For as long as women have been wearing decorative jewelry, donning designer clothing, and delighting in female companionship, we have been accused of a proclivity for the fanciful. Stereotypes abound about the feminine urge to tell stories: the secretly slanderous best friend; the garrulous old woman tirelessly engaged with spreading gossip. In her essay, “On the Equality of the Sexes”, Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820) sardonically examines these misogynistic stereotypes, turning them upside down. She argues that the vicissitudes of female fashion are evidence of artistry, and the story-telling a natural symptom of untapped creativity. Those characteristics, which are so often cast in a negative light, could actually be the result of incredible imagination. In Sargent’s understanding, the only difference between gossip and ground-breaking scientific invention is a lack of access to education.
In the year 1779, Sargent wrote an essay entitled “The Sexes” and proceeded to circulate it amongst friends for over a decade. That piece’s revised counterpart, “On the Equality of the Sexes”, was published in 1790, in the March and April issues of Massachusetts Magazine (a “Monthly Museum of Knowledge and Rational Entertainment”). Although Sargent published under the pseudonym “Constantia” — occasionally going by “The Reaper”, “Honora Martesia”, “Mr. Vigilius”, or “The Gleaner” — her identity as the author of “Equality” was fairly well-known.
Born into a family of wealthy, ship-owning merchants, Sargent received a preliminary education which far outweighed that of other American women at the time. The first of eight children, she was taught how to read and write by her mother, and was then allowed to share a tutor with her younger brother Winthrop. This arrangement lasted until Winthrop turned ten, when he was sent to Boston Latin School in preparation for his enrollment at Harvard only three years later. These clear disparities, present even within the close confines of her familial circle, were a catalyst in her advocacy for equal education. “Equality” argues that one cannot deny women’s inherent ability to use reason and judgment, especially when they are not given the opportunity to train academically. While “nature with equality imparts”, it is our cultural nurturing of female minds that has been left in the dark.
Judith Sargent Murray, “On the Equality of the Sexes” (part 2), The Massachusetts Magazine 2.4 (April 1790): 223–226
An influence behind “Equality” was the unavoidable sociopolitical rumbling of the American Revolution. In 1775, the first full-fledged battle broke loose in Lexington and Concord, and by 1779, having declared independence from England, the American colonies were locked in a long-winded war to ensure their continued sovereignty. Surrounded by the wide-spread rhetoric of liberty, equality, and a right to the pursuit of happiness, Sargent was inspired to apply these same principles to the sexes. The language of war is a recurring facet of “Equality”, as Sargent describes the intricate social dance between men and women. When girls enter into the world, “it is expected that with the other sex we should commence immediate war. . . we must rise superior to, and obtain a complete victory over those who have been long adding to the native strength of their minds”. Not only are women expected to defend against the sexual and romantic advances of men, Sargent also suggests that they must engage in an intellectual battle against those who have been given the advantage of a long and thorough education.
Drawing a parallel between the colonies and equality-seeking women — rebellious bodies attempting to throw off the reigns of an oppressive ruler — Sargent writes that “we will meet upon every ground, the despot man; we will rush with alacrity to the combat, and, crowned by success, we shall then answer the exalted expectations which are formed”. In spite of such victorious imagery, Sargent quickly goes on to clarify that, although women are equal in terms of imagination, reason, memory, and judgment, we are beholden to men for their physical superiority. In a plea largely uncharacteristic of the essay as a whole, she asks, “shield us then, we beseech you, from external evils”. This, too, is potentially a byproduct of revolutionary trepidation. The same year that Sargent wrote “The Sexes”, the coastal air of Gloucester unexpectedly filled with the sound of alarms. It was rumored that four warships were steadily approaching the harbor, and Sargent, alone in her house, was forced to flee into the woods along with countless other terrified women and children. Although the warships never arrived, Sargent remembered this moment of vulnerability, as well as the men who rushed to the coastline while she ran for the trees.
“On the Equality of the Sexes” quickly became an important foundation for the figure of the “Republican Mother”. As the United States began its establishment as an independent nation, there was an emphasis on the woman’s duty to raise patriotic sons. The writings of John Locke were popular amongst the social elite, who spread his philosophy that children are innately innocent, and must be carefully molded through motherly warmth. Abigail Adams was a large proponent of educating mothers so that they, in turn, could educate their sons to be smart future voters. The values of republican motherhood can be detected in Sargent’s suggestion that women should be educated in order to serve as happier companions to their husbands. This argument seeks to elevate the position of women without disturbing traditional gender roles. Readers are repeatedly reassured that women will continue to clean homes and bake cakes, but an education will allow them to cater to their husbands’ and sons’ intellects as they do so.