Judith Sargent Murray
• In the first decade after George
Washington's election in
1788, scattered groups of
American writers began to
think about creating a
literature that would
demonstrate the new nation’s
cultural vitality to its own
citizens and to Europe.
This lecture is adapted the Introduction to Judith Sargent Murray's The Gleaner, by Nina Baym.
Schenectady, NY: Union College P, 1992. iii-xx.
Murray gathers her published and
unpublished essays into a three
volume book: The Gleaner
The Gleaner, like most publishing
ventures of the time, was
financed by subscription.
Among those supporting it were
such prominent persons as
George and Martha
Washington, and the current
President John Adams and his
wife Abigail. These names
testified to Murray’s reputation
Murray as Early Feminist?
• Some of scholars describe her as an early feminist, perhaps
even the first feminist in United States history.
• This offers a useful approach to her work in some ways, but
could Murray have understood our contemporary
feminism, she almost certainly would not have applied the
label to herself.
• Her truly radical ideas about women were constrained by a
world view whose key values—virtue and subordination—
are substantially irrelevant to or in conflict with feminism as
we know it today.
In eighteenth-century political thought,
• virtue referred to the supposedly highest state of individual
development, in which moral character combined with civic
• subordination referred to the highest condition of social
development, in which respect for others functioned within a
hierarchy that ranked individuals by such measures as
class, property, occupation, age, and gender.
• Together, virtue in the individual and subordination in
the society led to a stable, harmonious America whose
foundations could be threatened by selfishness or
divided social factions.
Virtue, Subordination and Gender Difference.
• For many centuries, Western thought had associated the
concept of virtue with public activities forbidden to
• Therefore, with women virtue was associated with
passivity and compliance. From this perspective, an active
woman could only be seen as a harmful woman.
• Judith Sargent Murray’s writings articulated a competing
vision, designed to show how women might, without
challenging the concept of social subordination, develop
and demonstrate an active virtue that would contribute
to the public good.
Challenges to Explaining Gender Difference
• American writers (both men and women) will seek to
address the challenge of explaining gender difference and
how this difference relates to American ideals of freedom
• Are women naturally inferior to men
and, therefore, subordinate to them and the systems of
political action that men develop?
• If not, how are women different? What is the proper role
for women in society?
• Gender relates both to the biological
and social contexts of sexual behavior
• When we say something is gendered we
mean that social processes have
determined what is appropriately
masculine and feminine.
Murray’s view of gender:
• Men and women’s bodies are different, but our minds
are identical in nature.
• If identical in nature, women’s and men’s minds call for
equal treatment and equal participants in
social, cultural, economic, and political action.
Murray’s literary career.
• She describes female virtues within the constraints of
traditionally gendered ways, focusing on the private
domestic role of women, but she also shows women as
having a means of influencing power.
• She was also a published author, so in this role, she is
challenging the traditional notions of gender.
• In doing this, she was not being hypocritical but taking
part in a growing effort to redefine writing and
publishing as socially acceptable activities for women.