Thursday, May 1, 2014

Remembering the Past, Building the Future: Judith Speaks to Us Still

The first couple of weeks in our blog series "Remembering the Past, Building the Future" we have rotated between the themes of "Collections," and "Construction." Now, this week we turn to "Women’s History/Judith Sargent Murray," and consider why we celebrate Judith Sargent Murray's own words each year at our annual "Judith Speaks" event on the lawn in May. (See more on this year's event below.)

"Judith Speaks" is a great way to kick off the Museum's season because it commemorates our mission (to engage the public in the life, times, work and home of Judith, pioneering advocate of women's education and equality), and in the month of Judith's birth no less!  In fact, this entry is actually being composed on what would have been Judith's 263rd birthday. Happy Birthday, Judith! She was born on May 1, 1751--a long time ago, in an America quite different from today's.

Although the future Commonwealth of Massachusetts would be one of the first colonies to mandate that children be taught to read and write, passing legislation on April 14, 1642 (the first law of its kind in the New World), this was not universal education: " practice the law was generally applied only to free, male, white children."1 Indeed, Judith Sargent Murray was still fighting for equal girls' education a full 150 years later. As a girl, Judith had been denied the same education given to her brothers. Precocious, she was simply prompted to self-learn as much as she could using her family's library and beyond. After seeing how difficult focusing in school was for her baby brother FitzWilliam and later her brothers' sons whom she tutored---though every provision had been made for them---is it any surprise that this autodidact would later write, "the common Father of the universe manifests himself more readily to females than to males"?2 Judith was never one to accept the status quo.

Once she had her own daughter, Julia Maria (b.1791), Judith began planning a much different path for her. As early as her fifth year, she was pre-planning a formal education for her at William Payne's Federal Street Academy. This was a prestigious Boston grammar school not unlike those that Judith had fostered and sponsored both in Gloucester (the Saunders School) and later Dorchester (the Saunders Beach Academy). At the time Judith wistfully wrote: "The attention requisite to the fashioning the mind of my daughter gives me *still more feeling to regret,* the custom which, barring the cultivation of the female intellect, during my childhood has, in many respects unqualified me for the pleasing employment of her mind."3 About a decade earlier, Judith had published an essay under the pen name "Constantia" in Gentleman and Lady's Town & Country Magazine (October 1784) which went further than many had dared, calling for all parents to treat the education of their sons and daughters with equal intentionality. It is a testament to the radical nature of her views that Judith later confided in a personal letter that the editors of the magazine never invited her to submit another article.

We'll close with part of that 1784 essay, a tease for the upcoming "Judith Speaks" event (on 5/15 at 5:30P) where local volunteers will read excerpts from Judith Sargent Murray’s writings that are brilliant, profound & hilarious---words on marriage, parenting, equality and justice that still ring true today. We hope you'll join us!

Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, especially in Female Bosoms 
I THINK, to teach young minds to aspire, ought to be the ground work of education: many a laudable achievement is lost, from a persuasion that our efforts are unequal to the arduous attainment. Ambition is a noble principle, which properly directed, may be productive of the most valuable consequences. It is amazing to what heights the mind by exertion may tow'r: I would, therefore, have my pupils believe, that every thing in the compass of mortality, was placed within their grasp, and that, the avidity of application, the intenseness of study, were only requisite to endow them with every external grace, and mental accomplishment. That I should impel them to progress on, if I could not lead them to the heights I would wish them to attain. 
By Kimberlee Cloutier-Blazzard, Development Associate

2 Judith Sargent Murray, The Gleaner (1798), 707-709.
3 Sheila Skemp, First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence (Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 345-346.

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