Archive for the ‘Women’s Rights’ Category

“let serious studies equally employ our minds”

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..

posted June 9th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Education,Murray, Judith Sargent Stevens,Women's Rights

“the needle and the kitchen”

In Part I of her essay in the Massachusetts Magazine of March 1790, JUDITH SARGENT MURRAY explores the ways that the minds of females are supposedly “notoriously deficient, or unequal.” She suggests that although women have been ceded superiority with regard to the “creative faculty” this is not a complement for their pursuits unfortunately have been a preoccupation with fashion and a talent for slander, “the needle and the kitchen” not being sufficient to employ this “activity of mind.” Perceived by men and society as being deficient in reason she says “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.”

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 to 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 fate 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 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. . . . astronomy. . . . geography. . . . natural philosophy. A mind, thus filled, would have little room for the trifles with which our sex are, with too much justice, accused of amusing themselves, and they would thus be rendered fit companions for those, who should one day wear them as their crown. 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. Reputation would not then be blasted, but serious speculations would occupy the lively imaginations of the sex. Unnecessary visits would be precluded, and that custom would only be indulged by way of relaxation, or to answer the demands of consanguinity and friendship. Females would become discreet, their judgments would be invigorated, and their partners for life being circumspectly chosen, an unhappy Hymen would then be as rare, as is now the reverse.

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 vigour; and that if a just foundation is 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 . . . 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 [of] the seams of a garment?

More to come from Judith Sargent Murray’s essay.

The essay can be read in its entirety HERE..

posted June 6th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Education,Murray, Judith Sargent Stevens,Women's Rights

“The soul unfetter’d, to no sex confin’d”

JUDITH SARGENT MURRAY (1751-1820) was one of the first American advocates of equal rights for women. In 1790, The Massachusetts Magazine published, in two installments, an essay titled “On the Equality of the Sexes” by Murray who was using the pen name Constantia. It began with this poem.

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;
Their eager gaze surveys the path of light,
Confest it stood to Newton’s piercing sight.
Deep science, like a bashful maid retires,
And but the ardent breast her worth inspires;
By perseverance the coy fair is won.
And Genius, led by Study, wears the crown.
But some there are who wish not to improve,
Who never can the path of knowledge love,
Whose souls almost with the dull body one,
With anxious care each mental pleasure shun;
Weak is the level’d, enervated mind,
And but while here to vegetate design’d.
The torpid spirit mingling with its clod,
Can scarcely boast its origin from God;
Stupidly dull—they move progressing on—
They eat, and drink, and all their work is done.
While others, emulous of sweet applause,
Industrious seek for each event a cause,
Tracing the hidden springs whence knowledge flows,
Which nature all in beateous order shows.
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:
Yet as the hours revolve fair proofs arise,
Which the bright wreath of growing fame supplies;
And in past times some men have sunk so low,
That female records nothing less can show.
But imbecility is still confin’d,
And by the lordly sex to us consign’d;
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;
The soul unfetter’d, to no sex confin’d,
Was for the abodes of cloudless day design’d.
Mean time we emulate their manly fires,
Though erudition all their thoughts inspires,
Yet nature with equality imparts,
And noble passions, swell e’en female hearts.

More about Murray and the Essay in the next post.

The essay in its entirety can be found HERE.

posted May 30th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Education,Murray, Judith Sargent Stevens,Women's Rights

“All the Single Ladies”

Women’s HIstory Month may be past but the subject of women’s history is always relevant. I recommend to your attention a new book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister (New York City: Simon & Schuster, 2016). The author traces the history of “the unmarried state,” changes in attitude toward it over time, and what those changes have meant for women as well as for the nation. As she points out, the “vast increase in the number of single women is to be celebrated not because singleness is in and of itself a better or more desirable state than coupledom. The revolution is in the expansion of options.”

For women in the New World the road to independence began with the Revolutionary War and the birth of the nation as evidenced by In the Words of Women and many posts in this blog. Many began to push back against the constraints of marriage and the concept of couverture under which a woman’s identity—legal, economic, and social—was subsumed or “covered” by her husband. Women proved to themselves and to others that they could raise children, manage farms, and conduct business affairs while the menfolk went off to war. Traister’s book takes the movement forward. Well worth a read.

posted April 4th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Book Beat,Women's Rights

“the female that attempts the vindication of her sex”

Continuing the letter from the previous post that Eliza Southgate Bowne wrote to her cousin Moses Porter on the necessity for the cultivation of the abilities and qualities that women possess:

Women have more fancy, more lively imaginations than men. That is easily accounted for: a person of correct judgment and accurate discernment will never have that flow of ideas which one of a different character might,—every object has not the power to introduce into his mind such a variety of ideas, he rejects all but those closely connected with it. On the other hand, a person of small discernment will receive every idea that arises in the mind, making no distinction between those nearly related and those more distant, they are all equally welcome, and consequently such a mind abounds with fanciful, out-of-the way ideas. . . . I never was of opinion that the pursuits of the sexes ought to be the same; on the contrary, I believe it would be destructive to happiness, there would a degree of rivalry exist, incompatible with the harmony we wish to establish. I have ever thought it necessary that each should have a separate sphere of action,—in such case there could be no clashing, unless one or the other should leap their respective bounds. Yet to cultivate the qualities with which we are endowed can never be called infringing the prerogatives of man. Why, dear Cousin, were we furnished with such powers, unless the improvement of them would conduce to the happiness of society? Do you suppose the mind of woman the only work of God that was “made in vain.” The cultivation of the powers we possess, I have ever thought a privilege (or I may say duty) that belonged to the human species, and not man’s exclusive prerogative. Far from destroying the harmony that ought to subsist, it would fix it on a foundation that would not totter at every jar. Women would be under the same degree of subordination that they now are; enlighten and expand their minds, and they would perceive the necessity of such a regulation to preserve the order and happiness of society. Yet you require that their conduct should be always guided by that reason which you refuse them the power of exercising. I know it is generally thought that in such a case women would assume the right of commanding. But I see no foundation for such a supposition,—not a blind submission to the will of another which neither honor nor reason dictates. it would be criminal in such a case to submit, for we are under a prior engagement to conduct in all things according to the dictates of reason. I had rather be the meanest reptile that creeps the earth, or cast upon the wide world to suffer all the ills “that flesh is heir to,” than live a slave to the despotic will of another.

In this concluding statement Eliza determines to be her own person and think for herself: “I am aware of the censure that will ever await the female that attempts the vindication of her sex, yet I dare to brave that censure that I know to be undeserved.”

A Girl’s Life Eighty Years Ago: Selections from the Letters of Eliza Southgate Bowne With an Introduction by Clarence Cook (New York: Scribner’s sons, 1887), pages 58-61.

posted April 16th, 2015 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Bowne, Eliza Southgate,Women's Rights

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