University of Mississippi

WSJ Five Best Books: Sheila L. Skemp’s First Lady of Letters

The Wall Street Journal featured the Federalist-era women’s rights advocate and Professor Skemp’s First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence as one of the “Five Best Books: Boundary-Pushing Women.”

“Born the same year as James Madison, Judith Sargent Murray shared her great contemporary’s fascination with the laws of nature and the rights of human beings. But Murray undertook her inquiries with a different objective in mind. She began with a seemingly simple question: Was it true that “one half of the human species is endowed with unquestionable superiority over the other?” When she posed this question in 1779, most of her fellow Americans would have answered yes. Murray, however, spent decades arguing that women were the intellectual equals of men. Sheila L. Skemp‘s First Lady of Letters is an admirable history of this all but forgotten Federalist-era women’s rights advocate, who argued powerfully that girls could shine as brightly as boys if only they were given the benefits of a classical education and parents who encouraged them to ‘reverence themselves.'”

Other praise for the book:

“A very fine biography, one that is not only an excellent work of scholarship but also highly readable and engaging. In mining and analyzing new materials, Skemp has turned the historical spotlight on an author and critic worthy of ongoing consideration.”—New England Quarterly

Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), poet, essayist, playwright, and one of the most thoroughgoing advocates of women’s rights in early America, was as well known in her own day as Abigail Adams or Martha Washington. Her name, though, has virtually disappeared from the public consciousness. Thanks to the recent discovery of Murray’s papers—including some 2,500 personal letters—historian Sheila L. Skemp has documented the compelling story of this talented and most unusual eighteenth-century woman.

Born in Gloucester, Massachussetts, Murray moved to Boston in 1793 with her second husband, Universalist minister John Murray. There she became part of the city’s literary scene. Two of her plays were performed at Federal Street Theater, making her the first American woman to have a play produced in Boston. There, as well, she wrote and published her magnum opus, The Gleaner, a three-volume “miscellany” that included poems, essays, and the novel-like story “Margaretta.” After 1800, Murray’s output diminished and her hopes for literary renown faded. Suffering from the backlash against women’s rights that had begun to permeate American society, struggling with economic difficulties, and concerned about providing the best possible education for her daughter, she devoted little time to writing. But while her efforts diminished, they never ceased.

Murray was determined to transcend the boundaries that limited women of her era and worked tirelessly to have women granted the same right to the “pursuit of happiness” immortalized in the Declaration of Independence. She questioned the meaning of gender itself, emphasizing the human qualities men and women shared, arguing that the apparent distinctions were the consequence of nurture, not nature. Although she was disappointed in the results of her efforts, Murray nevertheless left a rich intellectual and literary legacy, in which she challenged the new nation to fulfill its promise of equality to all citizens.