A quest for self: The social and intellectual world of Judith Sargent Murray

Date of Completion

January 2005


Biography|History, United States|Women's Studies|Literature, American




A Quest for Self-Reverence investigates the life and work of Judith Sargent Murray, the eighteenth-century author, moralist, and social critic from Gloucester, Massachusetts. This study aims to deepen our understanding of Murray's philosophy and to explore the changing social, political, and intellectual climates that encouraged middle and upper class women on both sides of the Atlantic to demand enlarged roles for women. I will examine the ideological and cultural forces that shaped Murray's thinking, from her genteel conditioning and religious ideas to her Federalist politics and authorial interests. In addition, I will explore how Murray engaged in a quest for selfhood, linking her intellectual development with her self-identity. ^ The Revolutionary years proved critical for Murray's intellectual growth, owing not simply to the hardships she experienced during the war but to her conversion to the Universalist faith. Her piety conditioned her sense of self and empowered her as a woman. Murray's religion also gave her access to the publishing world, for Universalists arranged to publish her first major work: a catechism. In the postrevolutionary decades, Murray continued to develop her authorial self. She published essays, poems, plays, a book, and co-authored her husband's autobiography. While Murray' writings treated myriad subjects, she devoted much of her work to championing the interests and rights of women of her class. Besides her defenses of women and writing interests, Murray continued her drive to promote Universalist principles. ^ While examining Murray's evolving ideology, A Quest for Self-Reverence also explores the paradoxes in her thinking, and shows how she reconciled the contradictions and inconsistencies in her life. Murray developed a potent self-awareness as the daughter of a prominent merchant family. Her class consciousness gave her identity a coherence all her life. Murray's social status together with her faith gave her a profound sense of self, through which she filtered other identities—wife, author, Federalist. Murray's multi-layered identity provided her a sense of pride as a woman. She developed close ties with members of her circle, including family relations and friends. Murray defined herself relationally, as connected with others. Judith Sargent Murray also strove throughout her adult years to develop and assert her individuality as a reasoned, free-thinking woman and author. ^