Judith Sargent Murray
"On the Equality of the Sexes"

Judith Sargent was raised in the liberal Gloucester, Massachusetts, household of a prominent sea captain; her father was a strong supporter of the Revolution and a delegate to the Massachusetts ratification convention on the Federal Constitution in 1788. Sargent studied at home alongside her brother until gender separated them for life: he was sent to Harvard while she remained home bound. At eighteen Judith married, soon became a widow, and devoted the next decade and a half to writing and, after 1783, to publishing. During this period she was prolific: writing poetry, plays, fictional stories, and essays. Sargent's works reveal her as both a religious and a political dissenter. Appropriately, when she remarried in 1788, it was to Reverend John Murray, a leading advocate of Universalism in the new nation.As early as 1779 she had drafted an essay "On the Equality of the Sexes;" it was first published in the Massachusetts Magazine in 1790. This theme she returned to throughout the 1790s in a series of essays under the pen name, Constantia.Without the stigma of race, and the history of conflict, fear of uprising and violence, and compensation for land taken and persons snatched, former European women could pinpoint precisely the grounds of difference between themselves and males. As an added point, Constantia offers an alternative to the usual interpretations of the Fall and of the relative roles of Adam and Eve.

Is it upon mature consideration we adopt the idea, that nature is thus partial in her distributions? Is it indeed a fact, that she hath yielded to one half of the human species so unquestionable a mental superiority? I know that to both sexes elevated understandings, and the reverse, are common. But suffer me to ask, in what the minds of females are so notoriously deficient, or unequal. May not the intellectual powers be ranged under their four heads--imagination, reason, memory and judgment. The province of imagination has long since been surrendered up to us, and we have been crowned undoubted sovereigns of the regions of fancy. Invention is perhaps the most arduous effort of the mind; this branch of imagination hath been particularly ceded to us,... Observe the variety of fashions (here I bar the contemptuous smile) which distinguish and adorn the female world;... Now, what a playfulness, what an exuberance of fancy, what strength of inventive imagination, doth this continual variation discover?... Perhaps it will be asked if I furnish these facts as instances of excellency in our sex. Certainly not; but as proofs of a creative faculty, of a lively imagination. Assuredly great activity of mind is thereby discovered, and was this activity of mind properly directed, what beneficial effects would follow. Is the needle and kitchen sufficient to employ the operations of a soul thus organized? I should conceive not....

Are we deficient in reason? We can only reason from what we know, and if opportunity of acquiring knowledge hath been denied us, the inferiority of our sex cannot fairly be deduced from thence. Memory, I believe, will be allowed us in common, since everyone's experience must testify, that a loquacious old woman is as frequently met with, as a communicative old man; their subjects are alike drawn from the fund of other times, and the transactions of their youth, or of maturer life, entertain, or perhaps fatigue you, in the evening of their lives.

"But our judgment is not so strong--we do not distinguish so well." Yet it may be questioned, from what doth this superiority, in this discriminating faculty of the soul, proceed? May we not trace its source in the difference of education, and continued advantages? Will it be said that the judgment of a male of two years old, is more sage than that of a female's of the same age? I believe the reverse is generally observed to be true. But from that period what partiality! how is the one exalted and the other depressed, by the contrary modes of education which are adopted! the one is taught to aspire, and the other is early confined and limited. As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flowery paths of science. Grant that their minds are by nature equal, yet who shall wonder at the apparent superiority, if indeed custom becomes second nature; nay if it taketh place of nature, and that it doth, the experience of each day will evince. At length arrived at womanhood, the uncultivated fair one feels a void, which the employments allotted her are by no means capable of filling. What can she do? to books, she may not apply; or if she doth, to those only of the novel kind, lest she merit the appellation of a learned lady; and what ideas have been affixed to this term, the observation of many can testify. Fashion, scandal, and sometimes what is still more reprehensible, are then called in to her relief; and who can say what lengths the liberties she takes may proceed. Meantime she herself is most unhappy; she feels the want of a cultivated mind. Is she single, she in vain seeks to fill up time from sexual employments or amusements. Is she united to a person whose soul nature made equal to her own, education hath set him so far above her, that in those entertainments which are productive of such rational felicity, she is not qualified to accompany him. She experiences a mortifying consciousness of inferiority, which embitters every enjoyment.

Doth the person to whom her adverse faith hath consigned her, possess a mind incapable of improvement, she is equally wretched, in being so closely connected with an individual whom she cannot but despise. Now, was she permitted the same instruction as her brother, (with an eye however to their particular departments) for the employment of a rational mind an ample field would be opened.... A mind thus filled would have little room for the trifles with which our sex are, with too much justice, accused of amusing themselves,... Fashions, in their variety, would then give place to conjectures, which might perhaps conduce to the improvement of the literary world; and there would be no leisure for slander or detraction. Reputations would not then be blasted, but serious speculations would occupy the lively imaginations of the sex....

Will it be urged that those acquirements would supersede our domestick duties, I answer that every requisite in female economy is easily attained; and, with truth I can add, that when once attained, they require no further mental attention. Nay, while we are pursuing the needle, or the superintendency of the family, I repeat, that our minds are at full liberty for reflection; that imagination may exert itself in full vigor; and that if a just foundation early laid, our ideas will then be worthy of rational beings. If we were industrious we might easily find time to arrange them upon paper, or should avocations press too hard for such an indulgence, the hours allotted for conversation would at least become more refined and rational. Should it still be vociferated, "Your domestick employments are sufficient"--I would calmly ask, is it reasonable, that a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, an intelligent being, who is to spend an eternity in contemplating the works of the Deity, should at present be so degraded, as to be allowed no other ideas, than those which are suggested by the mechanism of a pudding, or the sewing the seams of a garment? Pity that all such censurers of female improvement do not go one step further, and deny their future existence; to be consistent they surely ought.

Yes, ye lordly, ye haughty sex, our souls are by nature equal to yours; the same breath of God animates, enlivens, and invigorates us; and that we are not fallen lower than yourselves, let those witness who have greatly towered above the various discouragements by which they have been so heavily oppressed; and though I am unacquainted with the list of celebrated characters on wither side, yet from the observations I have made in the contracted circle in which I have moved, I dare confidently believe, that form the commencement of time to the present day, there hath been as many females, as males, who, by the mere force of natural powers, have merited the crown of applause; who thus unassisted, have seized the wreath of fame.

I know there are those who assert, that as the animal powers of the one sex are superiour, of course their mental faculties must also be stronger; thus attributing strength of mind to the transient organization of this earth born tenement. But if this reasoning is just, man must be content to yield the palm to many of the brute creation, since by not a few of his brethren of the field, he is far surpassed in bodily strength. Moreover, was this argument admitted, it would prove too much, for ocular demonstration evinceth, that there are many robust masculine ladies, and effeminate gentlemen.... Besides, were we to grant that animal strength proved anything, taking into consideration the accustomed impartiality of nature, we should be induced to imagine, that she had invested the female mind with superiour strength as an equivalent for the bodily powers of man. But waiving this however palpable advantage, for equality only, we wish to contend.


By way of Supplement... I subjoin the following extract from a letter wrote to a friend in the December of 1780.

AND now assist me, O thou genius of my sex while I undertake the arduous task of endeavouring to combat that vulgar, that almost universal errour.... The superiority of your sex.... Not long since, weak and presuming as I was, I amused myself with selecting some arguments from nature, reason and experience, against this so generally received idea.

I confess that to sacred testimonies I had not recourse. I held them to be merely metaphorical, and thus regarding them, could not persuade myself that there was any propriety in bringing them to decide this very important debate. However, as you, sir, confine yourself entirely to the sacred oracles, I mean to bend the whole of my artillery against those supposed proofs... from which you have formed an intrenchment apparently so invulnerable. And first, to begin with our great progenitors; but here, suffer me to promise, that it is for mental strength I mean to contend, for with respect to animal powers, I yield them undisputed to that sex, which enjoys them in common with the lion, the tyger, and many other beasts of prey;...

Well, but the woman was first in the transgression. Strange how blind self love renders you men; were you not wholly absorbed in a partial admiration of your own abilities, you would long since have acknowledged the force of what I am now going to urge. It is true some ignoramuses have, absurdly enough informed us, that the beauteous fair of paradise, was seduced from her obedience, by a malignant demon, in the guise of a baleful serpent; but we, who are better informed, know that the fallen spirit presented himself to her view, a shining angel still; for thus, saith the criticks in the Hebrew tongue, ought the word be rendered.

Let us examine her motive. Hark! the seraph declares that she shall attain a perfection of knowledge; for is there aught which is not comprehended under one or other of the terms good and evil. It doth not appear that she was governed by any one sensual appetite; but merely by a desire of adorning her mind; a laudable ambition fired her soul, and a thirst for knowledge impelled the predilection so fatal in its consequences. Adam could not plead the same deception.... he beheld the once blooming female disrobed of that innocence, which had heretofore rendered her so lovely.... He had proof positive of the fallacy of the argument, which the deceiver had suggested. What then could be the inducement to burst the barriers, and to fly directly in the face of that command, which immediately from the mouth of Deity he had received,... What mighty cause impelled him to sacrifice myriad of beings yet unborn, and by one impious act, which he saw would be productive of such fatal effect, entail undistinguished ruin upon a race of beings.... Blush, ye vaunters of fortitude; ye boasters of resolution; ye haughty lords of the creation; blush when ye remember, that he was influenced by no other motive than a bare pusillanimous attachment to a woman! by sentiments so exquisitely soft, that all his sons have, from that period, when they have designed to degrade them, described as highly feminine. Thus it should see, that all the arts of the grand deceiver (since means adequate to the purpose are, I conceive, invariably pursued) were requisite to mislead our general mother, while the father of mankind forfeited his own, and relinquished the happiness of posterity, merely in compliance with the blandishments of a female.