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Monday, January 22, 2024

January 22, 2024: AmericanStudying Groundbreaking Women: Judith Sargent Murray

[175 years ago Tuesday, Elizabeth Blackwell became Dr. Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from a US medical school. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Blackwell and four other groundbreaking women from American history, leading up to a special weekend post on folks from our own moment!]

On the relatively nondescript home that served as both prison and liberation for the amazing Judith Sargent Murray.

I’ve often thought that to be far ahead of one’s time, especially when it comes to one’s own rights and freedoms, likely feels both confining and liberating—a combination of recognizing things which one is frustratingly denied and yet seeing a broader and more open world beyond them. Certainly we can feel both sides to that coin in “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1790), the poem and essay written by Gloucester’s own Judith Sargent Murray. Like her close contemporary (English) feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Murray was extremely intelligent, and she ironically but crucially opens “Equality” with an argument for why people are not equal—for why, indeed, certain minds are far more destined for greatness than others. Seeing herself in that light (as she seems to have, and deservedly so) would, again, have likely made Murray feel both good and bad—like part of a Talented Tenth of sorts, but one arbitrarily held back due solely to the biological accident of gender.

The (at the time; over the next century the waterfront was significantly shifted) waterfront Gloucester home built in 1782 for Sargent and her first husband, Captain John Stevens, served first as a direct remainder of such arbitrary and frustrating limitations. Stevens was at the time enjoying a brief period of prosperity as a local merchant, but his fortunes would shortly and permanently decline (thanks in part to the Revolution and in part to his own shortcomings as a businessman); by 1785 Stevens was so deeply in debt that the house was turned into a debtor’s prison, one in which both Stevens and Judith (who was of course literally married to his debt and legally powerless to control her own finances in any way) were held as collateral for those debts. A year later Stevens fled the city and tried to start fresh in the West Indies, but he ended up similarly indebted and imprisoned there, and died in prison. It was during these same years that Judith began to write her articles and essays (under the pseudonym “Constantia”), and such efforts reflect quite literally the only way that she could escape the prison into which her husband’s failures had cast her.

Yet the same period, and the same house, also contained a man who would, on multiple levels, help Judith achieve a far freer and happier existence. John and Judith were among America’s earliest supporters of Unitarian Universalism, the controversial new religion that represented a direct challenge to New England’s ruling Puritanism; they expressed that support by, among other things, providing a home for John Murray, the founder of the religion’s American church and its most prominent preacher. Murray and Judith developed a close friendship and relationship, and by the time of her husband’s death it was clearly something more; a few years later they were married and began a new life together, in the same Gloucester home. Judith’s final years were marked by a series of tragedies, culminating in the 1820 deaths of Judith, her daughter, and her grandson; but for the thirty years prior to those tragedies she had lived in a home and marriage—and philosophy—that were far closer to the social, political, and human ideals she espoused in her writings. Gloucester’s Sargent House contains and --interprets all those sides to her life—and also includes some paintings and pictures donated by her most famous descendent, John Singer Sargent!

Next groundbreaking woman tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other groundbreaking women, past or present, you’d highlight?

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