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Judith Murray Sargent's Observations of Female Abilities

Leading up to the American Revolution, women played a key role in protesting British policies by boycotting imported consumer goods like tea and cloth. Women organized themselves and went door to door to mobilize and empower each other. Through their protest actions, they gained organizing skills and moved out of the domestic sphere into the world of politics, a world that had previously only been frequented by men. Despite the traditional, prevalent view of “true womanhood” or “Republican Motherhood,” Judith Sargent Murray, in Observations of Female Abilities in 1798 expressed her belief, that like other women of her day, women could be recreated as individuals who could live independent and self-reliant lives.[1]

In the first part of this excerpted essay, Sargent Murray reminds readers that the founding of America is due to the “female enterprize, decision and generosity” of Queen Isabella of Spain who financed Columbus’ journey to the New World.[2] Certainly, she was an example of the ingenuity that some women achieved through the cultivation of their minds which can go well beyond the mere responsibility of child rearing and education for younger generations. The independence and success Mary Wollstonecraft, a contemporary was acknowledged as a trailblazer in women’s right to be educated, live independently and with equality.

Because of personal experiences, including two marriages which provided little financial security and a faith journey which led her away from the Puritan fold and into a more egalitarian Universalist faith, Murray Sargent began questioning traditional roles and was empowered to pronounce her belief in spiritual and mental equality of the sexes. When she wrote that, “the united efforts of male and female might rescue many a family from destruction...” she no doubt had seen many a family’s financial security decimated by the lengthy absence of husbands during the war and wives who were not prepared to manage the family fortunes.

The author chose to profile two women who had, in her view, actualized their potential. The first, an uneducated, Massachusetts woman had made astonishing improvements in agriculture through observation, practice and study. She determined to teach herself to read and voraciously read all she could. Despite being a member of the “weaker sex,” she cultivated an athletic body, but maintained her nurturing and faithful nature. In this description, Murray Sargent made the point that even though this woman was engaging in typically male pursuits – farming, and had chosen not to be wed, she still possessed the female characteristics of being affectionate and had honed her skills as a nurse. The second woman was widowed when her children were infants, raised them and devoted her sons to the “profession of arms” and her daughters were “educated for business” where they have established themselves at the “counting-house” preparing letters for her inspection and acting as clerks for her well known capital trading-house.[3] These women, due to their circumstances, and because of their ingenuity, were able to achieve success. They were self-reliant and independent, but yet did not sacrifice the female characteristics that were prized in the newly founded United States.

The last two paragraphs take a vastly different tone designed to highlight the prevailing view of women’s roles in society. Written as a dialogue between the author and Mr. Gleaner (a pseudonym used by Murray Sargent), traditional women’s roles are relayed. Women must be content in their role as mother’s who delight in the “smiles of their daughters, or the sports of their sons.”[4] A mother’s love cannot be replaced, she is warm and affectionate and will risk her very life for her children, whereas a father’s role is to provide for the family.

Judith Murray Sargent is expressing her belief that as women have risen to the occasion of being self-reliant and independent when circumstances have arisen, they should be viewed as equal partners in marriage and should be taught skills necessary to achieve a level of freedom previously reserved for men.

DuBois, Ellen Carol and Lynn Dumenil. Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.

[1] Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil. Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016), 156.

[2] Ibid, 148.

[3] Ibid, 150.

[4] Ibid, 150.

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