This paper compares and contrasts the arguments in favor of women's rights made by three pioneering American feminists: Judith Sargent Murray, Sarah Grimke, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This analysis reveals the centrality of religious argumentation to the feminism of all three. Murray and Grimke were both converts to varieties of evangelical Protestantism who drew considerable intellectual and emotional nourishment from strands of Christianity, which encouraged, or at least did not discourage, their personal development. Unlike Murray and Grimke, however, Stanton did not convert to evangelicalism. Instead, she launched upon a secularizing trajectory that took her beyond Christianity to Comtean Positivism and rationalism. Unlike Murray and Grimke, moreover, she acknowledged the problems inherent in any attempt to square Christianity with feminism. However, she never rejected the Bible completely, and she is appropriately viewed with respect today as a pioneer of feminist biblical criticism. The paper concludes that although feminist thought demonstrates considerable progress in the century betwen Murray and Stanton, this progress was at odds with the growing influence of evangelical Christianity in American life as a whole.
This paper compares, contrasts and places in their American intellectual context the thought of three pioneering American feminists. The three authors whose works are considered are Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), Sarah Moore Grimke (1792-1873), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902). Examined side by side, these writers illustrate the profound shift that occurred in United States intellectual history during the course of the nineteenth century. Murray's works exemplify the world of the Enlightenment. Her rationalism is apparent in an argument for women's rights that is mainly concerned with female education. She pays less attention to the problem of Biblical texts for female subordination than does Sarah Grimke, whose work appeared fifty years later. By the time Grimke was writing the United States was deep in the thrall of a religious revival. The nature of the religious revival, which drew on conservative romanticism's reaction against rationalism, brought to the fore of social thought the authority of the Bible. Grimke, along with other contemporary feminists, was obliged to decisively confront conservative Christianity's emphasis upon female subordination. Stanton, whose main writings were produced fifty years after those of Grimke, represents a more polarized phase of American culture. By the time she produced her major writings, she had been exposed to the most progressive currents of European thought. This put her greatly at odds with her fellow American feminists who, as the result of yet another religious revival, were even more steeped in Christianity than earlier generations of feminists. Seeing the dangers of a feminism dominated by Christianity, Stanton went on the offensive in a central work in the feminist canon, the Woman's Bible. Stanton's literary activity in the 1890s reflects her perception that American feminism might soon be overwhelmed by women for whom religion was more important than emancipation.
Judith Sargent, who converted from Congregationalism to Universalism in 1774, and therefore from the Calvinist theology of the salvation only of the Elect to the doctrine of the salvation of all souls, was prepared as early as 1780 to engage with conservative Christian opposition from a liberal Protestant position (Behnke 10-11). Universalism's theology of universal salvation, which was premised at least partly on the equivalence of female and male souls, was less the starting point for an attack on conservative Christian orthodoxy than it was the moral foundation of her own personal striving for intellectual self-realization. Although her feminist work includes an inescapable religious element, therefore, the emphasis falls upon the liberation of female intellectual energies.
In 1790 she completed and published in The Massachusetts Magazine an essay entitled "On the Equality of the Sexes" which she had begun in 1779 (Harris xxi, xxiv). "On the Equality of the Sexes" is principally a defense of the proposition that women's intellectual powers are equal to men's. In order to overcome the traditional male disparagement of female intellectual capacity, Murray was obliged to consider two subjects, firstly, the nature of female education; and secondly, what scripture has to say about women. Female education had to be dealt with because there is, at the empirical level, an apparent contradiction between the principle of equality between the sexes and the reality of female under-achievement in the public sphere. Like most early feminists, Murray had to explain for her readers the central…