Judith Sargent Murray

Bonnie Hurd Smith

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Judith Sargent Murray

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Judith Sargent Murray (b. 1751–d. 1820) was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, when the American colonies were still under British rule. As the daughter of a merchant-class family, she was taught rudimentary reading and writing skills but used her father’s library to begin a lifelong process of self-education and writing. As the Revolutionary War approached, Murray’s literary focus took the form of letter writing. Her first published work, a Universalist catechism for children, appeared in 1782. By then, while married to her first husband, John Stevens, Murray was among those who had embraced Universalism and established the first Universalist meeting house in America. Her catechism is considered the first work by an American Universalist woman. In 1784, using the pen name “Constantia,” Murray published her first public work, “Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms.” Her 1790 essay, “On the Equality of the Sexes,” is considered the first public claim in America for female equality. This essay was followed by “On the Domestic Education of Children.” By now, Murray’s first husband had died, and she was married to John Murray. In 1792, she created two essay series for the Massachusetts Magazine, assuming a male pen name for The Gleaner. Meanwhile, Boston had lifted its ban on theatrical entertainment and Murray wrote her first play. The Medium, or Happy Tea-Party opened in 1795. It was the first American-written play produced in that city. Her second play, The Traveller Returned, opened in 1796. In 1797, Murray began work on her book, The Gleaner, which appeared in 1798. She was the first woman in America to self-publish a book. From 1802 to 1805, Murray’s poetry appeared in the Boston Weekly Magazine under the pen name “Honora Martesia.” In 1805, she wrote a third play, The African, which was never produced. By this time, Murray’s life revolved around raising her daughter and caring for John Murray, who suffered a stroke in 1809. His mind was still alert, and in 1812 they published Letters, and Sketches of Sermons. After John’s death in 1815, Murray edited his autobiography. In 1818, she moved to Natchez, Mississippi, with her daughter and died there in 1820. She fell into literary obscurity until 1974 when Alice Rossi published “On the Equality of the Sexes” in The Feminist Papers. Murray’s letter books were discovered in 1984 and made publicly available in the early 1990s.

Article.  5243 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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