, Gloucester, MA

March 12, 2009

Rediscovering a revolutionary woman

Sargent House Museum launches symposium

By Gail McCarthy

When Paul Revere made his famous ride in 1775, and American patriots hatched a revolution in the days that followed, Gloucester's Judith Sargent Murray was a young woman in her 20s, on a road to becoming a prolific essayist.

A leading intellect and published writer, Murray (1751-1820) used her writings to deliberate on the issues sweeping the young nation, from equal opportunity for women to the changing face of world politics as embodied in the American Revolution.

To celebrate the city's historic native daughter, Gloucester's Sargent House Museum has organized a symposium and weekend of activities, including the launch of the first biography about Murray by Mississippi professor Sheila Skemp. Sharon Harris, a University of Connecticut English professor, and Therese Dykeman, an adjunct philosophy professor at Union Institute, will attend.

"We are delighted to welcome scholars from around the country, to help us explore the impact Judith's feminist perspective and writings have had on the Gloucester community and women everywhere," said Barbara Silberman, board president with The Sargent House Museum.

Historians knew little about Murray until 1984. That's when her letters were discovered in Natchez, Miss., where she spent her last days living with her daughter. As the transcripts of her letters have become available, scholars have been able to bring her into contemporary discussion.

During her lifetime, Murray published her essays in a book "The Gleaner," a book said to be purchased by distinguished figures as George Washington and John Adams. Her letters have also appeared in present-day publications, including David McCullough in his John Adams biography, and journalist Cokie Roberts, in her book titled "Founding Mothers."

One of the nation's earliest feminists, she was also a playwright, poet and among the first Universalists in America. She was born into a prominent seafaring family. She married twice, first to John Stevens, a merchant sea captain who built the house, and then to Reverend John Murray, first minister of an organized Universalist congregation in America.

This weekend's symposium will launch the fruits of two years' strategic planning to reinvigorate the local Sargent House Museum, through the persona of Murray.

Skemp, an American history professor, said the works of Murray, who she described as arguable America's first "feminist," provided a consistent and wide-ranging case for women's intellectual equality to men.

Skemp spent more than a decade in research and writing for the book titled "First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence." In addition to the demands of teaching, the sheer volume of her letters, about 2,500, made it a time-consuming process.

Skemp shared a small anecdote that's indicative of Murray's personality. It was when she traveled to Philadelphia with her second husband, John Murray, who was the first Universalist minister in America.

"What she wanted to do there, above all else, was to go to the theater — at that time banned in Massachusetts,:" said Skemp. "She discovered, however, that Universalists in Philadelphia opposed the theater, and not wanting to embarrass her husband, she reluctantly decided not to go.

"Toward the end of her stay, however, some friends came to her rescue," Skemp added. "They disguised her in a big cape and big hat, and smuggled her into their box, where she delighted in her evening of surreptitious pleasure. This incident gives Judith a humanity that is often lacking in her rather formal letters. It also shows how much she loved the theater and all things literary — as well as the lengths to which this usually proper woman would go to achieve her ends."

The play she saw was Royall Tyler's "The Contrast," written in 1787. Tyler was the first American to have a play produced on the American stage in the post-revolutionary period.

Faith Ferguson, site administrator at the Sargent House Museum, said going forward, the museum will highlight how Murray's life represented that period of history, in addition to its other treasures, including the room dedicated to American painter John Singer Sargent.

"She is a role model for women even today. She went through a lot of things that modern people can relate to. She represents a story that should be better known. She represents a lot of literary firsts in American history. She's a Gloucester treasure and she loved this place," said Ferguson. "Ideally, house museums always have a story that they tell to visitors. The narrative we tell will be around the life of Judith Sargent Murray. House museums are more inviting when there is a coherent story that people can take away."

Silberman said the museum's board members want to involve the public to participate in the museum's future.

"We are here to serve the public, and we want to be as welcoming as we can. We want to make it more of a public space than it's been in the past," she said. "Judith's ideas and life are central to a new interpretation of the Sargent House and its collections. This weekend lays the groundwork for an exciting new chapter in the museum's history."

The museum is located in the heart of city at 49 Middle St. The high-style Georgian architecture was built in 1782 for Judith Sargent Murray.

Gail McCarthy can be reached at


What: Judith Sargent Murray Symposium

When: Saturday, March 14 at

Where: Sawyer Free Library, 3 p.m. Scholars at the free public forum will be Therese Dykeman, an adjunct professor of philosophy at Union Institute; Sharon Harris, an English professor at the University of Connecticut and Sheila Skemp, an author and American History professor at the University of Mississippi.

What: New book launched on Judith Sargent Murray by Professor Sheila Skemp

When: Sunday, March 15 at 2 p.m.

Where: Kyrouz Auditorium at Gloucester City Hall. Skemp will present a lecture on her new biography titled "First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence." Signed copies of the book available. Admission is $15, $5 for students with ID. All proceeds benefit the Sargent House Museum.