The Gleaner Contemplates the Future Prospects of Women in this "Enlightened Age," 1798
Judith Sargent Murray

Murray's "Observations on Female Abilities" in the third volume of The Gleaner begins where "On the Equality of the Sexes" left off. In this essay, she amasses an enormous amount of concrete detail to prove the general points she made earlier. Murray was clearly optimistic about the prospects of American women in 1798, imagining that a new era of gender equality was dawning in this "younger world." Once again, as in her other essays on women's issues and in her Margaretta story, Murray argues that women are rational beings, capable of exhibiting the traits associated with Republican citizenship. Once again she maintains that educated women make the most virtuous mothers and wives. At the same time, she continues to insist that women can be brave, strong, and heroic as well as modest, religious, and chaste. How does Murray's description of Spartan women call into question the notion that women are naturally fitted for motherhood ? Why does she think that it is as dangerous for society to elevate women as it is to degrade them?

Amid the blaze of this auspicious day,
When science points the broad refulgent way,
Her iron sceptre prejudice resigns,
And sov'reign reason all resplendent shines.

The reader is requested to consider the four succeeding numbers as supplementary to an Essay, which made its appearance, some years since, in a periodical publication of a miscellaneous nature. The particular paper to which I advert, was entitled, The Equality of the Sexes; and however well I may think of that composition, as I do not conceive that the subject is exhausted, I have thought proper, treading in the same path, to set about collecting a few hints, which may serve as additional, illustrative, or ornamental.

And, first, by way of exordium, I take leave to congratulate my fair country-women, on the happy revolution which the few past years has made in their favour; that in these infant republics, where, within my remembrance, the use of the needle was the principal attainment which was thought necessary for a woman, the lovely proficient is now permitted to appropriate a moiety of her time to studies of a more elevated and elevating nature. Female academies are every where establishing, and right pleasant is the appellation to my ear.

Yes, in this younger world, "the Rights of Women" begin to be understood; we seem, at length, determined to do justice to THE SEX; and, improving on the opinions of a Wollstonecraft, we are ready to contend for the quantity, as well as quality, of mind. The younger part of the female world have now an inestimable prize put into their hands; and it depends on the rising generation to refute a sentiment, which, still retaining its advocates, grounds its arguments on the incompatibility of the present enlarged plan of female education, with those necessary occupations, that must ever be considered as proper to the department and comprised in the duties of a judiciously instructed and elegant woman, and, if our daughters will combine their efforts, converts to the new regulations will every day multiply among us. To argue against facts, is indeed contending with both wind and tide; and, borne down by accumulating examples conviction of the utility of the present plans will pervade the public mind, and not a dissenting voice will be heard.

I may be accused of enthusiasm; but such is my confidence in THE SEX, that I expect to see our young women forming a new era in female history. They will oppose themselves to every trivial and unworthy monopolizer of time; and it will be apparent, that the adorning their persons is not with them a primary object. They will know how to appreciate personal advantages; and, considering them as bestowed by Nature, or Nature's God, they will hold them in due estimation: Yet, conscious that they confer no intrinsic excellence on the temporary possessor, their admeasurement of real virtue will be entirely divested of all those prepossessing ideas, which originate in a beautiful exterior. The noble expansion conferred by a liberal education will teach them humility; for it will give them a glance of those vast tracts of knowledge which they can never explore, until they are accommodated with far other powers than those at present assigned them; and they will contemplate their removal to a higher order of beings, as a desirable event.

Mild benignity, with all the modest virtues, and every sexual grace-- these they will carefully cultivate; for they will have learned, that in no character they can so effectually charm, as in that in which nature designed them the pre-eminence. They will accustom themselves to reflection; they will investigate accurately, and reason will point their conclusions: Yet they will not be assuming; the characteristic trait will still remain; and retiring sweetness will insure them that consideration and respect, which they do not presume to demand. Thinking justly will not only enlarge their minds, and refine their ideas; but it will correct their dispositions, humanize their feelings, and present them the friends of their species. The beauteous bosom will no more become a lurking-place for invidious and rancorous passions; but the mild temperature of the soul will be evinced by the benign and equal tenour of their lives. Their manners will be unembarrassed; and, studious to shun even the semblance of pedantry, they will be careful to give to their most systematic arguments and deductions, an unaffected and natural appearance. They will rather question than assert; and they will make their communications on a supposition, that the point in discussion has rather escaped the memory of those with whom they converse, than that it was never imprinted there.

It is true, that every faculty of their minds will be occasionally engrossed by the most momentous concerns; but as often as necessity or propriety shall render it incumbent on them, they will cheerfully accommodate themselves to the more humble duties which their situation imposes. When their sphere of action is enlarged, when they become wives and mothers, they will fill with honour the parts allotted them. Acquainted, theoretically, with the nature of their species, and experimentally with themselves, they will not expect to meet, in wedlock, with those faultless beings, who so frequently issue, armed at all points, from the teeming brain of the novelist. They will learn properly to estimate; they will look, with pity's softest eye, on the natural frailties of those whom they elect partners for life; and they will regard their virtues with that sweet complacency, which is ever an attendant on a predilection founded on love, and happily combining esteem. As mothers, they will assume with alacrity their arduous employment, and they will cheerfully bend to its various departments. They will be primarily solicitous to fulfil, in every instance, whatever can justly be denominated duty; and those intervals, which have heretofore been devoted to frivolity, will be appropriated to pursuits, calculated to inform, enlarge, and sublime the soul-- to contemplations, which will ameliorate the heart, unfold and illumine the understanding, and gradually render the human being an eligible candidate for the society of angels.

Such, I predict, will be the daughters of Columbia; and my gladdened spirit rejoices in the prospect. A sensible and informed woman-- companionable and serious--possessing also a facility of temper, and united to a congenial mind--blest with competency--and rearing to maturity a promising family of children--Surely, the wide globe cannot produce a scene more truly interesting. See! the virtues are embodied--the domestic duties appear in their place, and they are all fulfilled-- morality is systematized by religion, and sublimed by devotion--every movement is the offspring of elegance, and their manners have received the highest polish. A reciprocation of good offices, and a mutual desire to please, uniformly distinguishes the individuals of this enchanting society--their conversation, refined and elevated, partakes the fire of genius, while it is pointed by information; and they are ambitious of selecting subjects, which, by throwing around humanity, in its connexion, additional lustre, may implant a new motive for gratitude, and teach them to anticipate the rich fruition of that immortality which they boast. Such is the family of reason--of reason, cultivated and adorned by literature.

The idea of the incapability of women, is, we conceive, in this enlightened age, totally inadmissible; and we have concluded, that establishing the expediency of admitting them to share the blessings of equality, will remove every obstacle to their advancement. In proportion as nations have progressed in the arts of civilization, the value of THE SEX hath been understood, their rank in the scale of being ascertained, and their consequence in society acknowledged. But if prejudice still fortifies itself in the bosom of any; if it yet enlisteth its votaries against the said despot and its followers, we produce, instead of arguments, a number of well attested facts, which the student of female annals hath carefully compiled.

Women, circumscribed in their education within very narrow limits and constantly depressed by their occupations, have, nevertheless, tinged the cheek of manhood with a guilty suffusion, for a pusillanimous capitulation with the enemies of their country. Quitting the loom and the distaff, they have beheld, with indignation, their husbands and their sons flee in battle: With clasped hands, and determined resolution, they have placed themselves in their paths, obstructing their passage, and insisting, with heroic firmness, on their immediate return to death or conquest! They have anxiously examined the dead bodies of their slaughtered sons; and if the fatal wounds were received in front, thus evincing that they have bravely faced the foe, the fond recollection of their valour has become a source of consolation, and they have sung a requiem to their sorrows! Women, in the heat of action, have mounted the rampart with undaunted courage, arrested the progress of the foe, and bravely rescued their besieged dwellings! They have successfully opposed themselves to tyranny and the galling yoke of oppression! Assembling in crowds, they have armed themselves for the combat--they have mingled amid the battling ranks--they have sought heroically--and their well-timed and well-concerted measures have emancipated their country! They have hazarded the stroke of death in its most frightful form; and they have submitted to bonds and imprisonment, for the redemption of their captive husbands!

The character of the Spartan women is marked with uncommon firmness. At the shrine of patriotism they immolated nature. Undaunted bravery and unimpeached honour, was, in their estimation, far beyond affection. The name of Citizen possessed, for them, greater charms than that of Mother; and so highly did they prize the warrior's meed [that is, a reward], that they are said to have shed tears of joy over the bleeding bodies of their wounded sons!

When Europe and Asia were infested by armed multitudes, who, emigrating for purposes of devastation and settlement, perpetrated the most ferocious acts, among all those various tribes of unprincipled invaders, no discriminating line seems to have marked the sexes; wives submitted to similar hardships with their husbands; equally they braved the impending danger; and their efforts and their sufferings were the same: Nor can their habits of endurance and patient fortitude admit a rational doubt.

The women of Hungary have rendered themselves astonishingly conspicuous in their wars against the Ottoman Empire--But proofs abound; and numerous actions might be produced to evince, that courage is by no means exclusively a masculine virtue. Women have frequently displayed an intrepidity, not to be surpassed by men--neither is their bravery the impulse of the moment. They not only, when trained by education, and inured by subsequent habit, rise superior to the fears of death; but, with unimpassioned and sedate composure, they can endure life-- they can struggle with the fatigues and inconveniences--they can fulfil the duties, and they can support the irremediable calamities of war. They have achieved the most surprising adventures; indulgencies have been extended to them on the well-fought field; and they have expired with the weapons of death in their hands! Actuated by devotional zeal, and stimulated by the sublime expectation of an opening heaven, and a glorious immortality, they have rushed into the flames, have ascended the scaffold, have suffered the dismemberment of their bodies, have submitted to the tortures of dislocation, and to the most excruciating racks, in defence of the truth! not bath the voice of murmuring or complaint escaped their lips!

Women have publickly harangued on religion--they have presented themselves as disputants--they have boldly supported their tenets-- they have been raised to the chair of philosophy, and of law--they have written fluently in Greek, and have read with great facility the Hebrew language. Youth and beauty, adorned with every feminine grace, and possessing eminently the powers of rhetoric, have pathetically conjured the mitred fathers and the Christian monarchs to arm themselves for the utter extirpation of the enemies of their holy religion.

In the days of knight-errantry, females, elevated by the importance with which they were invested, discriminated unerringly between the virtues and the vices, studiously cultivating the one, and endeavouring to exterminate the other; and their attainments equalled the heroism of their admirers; their bosoms glowed with sentiments as sublime as those they originated; generosity marked their elections; the impassioned feelings, the burst of tenderness, were invariably blended with honour; and every expression, every movement, was descriptive of the general enthusiasm. Pride, heroism, extravagant attachments; these were common to both sexes. Great enterprises, bold adventures, incredible bravery--in every thing the women partook the colour of the times; and their taste and their judgment were exactly conformed. Thus the sexes are congenial; they are copyists of each other; and their opinions and their habits are elevated or degraded, animated or depressed, by precisely the same circumstances.

The Northern nations have generally been in the habit of venerating the Female Sex. Constantly employed in bending the bow, in exploring the haunts of those animals, who were the victims of their pleasures and their passions, or of urging against their species the missive shafts of death, they nevertheless banished their ferocity, and assumed the mildest manners, when associating with their mothers, their sisters, their mistresses, or their wives. In their ample forests, their athletic frames and sinewy arms were nerved for battle, while the smiles of some lovely woman were the meed of valour; and the hero who aspired to the approbation of the beautiful arbitress of his fate, authorized his wishes, and established his pretensions, by eminent virtue, and a long series of unbroken attentions.

A persuasion, that the common Father of the universe manifests himself more readily to females than to males, has, at one period or another, obtained, more or less, in every division of the globe. The Germans, the Britons, and the Scandinavians--from these the supposition received an early credence. The Grecian women delivered oracles--the Romans venerated the Sibyls--among the people of God, the Jewish women prophesied--the predictions of the Egyptian matron were much respected--and we were assured, that the most barbarous nations referred to their females, whatever they fancied beyond the reach of human efforts: And hence we find women in possession of the mysteries of religion, the arcana of physic, and the ceremonies of incantation. Writers assert, that several nations have ascribed to women the gift of prescience, conceiving that they possessed qualities approximating to divinity; and the ferocious German, embosomed in his native woods, renders a kind of devotional reverence to the Female Sex.

Such is the character of those periods, when women were invested with undue elevation; and the reverse presents THE SEX in a state of humiliation, altogether as unwarrantable. The females among the savages of our country, are represented as submitting to the most melancholy and distressing oppression; slaves to the ferocious passions and irregular appetites of those tyrannical usurpers, who brutally and cruelly outrage their feelings. They encounter for their support, incredible hardships and toils, insomuch that, weary of their own wretched existence, the women on the banks of the Oronoko, urged by compassion, not Infrequently smother the female infant in the hour of its birth; and she who bath attained sufficient fortitude to perform this maternal act, esteems herself entitled to additional respect. Commodore Byron, in his account of the inhabitants of South-America, informs us, that the men exercise a most despotic authority over their wives, whom they consider in the same view they do any other part of their property, and dispose of them accordingly: Even their common treatment of them is cruel; for, although the toil and hazard of procuring food lies entirely on the women, yet they are not suffered to touch any part of it, till their imperious masters are satisfied, and then he assigns them their portion, which is generally very scanty, and such as he has not an appetite for, himself.

Thus have THE SEX continued the sport of contingencies; unnaturally subjected to extremes; alternately in the mount of exaltation, and in the valley of unmerited degradation. Is it wonderful, then, that they evince so little stability of character? Rather, is it not astonishing, that their attainments are so numerous, and so considerable? Turning over the annals of different ages, we have selected a number of names which we purpose, in our next Essay, to cite, as vouchers of THE SEX'S merit; nor can we doubt, that their united suffrages will, on a candid investigation, effectually establish the female right to that equality with their brethren, which, it is conceived, is assigned them in the Order of Nature.

[Judith Sargent Murray, The Gleaner: A Miscellaneous Production in Three Volumes, 3 vols. (Boston: L. Thomas and E. T. Andrews, 1798), 3:188-96.]