Episode 10

On the Equality of the Sexes, by Judith Sargent Murray

Published on: 26th January, 2021

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...

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Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.