Double Vision and Women’s History

Sometimes I feel very lucky to live in Washington—for instance, when I need some obscure book or magazine from the 18th or 19th century, the kind of thing maybe three people in the world are interested in, and I can just hop on the Metro and go read it at the Library of Congress.

Last Friday, I felt the same way about the National Portrait Gallery. Not only is it a terrific museum where I have spent many happy hours, but last Friday they organized a five-hour symposium on a subject I find of great interest: women’s history in the late 18th and early 19th century. Five different academics (all female—a “whole binder full of women,” as someone inevitably remarked) delivered papers in a well-appointed auditorium, and the whole thing was capped by a reception in the museum’s stunning atrium. And all of it was free (or at least, supported by our tax dollars—a fact I’m hesitant to point out, lest someone become indignant about it).

The symposium was tied to one of the museum’s current exhibits, entitled: “A Will of their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic.”

Who, you may ask, was Judith Sargent Murray? I had only a vague sense of who she was myself, and I’ve been researching a female contemporary of hers who shared many of her ideas—and yet never mentions Murray in her writings.

Murray was, like the woman I’ve been researching—Eliza Anderson, who edited a magazine in Baltimore in 1807—what one might call a proto-feminist. She lived from 1751 to 1820, and in 1790—two years before Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman—she published an essay entitled “On the Equality of the Sexes,” in which she argued that women were just as capable as men and that it was only their lack of education that held them back. She also believed that women should be independent, that they shouldn’t be required to marry (although she herself was married twice), that they were free to comment on any topic they chose, and even that they could lead nations and armies. All of this was pretty radical stuff at the time.

Anderson wasn’t quite as upfront about her feminism as Murray, and she didn’t write as much about women as Murray did. But as I listened to the speakers, I kept seeing parallels between Murray and Anderson. One of those parallels was that neither of them talked much about other American women. Murray listed a whole slew of “female worthies” in her essays, published under the pseudonym “The Gleaner,” but they were almost all women who lived in the past or in Europe. One of the things that puzzled me about Anderson was that, although she too vigorously defended women’s capabilities and stressed the importance of their education, she overlooked other accomplished women in America—including Murray. When she did hold up a woman as a paragon of accomplishment, it was Emilie Du Chatelet, a French mathematician, physicist, and author who died in 1749.

Murray’s biographer, Sheila Skemp, suggested that Murray’s failure to acknowledge the accomplishments of American women (with the exception of her friend, the historian Mercy Otis Warren) had to do with her elitism and her pride: coming from an important New England family, Murray considered most other American women beneath her. She also may not have wanted to promote potential rivals.

Anderson was also an elitist, and she certainly thought well of herself. But, while her father was a respected doctor, she didn’t come from a grand family. And she wasn’t celebrated enough in her own right to be worrying about promoting rivals. It seemed to me that her failure to acknowledge the achievements of American women stemmed more from her general disdain for all things American. While she desperately wanted to improve the cultural sophistication of her fellow citizens, she clearly felt that was an uphill struggle. For her, the real locus of civilization was not in the cultural backwater that was then the United States (and, in her view, Baltimore in particular), but in the past and in Europe. So it was natural for her to look to those sources when searching for an example of sophistication and intellectual accomplishment, whether male or female.

I asked Skemp whether that might have been part of what was going on in Murray’s mind, and she said yes, she thought it was. In an era when we in the United States feel like we’re living in the center of the universe, it’s hard to imagine how marginal existence here must have felt a couple of hundred years ago. We were the sideshow to the great pageant of Europe, the experiment that many doubted would last—the place where life was new and crude, with no great cultural institutions to boast about. These days, some of us may feel ashamed of our American-ness from time to time (I certainly did as a teenager touring Europe during the Vietnam era), but it’s a different kind of shame. Back then, it was probably equivalent to what someone from Kazakhstan may have felt during the “Borat” craze.

The other thing that struck me about Murray was that she, like Anderson, shrank from the logical conclusion of her arguments about women’s capabilities. After presenting her case that women were fit to lead nations and even armies (a pretty radical thought even for the 21st century), Murray pulled back. Just because women could do these things didn’t mean they should, she said. Rosemarie Zagarri, another historian who spoke at the symposium (and who I was thrilled to discover remembered me from the prenatal exercise class we took together 25 years ago), said that Murray didn’t want women to become too masculine or to encroach on their husbands’ prerogatives. Murray defended women’s traditional roles as wives and mothers, touting their virtues of amiability and tenderness. She didn’t even suggest that women should have the right to vote.

Neither did Anderson—nor did she remark upon the fact that the one state that had allowed women to vote since the Revolution, New Jersey, actually rescinded that right in the very year that Anderson was publishing her magazine, 1807. Like Murray, Anderson didn’t push for equal rights. Although she was crossing the generally accepted line between men’s and women’s roles by assuming the position of editor (she was apparently the first woman in this country to do so), she defended that transgression in terms that were in keeping with the notion of women as the softer, civilizing influence in society. Women, she argued, had the responsibility of promoting the cause of “taste, literature, and morals” in a town “where the nobler sex are almost entirely engrossed by parchments, pulses, or price currents.” She herself had no interest in “price currents,” and it’s not at all clear she thought women in general should have anything to do with them.

Zagarri suggested that Murray stepped back from her more radical positions because she was wary of the public reaction to her views on women. When I asked Zagarri what that public reaction had been, the answer was: there really wasn’t one, as far as we can tell. Zagarri pointed out, wisely, that the things we identify as important from our perspective weren’t necessarily the things that appeared important to contemporaries. Murray wrote about a lot of other things besides women’s rights, so her fame—to the extent she had some—may well have rested on the essays that today hold little interest for us. Who was to know that someday we would have female Secretaries of State, female Supreme Court Justices, and serious female candidates for the Presidency? Given what happened in New Jersey in 1807, it may well have looked like the tide was going the other way.

It’s always important, when looking at history, to maintain at least two points of view, as much as we can: the view from here (that is, the present), and the view from there (the time we’re looking at). People and ideas we now identify as significant and forward-looking may, in the eyes of contemporaries, have just appeared wacky. Or they may have been so obscure as to occasion little comment.

So why didn’t Eliza Anderson mention Judith Murray? One possibility is she’d never heard of her.