How an 18th-Century Essayist Can Help Your Business

History Smiths

One of the things I love to do with history is to come at it from different angles — and especially to encourage businesses, organizations, and individuals to use it and think about it differently.

Recently, because of a project I was asked to do, I started thinking about my life-long research subject, Judith Sargent Murray, as a business model — yes, really.

Sure, she’s been dead since 1820, and sure, I’ve been working on her for over 20 years, but even I saw her in a whole new way this past weekend. Bear with me, because there are helpful lessons to be learned here!

To begin with, Judith was born in 1751 in Gloucester, Massachusetts. What were the expectations for girls? Marriage and children. That’s it. Educational opportunities? Nope. A profession? Nope. Contribution to society? Only as the supporter of a husband or son. Even for Judith, whose family was wealthy, cultured, and politically active, there was ZERO role for her to play on a larger stage and no expectation beyond marriage and children.

So, what did she do about it?

First, she had DESIRE to be more and do more. That’s where it all starts.

And off she goes!

When she was taught very basic reading and writing skills by an “ill taught Preceptress,” as Judith called her, she said to herself, this is not okay, I want and deserve more. She did not take no for an answer. Instead, she made use of her father’s library and essentially gave herself a humanities education.

Letter writing was a very appropriate activity for young ladies, and she was good at it. But that wasn’t enough. At a very young age, she started writing poetry. It doesn’t survive, but given the poetry she wrote later in life, I doubt it was silly. But even that wasn’t enough. As she later told the Rev. William Emerson (Ralph Waldo’s father), “Ere I had completed my ninth year, I had written a little work, which … I considered an history.”

Still not taking no for an answer. (A 9-year-old girl writing history?)

Stepping out and up

In 1782, when Judith became the first American Universalist woman to publish anything, she used theological arguments to claim equality between men and women. Wow. Now let’s look at that.

First, being a Universalist had meant public expulsion from Gloucester’s (congregational) First Parish, participation in the first ruling in this country for freedom of religion, helping to establish the first Universalist association in the States, and building the first Universalist meeting house in America. For the 18th century, those are all extraordinary acts, and Judith wanted her name publicly attached to each one. (She would be REALLY attached to their pastor, John Murray, years later, when she married him!)

Second, she wrote and published a book. Women weren’t doing that.

Third, she used theology to prove her points. Who did she think she was? But guess, what, she KNEW her theology well enough to present compelling arguments.

Fourth, she claimed equality for women. NO ONE was doing that then. This is years before Abigail Adams asked John to “remember the ladies,” or anything else.

A larger audience

After her catechism, Judith decided to take her ideas into the public arena – her ideas about female equality, how daughters should be valued, and how women should “reverence themselves.” NO ONE was doing this, and I’m SURE she was told more than once, “Oh, you really shouldn’t do that. It’s not proper for a lady, you will risk your reputation…” and God knows what else. Instead, she did it.

In 1790, despite the fact that I’m sure, once again, she was told, “You really shouldn’t be so bold, so public, those ideas are too scary,” she published her groundbreaking essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” in the Massachusetts Magazine. It is THE FIRST public claim for women’s equality in America. (She is still not hearing no.)

In 1792, concerned that her ideas were being “dismissed, rather than consider,” she assumed a male pen name and started a monthly column in the Massachusetts Magazine called “The Gleaner.” Women were not doing this. The same year, she started a second series called “The Repository,” resuming her former pen name, and she displayed extraordinary intellectual “chops” in the fields of theology and philosophy. Didn’t stay small, didn’t hear “No.”

Taking on the critics

When a powerful critic of hers convinced the magazine’s new editor to stop publishing her work, she said, “the heck with him, I’ll try something new.” She then wrote her first play, a satire, and became the first American, male or female, to have a play produced in Boston. The same critic, Thomas Paine (not the Thomas Paine of Common Sense fame), the editor of the Federal Orrery, trashed her play and accused Judith’s husband, John Murray, of being the author.

Undaunted, she wrote a second play. Again, “Mr. Paine” went after her in public. It got very ugly, but John Murray (love the guy) defended her in the Boston newspapers.

Finding another way

Now, Judith said to herself, “If the Massachusetts Magazine won’t publish my essays, I’ll do it myself.” So, she put together a three-volume collection of her essays, including new ones (two of which, just brilliant, presented historical arguments/facts about female abilities), and her plays, and she went after subscribers to pay for its publication. She dedicated the book to President John Adams (whom she knew) and asked him to subscribe. He did. She also asked George Washington to subscribe. He did. (I mean, why not go right to the top, right?) She then used their names to get others. All told, 759 people and organizations subscribed to her book, The Gleaner, and Judith Sargent Murray became the first woman in America to self-publish a book.

Taking OVER the critic

Several years later, when Judith wrote her third play, she thought, “Hmmm…Mr. Paine is going to nail me again. How can I prevent that from happening?”

What she did was to contact him, and humbly ask his advice. From her letters, it appears that he was like melted butter in her hands and couldn’t have been more gracious. Did she need his advice? Of course not, the jerk! But how strategic of her to win over her biggest detractor.

Business lessons learned?

I could go on, but let’s stop here and look at the BUSINESS lessons we can learn from this story.

• Don’t take no for an answer. If you know you need to do something but you are presented with obstacles, find another way.

• Learn what you need to know.

• Believe in what you do — enough so that you have the guts to take chances.

• Don’t stop.

• Be creative. Constantly find new ways to communicate your message, or to sell your products or programs.

• If you have detractors, confront them in ways that will get them on your side.

And so…

Do you see why I love this woman? She was unstoppable — in the 18th century — a mere woman — and I so respect her for all that she accomplished and for the role model she is for any person, business, or organization.

If you’d like to learn more about her, please visit my Judith Sargent Murray website.

And, as always, I would love to hear your comments!