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Breaking Down Patriarchy - Amy McPhie Allebest EPISODE 10, 26th January 2021
On the Equality of the Sexes, by Judith Sargent Murray
00:00:00 01:37:33

On the Equality of the Sexes, by Judith Sargent Murray

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today’s text is an essay entitled “On the Equality of the Sexes,” by Judith Sargent Murray. This essay actually predates Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman by a year - it was published in 1791 - but we are covering it now because Wollstonecraft continued the tradition of European writers, and with Judith Sargent Murray we’ve crossed the pond and carried the historical thread to the United States. Murray was a brilliant thinker and writer, and I think her contributions to American thought should be taught in our schools alongside Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin! But before we start our discussion of her work, I want to introduce my reading partner, Jennie Austin Preece. Hi, Jennie!

Jennie: Hi, Amy!

Amy: Jennie and I met during a semester in Jerusalem during our Sophomore year in college, and along with Sherrie Nelson Crawford, who did the episodes on The Creation of Patriarchy, we formed a writing group a la Dead Poets Society where we would sneak around at night and make blanket forts and read our poetry to each other. We kept that writing group going after we got back from Jerusalem, and significantly (especially now, looking back in retrospect), you kept that going after we were all married and I had two little kids at home. That was the only thing that kept me writing during those years. (Comments on Jennie)

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, Jennie?


Well, first of all, I hope that when I grow up I can be like Amy McPhie Allebest some day! What a gift to be a part of this project. And how fun to hear Sherrie’s conversation with you. And I have to say our sunrise poetry meeting is probably one of my favorite memories of Jerusalem! Hugging trees and basking in poetic alliteration! Good stuff! 

So my story. I am the youngest of four children, born to a practicing Mormon family in the great potato state of Idaho. I grew up surrounded by farmland, tractors, and trucks, but my parents supplemented our Idaho surroundings with travel, good books and conversation, a plethora of foreign exchange students and diverse religious and volunteer experiences. I had parents who were deliberate in opening our eyes to the world. 

Like many good Mormons, I made my way to Brigham Young University for my undergraduate studies. I loved BYU. I loved that my new friends were from all over the country and the world. I loved the opportunities to travel and study abroad and learn new perspectives. As you mentioned, Amy, we met when we studied in Jerusalem, which was a pivotal time in my life as I tried to figure out who I was and who I wanted to become, wrestling with history and current events and cultures that rocked my world. That journey and my mission to Italy for my church led me to know that I wanted to teach,to take ideas and wrestle and grow and learn with young people. When I met Mike, my husband, I was finishing up my studies in English Literature/Humanities and was heading off to Washington DC to do my student teaching. We lived apart that semester, Mike starting medical school in SLC and I having one of the greatest and life-changing adventures teaching at an urban high school. To paint a picture of that semester, Sept. 11th, was my first day on the job. THE Sept. 11th. We went through a lot that year, my students and I. Opened my eyes and my heart.

Following those months of craziness, I got married and ended up working for Sylvan Learning Center in Salt Lake City as a director of education. It was the right fit at the right time, teaching me how to teach the one, those kids who often slipped through the cracks. I had a child (our Utah baby boy) and kept working, putting Mike through medical school. I was fortunate to have a flexible job, great childcare, and an batter-operated breast pump so I could multitask while driving from one school to another. (Thank heavens I never got pulled over!)

We eventually moved to Boston, where I continued to work part-time for Sylvan Learning as a director and curriculum writer and eventually had twins—our Massachusetts girls. When the twins were two years old and my oldest was in junior kindergarten, I felt in my gut and in my heart that I needed to go to graduate school. Why not? I lived just down the street from Harvard, biking past it every day when I dropped off my son at school. It was a crazy hard decision, as Mike was in his ridiculously busy residency and we had three kids. But with some prayer, a live-in nanny, student loans and miraculous time management, we did it. I graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education focusing on educational policy, teacher quality and parent engagement. And then we moved to Denver!

Fast forward ten years, and we continued our adventure adding a Colorado baby to the mix, (so four kids total!) lots of ski and hiking days, my own education consulting business,and  numerous unfinished personal writing projects. My faith and volunteer work is a big part of my life as well. I have a special place in my heart, most likely instilled by my parents and my travels, for interfaith work. So I also spend a lot of my time building bridges, working with various faiths and organizations to find the unity in our diversity. Whether it’s through music, food, dialogue or service together...I believe understanding the other is essential. My life has been a beautiful ride, Amy...and I’m grateful for what I’ve learned, where I am, for the people in it--like you!--, and for the exciting adventures ahead!

Amy: And then one more thing I like to ask my reading partners is what interested them in doing an episode of Breaking Down Patriarchy.

Jennie: Answer

That’s a great question! I have always considered myself a feminist...fighting for the voice of women, for my daughters...having countless conversations with my soul sisters like you about women’s issues. But honestly, I haven’t hesitant to join the conversation against the term “patriarchy.” Probably because of my religious upbringing and respect for the men in my life, who on the whole, have been absolutely supportive, loving, equally yoked with me. Don’t get me wrong, I do get frustrated with systems and moments of institutional sexism and have experienced it first hand, but also  recognize that I have been given leadership, autonomy, and incredible opportunity in many of those same systems and institutions. I have learned and risen, even in it...embracing life as a woman, a mother, a sister and a wife. So my question,  is this the right battle? Is patriarchy the problem? Do I really want to blame the men that I honor and love?

What resonated with me, Amy, is your deliberate and systematic desire to get to the origins of patriarchy, to be educated and understand where it comes from and how we can lift ALL sexes to a more equal level. This isn’t about breaking down men or blaming them, it’s about breaking down systemic patterns that have left many women, and men, out of life’s fullest opportunities. And I realize that I have been overly privileged to have had such positive experiences, knowing that many of my sisters have felt the painful effects of patriarchy. So I love that you are looking at the history and understanding the why, to make the future better for all. I also believe, deep down and theologically, that my faith is based on a partnership model, even more than patriarchy as we know it, and wonder how those origins changed and what can be done to restore that.

I just listened to Amanda Gormon’s inaugural poem, Amy, right before this recording..and I loved this line, which I think fits: “It’s the path we step into...and how can we repair it….There is always light if we are brave enough to see it, and brave enough to be it.” Murray’s work was a fun place for me to jump in. So here I am! 

Amy: Thanks Jennie, and I’m grateful that you mentioned your hesitation about the term “breaking down patriarchy.”  I’ve said it before and I’ll keep repeating it because it is so very important to me - this is about understanding the system of patriarchy. I want to understand that system and how it developed and what people have said about it through history. And also, I too believe that egalitarianism, or a partnership system, is a more just system than patriarchy, and that the partnership system would serve boys and men better, as well as girls and women. But it is not about breaking down men, or about blaming the men in our lives for other men’s bad behavior. This is about men and women and everyone together, educating ourselves about the system in which we live, so that we can make sure we’re living deliberately and that we’re passing on a better world to our children than the one we inherited. 

Ok, so before we talk about the text, let’s learn a bit about the author, Judith Sargent Murray. Jennie, can you tell us about this little-known, but incredible author?


I’d love to! Judith Sargent Murray was an early advocate of women’s equality, access to education, and the right to control their earnings. Her essay, “On the Equality of the Sexes,” was published a year before Mary Wolstonecraft’s renowned 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Women, which you just previously discussed on the podcast..

Born on May 1, 1751 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Murray was the oldest of eight children in a wealthy merchant family. Sadly, only three of her siblings survived into adulthood. Judith was close friends with her brother, John Rogers, and she got to listen in on his tutoring sessions as he got ready to go to Harvard, but of course she, as a girl, was not allowed to receive formal schooling. Girls at the time were barely taught to read and write, and so Judith relied on the vast family library to teach herself history, philosophy, geography, and literature. From a very young age she wrote poetry, which her father sometimes read to family members, very proud of his daughter’s talent. 

Judith also collected Letter Books, which were compilations of all of her correspondences (from the age of 23) to friends, family, business and political connections bound in books. By the time she penned her last letter in 1818, she had created 20 volumes with over 2500 letters. I think the telling part of this is that she believed her words and ideas mattered, particularly in a time when many women didn't see their thoughts as worthy of recording.

In 1769, Murray married John Stevens, a ship captain, and they adopted his orphan nieces and her cousin. But during the American Revolution, Gloucester’s shipping industry suffered, and as a ship captain, John Stevens lost his livelihood and went into debt. By the end of the war he was facing debtors’ prison, and to help out with the finances, Judith tried publishing under a pseudonym to make a little money. But it wasn’t enough, and John left her and fled to the West Indies, where he died in 1786.

Judith’s family had converted to the Universalist/Unitarian church in the 1770’s and given land to build America’s first meetinghouse of that denomination in 1780. They had installed its first minister, John Murray, and Judith and John Murray had been close friends for years. After Judith’s first husband John Steven died, Judith and John Murray began courting and exchanging long letters on philosophy and theology. As Judith put it, she hoped they could “mingle souls upon paper.”  One historian we listened to on YouTube said that in reading those love letters you get the sense that Judith was just starved for intellectual engagement, like “finally, someone who’s on my level!!” And John felt the same way, encouraging her intellectual gifts throughout his life. They got married, and by all accounts they were extremely happy together. As a minister, John traveled a lot, and Judith accompanied him sometimes, meeting prominent people like George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Catherine Littlefield Greene. At age 38, Murray gave birth to a son who lived only a few hours; in 1791, at age 40, she delivered her daughter Julia Marie.

Throughout all this time, Murray built a literary life. Women were not allowed to speak publicly, so she often wrote under a pseudonym (sometimes as “Honora Martesia,” or “Constantia” kaan-STAN-sha). She published her “On the Equality of the Sexes” under the pen name Constantia, in the prestigious paper The Massachusetts that was like “The Atlantic” of their day. And it’s also worth noting that that was the same year that she had a baby. :) In 1792, she assumed a male identity and pen name “The Gleaner” for her column in the Massachusetts Magazine. (And don’t you love the pen name “The Gleaner” - that’s what you had to be as a woman who wasn’t given a formal education.) 

The family moved to Boston the next year, where Murray’s play, The Medium (1795), was likely the first by an American author to be produced on stage. (!!!) Murray also published poetry.

Murray was a staunch believer in improved educational opportunities for women, and her essays were vital to the post-Revolutionary notion of “Republican Motherhood.” As you talked about last time, advocates of Republican Motherhood argued that the success of the new nation required intelligent and virtuous citizens—and since the education of patriotic sons (future voters) rested with mothers, women should be educated. This was an important step forward, as women were not educated at all prior to this. Murray’s essays challenged prevailing notions that the female brain was inherently inferior; she argued instead that women were stifled not by physical limitations but by lack of access to education. Murray educated her daughter at home until she was old enough to attend an academy.

Meanwhile, Murray’s writing kept the family financially solvent. In 1798, she published “The Gleaner’s” collected columns. To ensure a profit, Murray recruited 800 presale “subscribers,” along with endorsements from President Washington and Vice President John Adams. Adept at writing AND marketing!

Judith was staunchly non-violent; she denounced the violence of the French Revolution, which was a hotly contested topic in the United States at the time. She was also fiercely against the use of corporal punishment for children, and she was a vegetarian because she opposed violence against animals. (Even fish! And she lived on the coast of Massachusetts...which would be very difficult, having lived there. No clam chowder!?)

In 1802, Murray helped her cousin, Judith Saunders, and Clementine Beach open a female academy in Dorchester, south of Boston. John Murray suffered a stroke in 1809, and after his death in 1815, Murray completed and published her husband’s autobiography. She then moved to the frontier town of Natchez, Mississippi to live with her married daughter, Julia Marie Bingamon. She died there at age 69. 

And after seven years in Massachusetts, how did I not know about Judith Sargeant Murray! Thanks for introducing us, Amy!

Amy: Ok, let’s dig in! Jennie and I have chosen a few important points to highlight, and we’ll take turns sharing the most important parts.

To begin, Murray jumps right into her essay with something I find so fun and poignant, Amy...and close to our hearts! She starts with a poem. First, poetry paints a picture that prose can’t always provide. It’s imaginative, drawing the reader in with unique senses. And second, it’s smart and witty. You have to be intellectually capable to create the rhythms, rhymes, imagery and spot-on vocabulary. She’s proving her point right from the start that women are in no way inferior in mind, and sets up her argument that nature created souls equally, that women have God-given potential, and that men have robbed them of their growth. I can totally picture her at one of our poetry slams back in the day, speaking her peace and soul! 

And here is how she starts:


That minds are not alike, full well I know, 

This truth each day’s experience will show; 

To heights surprising some great spirits soar, 

With inborn strength mysterious depths explore; 


Here she’s saying first, people are different from one another - for example, some people are really, exceptionally smart.

And she seems to be addressing people who emphasize that “men and women are different!! This happens to me a lot - some people seem to be scared that when I advocate for greater fairness, that I am saying that all human beings are identical or should be identical.


Perhaps some people do argue this, but I don’t. Equality doesn’t mean sameness. The dictionary definition of equality is: the status of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities. 


So anyway, Murray opens by saying, “Minds are not alike, full well I know! Common sense shows us that human beings are different from each other.”


And then she continues…(Jennie…)

But some there are who wish not to improve, 

Who never can the path of knowledge love, 

...Stupidly dull they move progressing on  

They eat, and drink, and all their work is done…


So again, pointing out that people are different. Some are intelligent and vivacious, some are dull. Some are ambitious, some are not. So she’s laying the foundation, “I’m not arguing that everyone is the same.” 

Yes, it’s about equal opportunity to explore the diversity of our potential, which she will get into. She is also setting the stage that we are all human beings, and look at how some humans excel and others don’t—both female and male. This is essential to her argument that we all have souls that can grow, given the right opportunity.  



Yet cannot I their sentiments imbibe, 

Who this distinction to the sex ascribe, 

As if a woman's form must needs enrol, 

A weak, a servile, an inferiour soul; 

And that the guise of man must still proclaim, 

Greatness of mind, and him, to be the same: 

But imbecility is still confiníd, 

And by the lordly sex to us consign'd; 


I love that she says “I cannot imbibe their sentiments!” Like “I am not drinking the Kool-Aid!!” 

Here she’s addressing the injustice that man - the lordly sex- from his position of power in declaring what’s what in the world, proclaims that men have “greatness of mind” and women have “a weak, a servile, an inferior soul.” As we know from previous episodes, that was a paradigm that people inherited from the ancient world and it was still very much alive and well. So she’s saying “it’s true that some people are less capable and some more capable in certain arenas, but those traits are not linked to a person’s sex.”


And don’t you love that she uses words such as imbibe, ascribe, imbecility and servile to express her point of men thinking women are the dull, intellectually inferior ones? It’s as if COME ON, guys...really? You think a dull person could right like this?  


And then Murray finishes with her punch...

They rob us of the power t'improve, 

And then declare we only trifles love; 

Yet haste the era, when the world shall know, 

That such distinctions only dwell below; 


This sounds just like Mary Wollstonecraft, doesn’t it? Men criticize women for being less intelligent, yet they deny them the opportunity to become educated. They roll their eyes that women are so small-minded and only like trivial things, but they confine their life experience to a very narrow, circumscribed realm. And then the men criticize the women for it.


It’s like the comment from Evans, who discovered the Minoan civilization. Didn’t he call it the “feminine tittle tattle” when he sees the depictions of women? 


YES!! The assumption that if women are talking to each other, it must just be inane gossip.


Finally Murray says that those distinctions only dwell below, as in, “you’ll see. These distinctions did not come from God.” And “bring it fast! Haste the era, ladies! God has so much more for all His souls.” 


So Amy and I wanted to highlight the four major sections in Murray’s essay, and we hope to discuss a little bit from each of these areas: 

  1. Nature and Nurture: Women can achieve if given the education because it’s in her nature;
  2. Don’t Worry (her balanced argument): Women can be educated AND do domestic work as well, and all will benefit
  3. Strength and Sex: The size or strength of a man does NOT represent his superiority over women.
  4. Eve’s Choice for Knowledge: Showing that the argument that Eve is the weak one in the Fall is problematic


Let’s start with an opening argument about the nature of women’s intellectual abilities:   

She says: (Jennie)

“May not the intellectual powers be ranged under these four heads:  imagination, reason, memory and judgment. The province of imagination hath 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, and we have been ...invested with that creative faculty. Observe the variety of fashions (here I bar the contemptuous smile) which distinguish and adorn the female world; how continually are they changing, insomuch that they almost render the whole man's assertion problematical, and we are ready to say, there is something new under the sun.


I love this! First of all I think it’s so relatable when she says - “here I bar the contemptuous smile.”  She knows if she talks about fashion that men are not going to take her seriously, so she’s like “don’t roll your eyes at me!”

Wollstonecraft was really judgy about women who get into fashion, and Meagan and I talked about how we struggle to find a balance between enjoying looking beautiful, but not just because our culture tells us that as women we have to look beautiful to please men and use our looks to wrest whatever power we can from this unjust system that reduces us to our looks. Girls really are STILL!! given the message throughout our lives that a huge part of our worth is how we’re perceived based on our looks and how we’re dressed, so dress and clothing can become tricky.

I love Murray’s contribution to the conversation - she says “have you seen the imagination and inventiveness and genius that women create in fashion?” It’s almost like saying “we’ve been so limited in the number of channels our genius can flow through, and so look at the incredible imagination we’ve displayed!” She defends fashion as an Art form. My friend Susannah Furr (who will read “A Room of One’s Own”) helped rehabilitate my relationship with clothing by showing me that clothing can be a work of Art that you wear. So I love that she rescues Fashion from being denigrated by men looking down at it.

I really loved this part too, acknowledging that women have imagination and look what they’ve done with it! In fact, she acknowledges that women own or “reign” over this head of intellectual power.  And men wouldn’t argue that. Murray is brilliant in how she chooses to grab onto what Men often criticize or talk about in women (their fancy, frivolous clothing or their ability to talk, gab and tell stories)...as proof for her argument: women are creative and imaginative. It’s proof of our “creative faculty”...which is part of intelligence. Own it! But she also says...yet, is the “needle and the kitchen sufficient to employ the operations of a soul thus organized?” Is what we’ve been given to do as a domestic woman enough for us with such an amazing intellectual soul? Heavens no! We need more. 


Murray looks at the other three areas of intelligence (reason, memory and judgement) and concludes that any deficiencies are merely because women weren’t given the chance to learn and equally progress with men. 


Yes, she says, “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.” 

And she makes the same argument regarding judgment, saying that if men do have superior abilities in judgment…

(Amy) “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.”

You can feel the pain in these words, knowing the history of Murray and how her YOUNGER brother was the one who was formally educated. She even uses the titles of brother and sister. That idea of leading “by the hand through the all the flowery paths of science” is such an intimate portrayal, of care, nurturing, guidance…and yet it’s completely off limits to women formally. Murray had to lead herself, take her own hand, to be educated. And she points out, no wonder men “appear” superior, because our customs have made it so.


This is a hard one, as there is still evidence today in education, church or community programs, even some familes, where a boy is “led by the hand” to pursue all sorts of interests, aspirations, and women are “confined” to figure it out on their own or given only one option. I had a friend tell me yesterday that she was told she should go to college to find a husband. Period. It reminds me of how boy scouts was offered to the boys in my church in the past, and the girls? We had to look elsewhere for similar experiences; no one was leading us by the hand in our institutions to learn those skills. We were left out of the game. The same is still true with sciences and math….even with many more opportunities available and offered today, there is still a divide. Research shows that less girls enter the hard math and science professions. It’s not that girls don’t have the aptitude or that they don’t excel, but that they don’t have the same confidence as boys and therefore don’t pursue these roads as much. That lack of confidence has to be rooted in this history of exclusion. Maybe we aren’t good enough? Maybe there was a reason we weren’t part of the math and science and other more complex programs? And the doubt deepens the divide. Murray continues...

Was she permitted the same instructors as her brother, with an eye however to their particular departments, for the employment of a rational mind an ample field would be opened. 


Murray goes on to talk about how the fields of astronomy, geography, natural philosophy and even the reptile world would help a woman understand her place in this world and her connection to God. She would be more productive, more thoughtful, more earnest and a happier wife, because she had a choice. And that choice is inherently making us closer to God.


Reading this, Amy, has made me grateful for leaders, teachers, mentors who have taken the call to lead a GIRL by the hand--to introduce the seemingly forbidden or unattainable flowery paths! Like Girls in STEM or Girls Leadership (which we’ve been personally involved with...awesome organization), for example. Or my own husband who didn’t wait for a church community or a scout troop or society to teach my girls to be tough backpackers, ski down double blacks or learn their multiplication tables early on. He led them by the hand. But I have grumbled over the years because of institutional limitations, of those who don’t have the dads or the access. We are still fighting for this, alongside Murray! 


Right, Murray herself came from a family of means, so they owned books, and she had a dad who let her use the library and read her poems aloud and encouraged her mind, which many girls didn’t have… so she was able to become educated in spite of the system, not because of it. And anyone without the advantages of money or an encouraging dad or white skin would not have been able to overcome those barriers, right?


So true! As an educator, this is an issue that hits home. Murray is arguing a point that we ALL have potential if we only can have that access. The inequality that STILL exists today for marginalized communities is appalling. The opportunity just isn’t there for many of our “brothers and sisters” of various races, ethnicities, low-income families, and this has been made even more apparent during the pandemic. With privilege, and I absolutely admit to being a part of that, one can be “led by the hand” to better technology, private schooling, learning pods, or other options available to those who have the access. Reversely, students in lower-income neighborhoods, single-parent homes, fully-online learning have been completely “confined and limited.” 


That’s such an important connection to make. Do you have any ideas about what can be done on an institutional level? Or what any of us can do about it?


That’s the magic question. What can be done? I spent all of grad school grappling with this. First, I think this podcast—focusing on understanding history in order to tackle a problem— is an example of where to start when it comes to educational equity. Know the history of segregation, school choice, school funding (including PTO $$), and be educated on what your school district is doing. For example in our school district, there is a monthly program which highlights all the different areas from budget to sports to equity, free and open to the public. It was a perfect introduction to get to know school leadership and the district priorities. Be aware, then be a voice. And Second, be a friend. Know the kids and families at your school or neighborhood and know their stories. Get to know the stories of kids NOT in your neighborhood too, whose challenges are different. Be a part of the diversity organizations or start your own. When we break down the barriers between our brothers and sisters, just like Murray is doing, then we make better choices on how to care for each other. My two cents;)


That’s so true… in fact one volunteer effort that listeners might be interested in is the AVID program. It’s a mentoring program for students who are first generation to go to college, or whose parents struggle to make ends meet for various reasons and the kids are at risk of not succeeding in school. I mentored two students last year, and helped them with their college apps and am now a mentor to them as they’re getting through their freshman year of college. They’re exactly between Lindsay and Lucy’s ages, and just comparing the ease my kids have experienced in their lives as they applied to college, due to their race and just the luck of financial advantage, vs. these kids, whose parents are immigrants and who love their kids as much as I love my kids and are sacrificing everything for them - more than I can even image -  but never had a chance to go to school so they don’t know how to take them by the hand and lead them… it’s like my kids were born onto a treadmill speeding them forward and those kids were born onto a treadmill pushing them back. They have to sprint just to keep up. And later in the podcast we’ll examine some of the societal structures that intersect with patriarchy like white supremacy and colonialism that have created this situation of such gross inequity for so many children. But anyway… for listeners, I highly recommend looking at avid.org if you’re interested in helping close the opportunity gap in education, especially if you look back on your education and realize that someone “held your hand” and you want to hold the hand of a child who needs extra help. 


But back to the text, here is her next point:



Murray says that once a girl has “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; ...Meantime she herself is most unhappy; she feels the want of a cultivated mind.

First of all, how heartbreaking that society at the time thought of the term “learned lady” as an insult! She’s saying that young women think, “I’d love to read a philosophical treatise or an Astronomy textbook, but I better just read this trashy novel so I don’t get called a nerd!” This is the earliest example I’ve ever read of girls playing dumb to avoid stigma. And of course that still happens today!!

And my other thought was, as she talks about this young woman feeling a void and wanting to cultivate her mind being unable to: (and this is a spoiler because we’re going to read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique down the road)  Friedan writes that Abraham Maslow, the psychologist who came up with the model of the “hierarchy of human needs” said that capacities are needs. He said that if you don’t use your capacities, it causes great unhappiness, atrophy, and even illness. You can imagine these poor women confined in their drawing rooms with their needlework, just listless and emotionally sick, because they were born to do science experiments and explore forests and lecture about linguistics, but instead, their potential just sat there unused, stagnating. 


That is so powerful, Amy, thinking of capacities as needs. And it’s not just confined to the drawing rooms of the late 18th century. It’s today. When I read this, I thought of my own mom who is one of the strongest, most well-organized, determined and well-read people I know. She majored in Home Economics in college, and has said to me, with a hint of regret, that there really weren’t any other interests or options (at least apparent and encouraged options) for her, besides that, nursing and teaching. She didn’t even think of expanding her options. She has said that she’d love to have done business or studied other things, but never saw that as possible or appropriate for her. She has been happy, but I know that she has wondered the “what if’s...” And I can think of other examples of friends who have longed for education, opportunity and wondered...what could they have done differently? 


That’s so hard about your mom, and I too have so many friends who wonder “what if.” I’ve even wondered that, Jennie. My master’s program has been absolutely life-changing, and I am so grateful for it, but there have been many, many times that I’ve been in a class where I’m learning some life-altering thing and my soul is exploding, but I’ve looked at the professor and thought “they teach this same course to 22-year-olds.” And I feel sooooo much frustration and grief because I think at my age, I should be a professor, not a student just beginning to learn this stuff. We live in a time where thankfully, I was “led by the hand through the flowery paths” of school, but then I was led by the hand to the exit of that path as soon as my bachelor’s degree was over. It really did feel like “here’s the women’s exit!” And I didn’t even question it. And even though I loved school - I loved formal schooling way more than my husband did - I assumed that he would go to graduate school, but I never thought about it for myself. So I feel like the point of exit for women has gotten later and later in the United States in the centuries since Murray wrote, and that’s something to be grateful for!! And in some communities girls are encouraged to pursue education and achieve their own unique human potential in the area of their talent and passion… but in some communities they’re still led by the hand to the women’s exit, which is way before the men’s exit, and before they have reached their potential. So in my opinion there’s still a ways to go.


So true, Amy. There are so many assumptions that are made...and particularly in some communities, we don’t even get a chance to consider an alternative path. This next quote goes along with that... 



“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.”

So, even if a husband and wife are in the beginning, equals, once a husband begins to pursue that learning, the woman is left behind and suddenly feels embittered, less qualified, inferior. You and I both were the young wife and mother at the same time, accompanying our husbands as they embarked into grad school. I remember how we crossed our fingers that we’d end up at the same schools, but instead were on opposite coasts: Stanford and Harvard. That was a tough move...even with my bachelors degree, work experience and a little 18-month old, I suddenly lost much of my identity. I was in a new place where Mike was the doctor-to-be, growing, learning, mingling with intellectual giants. My traditional learning had stopped. There were hard, “inferiority” moments as people spewed all their degrees and experiences at dinner parties and I admit, I did feel a bit “embittered” at times. And to deepen the divide, I was pregnant with twins, soon to be a mother of three! 

That was a huge reason, that yearning to enter the intellectual realms again, that I chose to go back to work and to school in Boston. I was progressing in different and important ways as a mother, but I wanted that formal and professional education as well, to join the conversations and the world on many levels. What was confirmed in grad school, however, and I think this is important to note: is how my motherhood was its own formal education, preparing me to be a better learner...a better teacher..and contribute in unique and important ways to the academic halls. I think this is another example of patriarchy hurting all people, if we don’t find ways to let these otherwise silent or passed over voices join in the dialogue of academic, social and professional engagement. I had an extremely different perspective than my younger, single classmates...what if we had more flexible ways to bring these voices in? 

Another reason I wanted that education was to show my daughters how important it was for them to see that mom’s dreams matter too. That I had the choice is a beautiful thing. We grow and learn in different ways and at different times, and I had the fortune of knowing Mike and I were in this together. We’d both share times of academic, personal and professional growth. I had a partner who saw me as equal and supported that. But when you don’t have hope in that future moment or opportunity--or your life is just too miopic to see beyond or two traditionally blinded-it’s deeply painful.


Yes, I do remember us moving at the same time when our husbands were going to residency and med school! You and Mike were always so well-matched and so equally yoked. I got the sense always that your choices were intentional, and you knew that every stage has pros and cons, and you were being really deliberate and had a plan. 

I think what can go wrong is if the husband and wife don’t have a plan, and they just kind of find themselves on the traditional route where the husband has opportunities that expand his world, and the wife gives up her own opportunities, and then a few years down the road she can end up feeling like his inferior. I began to feel that same thing you described when Erik was in business school and I was in the thick of baby-land and didn’t have any sort of life of my own at all, and I totally started to feel bitter when we would hang out with his classmates and colleagues and no one asked me any questions (except a few of them, and they will be dear to me forever), and I would sometimes think “What happened??” Erik and I started out exactly the same when we met at age 18 - we even stupidly knew each other’s IQ scores and knew we had the same IQ, and I really really loved school and hadn’t realized what I had given up. It took a lot of work to get things back on track for me. But we did get back on track, thankfully. The sad thing is that in some marriages there’s a lot more of that “inferiority” feeling and a lot of that bitterness and resentment from the wife toward the husband - either overtly, or in a passive aggressive way. And that’s one way that patriarchy ends up hurting men as well as women. Because he wasn’t the architect of this system - most often he didn’t knowingly oppress her, he just went about his life the way he had been taught and then suddenly his wife is furious at him. And it’s not really his fault or her fault - it’s just a crappy system.


That’s really important to note, Amy, and I’m so grateful you shared your experience. We are both blessed with husbands who support us and recognized our needs (and maybe we should have recognized them earlier?), even in a world where it is not an easy adjustment. I know so many women and men are on a fast-moving train and they can’t find a way off. Or think this is the ONLY train. The only option. And I want to add that women can be women’s worst enemies, encouraging the crappy system by doubting other women’s choices to take a detour. We see this in Murray’s time and today. I was kicked out of our co-op preschool in Cambridge, of all places, because I went back to school and had a nanny taking my place in the rotation. (Even though she was far more capable and qualified than I was!)  These were good friends, educated women, who disapproved of my track. My choice. They didn’t like seeing a mother outsource or share her “domestic roles.” They were beholden to a system they thought was right. 


Whoa. That must have been so hard, Jennie, and that does really surprise me that that even happens in Cambridge. :( Still, in the 2000’s!! And that’s really interesting because Murray does talk about those domestic chores that we think of as being only a mother’s job.


Calming the fears of men who still want their warm dinners and clean houses, Murray says that these domestic skills are quite simple and “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 vigour, and that if a just foundation is early laid, our ideas will then be worthy of rational beings.”

Basically, Murray is saying, we got this, men. It’s not brain surgery, we can keep house and do what needs to be done WHILE strengthening our minds and intellect, thus being better contributors to the world. 


It made me laugh, as I thought about the times I’ve cleaned the bathroom, done the dishes, changed a diaper, while listening to audible or watching a lecture for school! Murray is saying here, we can seize the moments to grow and learn, and still get our domestic work done. I see Republican Motherhood as a product of this argument, this balancing of wants and desires. We want to be a part of this country, but voting isn’t an option yet...so let’s balance our asks and find our place within this system without totally toppling the system…yet:) For what other option is there? 


I have a lot of thoughts about this, but one of them was that this argument was made by men and women to keep women from getting the right to vote. They claimed that civic engagement would keep women from keeping a house and taking care of their children. And we’ll read a fantastic speech in a few episodes that addresses that exact concern. Like you, I love to continue my education while working - in fact, I listened to a history symposium on Judith Sargent Murray last week while I painted a fireplace! :) But I do have concerns about her saying “don’t worry men, we’ll still do all the housework.” What do you think?


That’s such a good point. Obviously context is huge, as Murray is living in the late 18th century and needing to be realistic about how far to push, right? And maybe she wasn’t quite ready to push that far herself? Although she hints to wanting more. I was just talking with a friend yesterday about this very issue. She’s chosen to go back to school in her late 30s, and has an amazingly supportive husband through all of this. But even with his support, she has still opted--or felt she had to--hang on to so many of those home and parenting roles (cooking, teaching, managing life, etc.), balancing the spinning plates so as not to rattle the home life too much with her choice. And this is so true when financially, one might not have the option to hire more help. 

And I think this “be everything to everyone” has hurt us in the long run and hurt men’s ability to dive in and find their place. But without it, would women have progressed? Would we be where we are today? Would we be in a better place or worse?


Totally. First of all, I agree with your emphasis on progress within a person’s time and place -  I like to celebrate anyone moving their society forward, because most people don’t make any positive changes in their lifetimes at all. Baby steps forward are better than no steps forward!

And to your other point about women today having all this pressure on them to be everything to everyone, to be superwomen who can do it all, I do think that’s where we are in social evolution. We’ve been working on girls’ opportunities and self-confidence for the past decades/centuries, and now we need to work on boys’ participation in home life so that women aren’t carrying the entire load. There are exceptions to that - in fact as I talked about last time, my husband tends to take on more of the burden than I even need him to - but that’s not usually the case. And one problem is that even if men are willing to do more of the domestic work, there is still a stigma against it. Several years ago our friend Zach had tried and tried to change the culture at a huge accounting firm where he worked so that he could get home earlier to spend more time with his kids and help around the house, but he was punished for it at work. So he wrote a big Jerry Maguire style manifesto that went viral at his company when he quit. And I have a couple of friends where the husband has been the primary nurturer and stay-home parent, and they really struggle to feel like that’s a worthy way for them to spend the prime years of their life. This is another way that the traditional patriarchal model hurts boys and men - it robs them of the deep satisfaction and joy that comes from nurturing, and makes them feel bad about themselves as men if that’s what they want to do or need to do.


But back to Judith Sargent Murray!! 


Yes...Murray! So this part is interesting, where she pulls in her religious beliefs to support her argument that women are meant for more than household jobs: She says, if you want to say “domestick employments are sufficient” then you must not believe in God or the purpose of existence: “I would calmly ask, is it reasonable, that a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, and intelligent being, who is to spend eternity in contemplating the works of 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 seames 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.” Ouch. So if you want to say that our duties with home and children should be all we need, then just deny that there is a God or eternal life for women. Then you’d be consistent with your degregations. What an argument! In a society that is religiously based, founded on God, it’s pretty stinging for Murray to claim that society is denying the purpose of this life and God’s goodness by subjugating women? I love that she throws pudding and sewing into the face of professed God- believing men. Sometimes our theology speaks the truth, but the practices go counter to that. In my theology, women are equal, beloved, goddesses to be.. and yet we teach stories through songs or scripture that include not one woman’s. Or our theology believes in both a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother...but do we practice and model a partner leadership? I think we can do better, because as Murray shows...it negates our true understanding of eternal life..  


Two more things to note:

Murray also talks about the size and strength of man and how that shouldn’t be reason to say they are superior. Her best comment, and totally tongue in cheek, is this: 


(Jennie) But if this reasoning is just, man must content to yield the palm to many of the brute creation, since by not a few of his brethren in the field, he is far surpassed in bodily strength. 

So, if that were so, cows would be mentally superior to men. Drop the mic. Again, she is saying this logic is ridiculous and that the souls must be equal, so give us a chance.


Yes, I love that part, and I also love where she says kind of playfully that maybe nature “had invested the female mind with superior strength as an equivalent for the bodily powers of man.” Like, maybe intelligence is inversely proportional to size, and women are smarter! And then she says “But waving this however palpable advantage, for equality only, we wish to contend.”


I know! She waves those little nuggets out there, but then comes back...this is the 1790s and she needs to keep a realistic perspective! Let’s not go TOO far! Wink, wink!


The final part of Murray’s essay is based off of a letter she wrote ten years earlier to an unnamed man. Apparently this guy loved his Bible, or sacred oracles, as she calls them in the essay. And furthermore, he used the examples of the sacred oracles to justify the superiority of man. Again, Murray takes this argument and turns it upside down, using the story of Genesis, Adam and Eve and the transgression of eating the forbidden fruit. 


Instead of making Eve the sinner and evil one, she makes Eve quite innocent with genuine motives...where Adam was the “ weak, a servile, an inferiour soul;” hearkening back to her opening poem’s false description of women.


(Amy) Let us examine her motive--Hark! The seraph declares that she shall attain a perfection of knowledge;...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 third for knowledge impelled the predilection so fatal in its consequences.”


She was seeking something good. However, Adam knew full well what he was doing and chose to be with his girl. That’s all. He didn’t have any positive, moral motives. Then Murray adds...

Blush, y vaunters of fortitude; ye boasters of resolution’ ye haughty lord of creation; (is that not the greatest call out???)  blush when ye remember, that he was influenced by no other motive than a bare pusillanimous attachment to a woman!

Basically, Adam was hooked to Eve, attached, and so weak and soft that he couldn’t bare being without her. He was even “feminine” in his soft, sentimentality that he didn’t want to be alone. He wanted to be with her. Never had I heard or read an interpretation of Adam and Eve like this before, even after taking a whole seminar in college about Adam, Eve, the garden and all the interpretations through the ages. Eve was always depicted as negative, demonized, abhorred and degraded.. She was to blame. She was the weak, unruly, damned one. This is the pattern through time, as most Christian faiths see this choice as a negative one in our journey. 


Now in my own religious tradition we see Eve differently. We believe she made a choice to follow God’s plan...this was part of the journey and necessary and good to have that knowledge. Eve has always been revered.  Murray’s interpretation doesn’t follow the “blame Eve” track and yet it doesn’t hail her as a hero, either.  She basically is saying that Eve was genuinely deceived by a righteous temptation...to seek knowledge. As a universalist, Murray still holds to the traditional Fall ideology of it being a bad thing...but Eve is not the inferior one in the deal. 


I love that you brought that out, Jennie. One thing I thought of as you read her quote was how deeply humans are impacted by their origin stories. Jewish and Christian women had been wrestling with these questions for hundreds - even a thousand years - before Murray. In The Creation of Feminist Consciousness Gerda Lerner cites sooo many Christian women proposing more empowering ideas about Eve and offering different readings of the text… but no one else ever read what those women wrote, so each one had to reinvent the wheel, feeling alone and spending so much energy contending with feelings of their inferiority as women. So it’s so awesome for us in this historical project to finally arrive at this time when a woman actually got her work published!! People actually read Judith Sargent Murray. And in the next century, Sarah Grimke will also do careful, close readings of the Bible that people actually read. And we’ll talk about her next time.


Amy: That concludes our discussion, Jennie! As we end, what is something that you’ll take away from this text today?


Jennie: Takeaway

There are so many things about this essay that I love: Murray’s wit, her ability to balance her asks within her context, her clever way of turning men’s reasoning for superiority on its head. But I think my greatest take-away is her courage to speak, to write. Her courage to fight and use her voice to make the world better, in a time when women weren’t taught to believe their voices mattered. She didn’t just write about it, too. She took action. She started an academy, she published plays, she penned articles, she collected over 2500 of her letters! And I love that her partner, John Murray, supported and encouraged her in this. They were a team. They chose to fight the injustices together, with an ultimate goal to lift ALL souls to God. 

Murray’s essay and her own story inspires me to want to be and do better in the world, to share my voice. You shared with me a quote by Abigail Adams that says, “My bursting heart must find vent in my pen.”  It’s not just an argument about the equality of women and men, but of all souls. And particularly in a time when so many feel marginalized, unheard, confined...we need to lead all people by the hand to flowery paths of science, literature, art, freedom, faith and whatever potential they have. And we need to do it with class, brilliance, respect and reason. It’s a work that never stops. 

Amy: I absolutely love that, Jennie, and your point about “all souls” reminds me that one quote we didn’t highlight was her acknowledgement of the existence and dignity of  “masculine women” and “effeminate men,” which in the 18th Century was really ahead of her time. I saw it as a little tiny step in the direction of recognizing as you said, “all souls” and their need to be free and to have access to to all the opportunities that will help them flourish. It’s going to take a really long time before people started writing about the spectrum of gender and sexuality, but they will, and I’m excited to discuss those texts when we get to them in the 20th Century.

But backing up to Murray’s time, one thing that struck me was that like de Gouges and Wollstonecraft, Murray is using reason - the tool of the Enlightenment - to appeal to men in power to say “I am going to prove to you that women are not inferior, and we deserve the same respect and the same rights that you do.”

I’ve heard so many people throughout my life refer to women’s rights as if the battle is over. And certainly we look at some professions and we look at the legal system, and we might be tempted to think “yes, thank you, foremothers, everything is done now!


But as I was reading the parts that you highlighted where Murray was saying “we are just as smart and as capable as you are!” and the part where we laughed about “if a man is smarter than a woman because he’s bigger, then I guess a cow is smarter than a man!”,  I thought of the Google manifesto. In July 2017 a male employee at Google wrote a 10-page memo called “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” where he complained about Google trying to hire more women and explained why he thought there weren’t more women in tech. He says that biological traits inherent in women account for the fact that there are so few women in tech, and says, for example: 

“Women, on average, have more Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance). This may contribute to ...the lower number of women in high-stress jobs.”

It’s easy for us to look back and be shocked that everyone used to think women couldn’t write because of their small brains, but we are still dealing with similar arguments in many fields - men proclaiming that women are inferior, and specifically “neurotic,” and that’s why they can’t do certain things. My husband Erik is in the chess world, and if any of you have seen The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, you’ll see that that’s another majority-male arena where this comes up a ton, and many people still do see women’s brains as inherently inferior. So there are battles left to fight.



It’s amazing how “science” can try and justify injustices in every corner. So crazy to see this rhetoric so close to home...in our world.

Thanks for keeping us all in the battle, Amy! This has been such an incredible experience to dive into this article and all the other voices you are presenting in the podcast. 


Amy: Thank you so much for being here, Jennie!! You’re the best, etc. :) 


Jennie: Thank you so much, etc. :)


Amy: On our next episode, we will jump ahead into the 19th Century with Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, by Sarah Grimke. Written in 1838, these letters are considered by historians to be the first sustained argument for women’s equality written in the United States. As an American, a daughter of an aristocratic South Carolina family that enslaved African Americans, a fervent abolitionist,  and a lifelong, devout Christian, Sarah Grimke brings a radically new perspective to the conversation. She has also become a hero of mine, and her work was the topic of Gerda Lerner’s PhD dissertation! So I’m very excited to talk about her letters next week. These texts can be found online, or you can purchase them in the form of an inexpensive little book. Or as usual, you can just listen to the conversation as we discuss her work, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman, next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.