Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Judith Sargent Murray and Equality of Virtue

by Kirstin Anderson Birkhaug
University of Wisconsin-Madison

In 1790, two years before Mary Wollstonecraft published her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, an American woman with the pen name “Constantia” released her own treatise on the equality of the sexes. “Constantia,” or, rather, Judith Sargent Murray, set out to prove the profound injustice of sexual inequality by arguing that women should be recognized as full citizens of their polity. She continued this crusade for years, across numerous different pseudonyms and publications, fixing the equality of the sexes as the centerpiece of her storied career.

Murray’s argument for the equality of the sexes hinges on this: that men and women are equal in their capacity for virtue, the requisite characteristics for citizens dating back to antiquity. In the essay succeeding 1790’s On the Equality of the Sexes, Murray opened with an appeal to Plutarch, who wrote that “the talents and the virtues are modified by the circumstances and the persons, but the foundation is the same.” In the same essay, like a Founding-era Christine de Pizan, Murray goes on to cite hundreds of historical examples wherein women acted with the same amount of endurance, ingenuity, fortitude, heroism, bravery, patriotism, influence, energy, eloquence, faith, perseverance, capability, and accomplishment as their male counterparts.

Men and women possess the same natural capacity for virtue, Murray writes. But this is not to say that, at the time of the Founding, they had been given the same opportunities to achieve said virtue. Virtue is a product of education, specifically an education in the liberal arts. As such, Murray avers that the evidence frequently offered for the inferiority of women emerges not from female nature, but from the confines of female education. While men were offered opportunities to enlarge their minds and souls through education in the liberal arts, women were condemned to learn only what might be relevant to their domestic duties. Murray writes:

How is the one exalted, and the other depressed, by the contrary modes of education which are adopted! The one is taught to aspire, and the other is early confined and limited. As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flowery paths of science. Grant that their minds are by nature equal, yet who shall wonder at the apparent superiority!

“Frivolous” female pursuits, then, such as fashion and gossip, are not evidence of inherent female vice or inferiority, but rather “proofs of a creative faculty, of a lively imagination” prevented from reaching its full potential. Apparent female weakness and vice are the natural results of mental atrophy, when “a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, an intelligent being” is “so degraded, as to be allowed no other ideas, than those which are suggested by the mechanism of a pudding, or the sewing the seams of a garment.” Men and women possess equal capacity for virtue, and thus equal capacity for citizenship in any polity. The key difference between the sexes is not an inequality of virtue, but an inequality of opportunity. History, as Murray shows her readers, has proved women to be as virtuous as men when they are allowed to know what virtue is. And so, she argued that women could and should be citizens; all they lacked was a liberal education.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is there a paradox involved in Murray’s essay, in that her essay is clearly the product of an educated mind?
  2. How might our Constitution have been different had women been involved in its drafting? To what degree do political principles reflect sexual differences?
  3. Accepting Murray’s claim that men and women have a great capacity for virtue, and some virtues more “male” and others more “female”? If so, do they complement one another?

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