Her parents were influenced by a protestant named James Murray, who advocated Universalism, a controversial doctrine which believed in the general inclusivisity and understanding of all humans no matter what belief system, and that all would be saved. This set them apart in their community, and influenced Ms Murray in her feminism.
Ms Murray was fiercely intelligent and took full advantage of the family’s well-stocked and varied library, teaching herself the Classics, humanities and sciences. Ms Murray studied history and would use examples from the classics to modern history to demonstrate publicly her conviction that women were equal to men in ability and accomplishment if they were allowed equal opportunity to become so.
When aged 18 Ms Murray married a wealthy son of a prominent local family who was a Naval Captain, John Stevens, and they settled with his parents until a home for them was completed next door to her family home. Captain Stevens was away from home often, and the couple had no children of their own, eventually adopting his two orphan niece and a young cousin of hers. Economic problems caused by the Revolution combined with shipping business problems meant the family soon found themselves in debt. The family continued to support James Murray in his universalist beliefs and helped promote the ideology.
Ms Murray started to publish the writing she had been doing in her private time to supplement the family income, using a variety of pseudonyms including Constantia, The Reaper, Honora Martesia, Mr Vigilius and The Gleaner. Under the latter name she established a reputation as an author of intellect and a feminist. Ms Murray would advocate not only the education of women, but their economic independence also from her first published essay. Captain Stevens found his debts too onerous and he fled to the Caribbean to avoid imprisonment, where he died in 1786. Ms Murray was now sole provider for her family.
In 1788 she and James Murray married and Ms Murray became curator of his work; through her the equality of universalism both without and within remained from and centre of the church. The couple had a son and a daughter, but sadly only the daughter Julia survived to adulthood, passing when aged 31. The couple did not limit their family to blood and adoption, and in total they supported 12 young people personally into education based on equality.
Ms Murray continued publishing and in 1791 (the same year her daughter was born) released what was to become a benchmark of feminist advocacy, “On the Equality of the Sexes”*, published in Massachussetts Magazine for whom she was a columnist. She had originally written the essay in 1779. Her novel The Story of Margaretta, published in in the 1790s, was renowned for having a female protagonist who was educated and independent.
Ms Murray also travelled extensively lecturing, encouraging all youth to seek education, and was an accomplished poet and playwright. Her 1795 play The Medium is believed to be the first produced in American theatres by an American Author, produced in Boston where the family now resided. Her wage was vital to supporting the family.
In 1802 she established an Academy for Women in Dorchester, Massachussetts, and she would correspond with many politicians of the time including John Adams, Founding Father of the United States and Second serving President.
James Murray suffered a stroke in 1809 and for the next six years until his passing much of Ms Murray’s energy went into caring for him. Her writing became the main source of income for the family until her daughter wed a wealthy Harvard graduate in 1812, when the burden eased but her activism didn’t.
In 1815 Ms Murray moved to live with her daughter and husband in Natchez, Mississippi, and the remote location placed limitations on her. However, her writing continued and together with Abigail Adams (wife of John Adams) and others, she was essential in the campaign for equality primarily through the access to equal educational opportunities for women. Ms Murray also collated and published the work of her husband during this period.
Ms Murray died in 1820 at the family plantation in Natchez. Much of her writing was discovered over 160’s later and it is only now her reputation is being rediscovered and her seminal work reissued. In 1996 the Julia Sargent Murray Society was formed by Bonnie Gale Hurd to promote Ms Murray’s life and works.
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson