavily from the Enlightenment philosophy of such writers as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Her emphasis on reason as the central governing principle of human beings and her educational beliefs might be fruitfully compared to those of her European predecessors.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Murray's most successful literary work is her Gleaner essay series; while the topics of the essays are progressive, the form is rather conventional, following such famous prototypes as the essays of Addison and Steele. The development of Murray's persona of Mr. Vigillius, however, is more innovative; his interaction with the audience, his reporting style, and his personality allow for interesting discussion.

    Other considerations of interest are those of poetic style and her voice as an essayist. While students may find Murray's poetry and essays stylistically constrained, she herself insisted that she was primarily interested in developing a new content for American literature rather than establishing new literary forms.

    Original Audience

    Since much of Murray's work was originally printed in journals, any consideration of audience should address the readers of these periodicals and the serial nature of the presentation. Furthermore, she was appealing to a very diverse audience: readers who would adhere to her conservative Federalist agenda as well as those liberals who were interested in women's issues. Certainly this wide audience consideration brings with it beliefs about how to appeal to "male" versus "female" readers (as de-fined in the late eighteenth century). The ways in which Murray was trying to subvert the traditional assumptions that linked masculinity with reason and femininity with passion (the less desirable of the two traits) would allow for an interesting consideration of audience.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Murray's writings beg comparison with many of her better-known contemporaries, and it is astonishing to realize that she preceded many of these contemporaries in addressing certain issues. For example, her essay On the Equality of the Sexes offers an argument very similar to that found in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Discussion might also focus on a comparison between Murray's feminist essays and those of her nineteenth-century American counterparts Sarah M. Grimkè and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

    Fruitful comparisons can be made between The Story of Margaretta and contemporary sentimental novels such as Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette and Rowson's Charlotte Temple. Murray's two plays (included in her 1798 collected edition of The Gleaner) exhibit an interest in rendering the American experience--an interest shared by her contemporary Royall Tyler, whose play, The Contrast, also appears in the anthology.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    1. Of particular interest in her essays on the equality and education of women are the strategies she adopts to prove this equality. Students might be asked to analyze these strategies and to determine why she adopted them, given the time when Murray was writing and her Federalist/Universalist beliefs.

    2. Students could explore Murray's guidelines for developing and promoting American literature (in this case drama) by focusing on the prologues and epilogues she wrote for well-known American plays.

    Note: The questions mentioned above would also serve as helpful writing assignments and research paper topics.


    The only biography of Murray is entitled Constantia: A Study of the Life and Works of Judith Sargent Murray, 1751-1820, by Vena Bernadatte Field (Orono, Maine: University Press, 1931).

    A brief but helpful critical evaluation of Murray's essay series is by Bruce Granger in American Essay Serials from Franklin to Irving, Chapter VIII (1978). See also the references to Murray in Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women 1750-1800 (Mary Beth Norton, 1980), and Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (Cathy Davidson, 1986).

    Pattie Cowell offers an insightful overview of Murray's poems in Women Poets in Revolutionary America 1650-1775 (1981).

    Finally, Nina Baym's introduction to The Gleaner (Union College Press, 1992) is of great interest.