In the second installment of the essay “On the Equality of the Sexes,” written by JUDITH SARGENT MURRAY, that appeared in the April 1790 issue of the Massachusetts Magazine, the author discusses the ways in which society and its conventions shape the minds and character of women to their disadvantage.
. . . [A]fter an education which limits and confines, and employments and recreations which naturally tend to enervate the body, and debilitate the mind; after we have from our early youth been adorned with ribbons, and other gewgaws, dressed out like the ancient victims previous to a sacrifice, being taught by the care of our parents in collecting the most showy materials that the ornamenting our exteriour ought to be the principal object of our attention; after, I say, fifteen years thus spent, we are introduced into the world, amid the united adulation of every beholder.
Praise is sweet to the soul; we are immediately intoxicated by large draughts of flattery, which being plentifully administered, is to the pride of our hearts the most acceptable incense. It is expected that with the other sex we should commence immediate war, and that we should triumph over the machinations of the most artful. We must be constantly upon our guard; prudence and discretion must be our characteristicks; and we must rise superiour to, and obtain a complete victory over those who have been long adding to the native strength of their minds, by an unremitted study of men and books, and who have, moreover, conceived from the loose characters which they have seen portrayed in the extensive variety of their reading, a most contemptible opinion of the sex.
. . . . [I]f we are allowed an equality of acquirement, let serious studies equally employ our minds, and we will bid our souls arise to equal strength. 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.
As strong as is her defense of the equality of women and their right to a broad education Murray does not really challenge the existence of separate spheres for men and women. “If we meet an equal, a sensible friend, we will reward him with the hand of amity, and through life we will be assiduous to promote his happiness.” Women have domestic responsibilities and for men “their provident care is at least as requisite as our exertions.” In some ways Murray regards women, especially those whose circumstances are affluent, as having more time for study and self improvement than do their husbands. Demands on their time are fewer and “much less laborious, and . . . by no means require that avidity of attention which is proper to the employments of the other sex. . . . “
But in one respect, O ye arbiters of our fate! we confess that the superiority is indubitably yours; you are by nature formed for our protectors; we pretend not to vie with you in bodily strength; upon this point we will never contend for victory. Shield us then, we beseech you, from external evils, and in return we will transact your domestick affairs. Yes, your, for are you not equally interested in those matters with ourselves? Is not the elegancy of neatness as agreeable to your sight as to ours; is not the well savoured viand equally delightful to your taste; and doth not your sense of hearing suffer as much, from the discordant sounds prevalent in an ill regulated family. . . ?
Despite the fact that Murray does not envision a role for women beyond that of the domestic sphere her insistence that women have a right to an education on a par with their male counterparts and the freedom to continue to develop their minds, married or not, constitutes an important advance toward the equality of the sexes. Her essay predates by two years Mary Wollstonecraft’s famous “Vindication of the Rights of Women.”
The essay can be read in its entirety HERE..