Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Will of Their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through September 2, 2013

At the time of the American Revolution, the anniversary of which we celebrated this week here in the US, "women did not share the same status or rights as men."  The quote is from the notes accompanying this small exhibit, and it certainly doesn't overstate the case.  Despite lacking basic human rights that we take for granted in this country today, some women still managed to make something of their lives and influence public policy.

The Revolution provided women the opportunity to work outside their homes and voice opinions in public.  I was reminded of the opportunities afforded the many "Rosie the Riveters" during the Second World War; it seems there's nothing like a shortage of men to allow women to show their talents in the workplace.

One of the women featured in this display is Anne Catharine Hoof Green.  An eighteenth-century Katharine Graham, she worked with her husband to publish the Maryland Gazette, a Maryland newspaper.  After his death, she took over as editor.  She was appointed the official printer of documents for the Colony of Maryland.

Judith Sargent Murray was one of the earliest advocates of women's rights.  She wanted to share in the education provided to her brother, but denied to her due to her gender.  She was the first woman to self-publish a book.

Patience Wright was the first native-born American sculptor of either sex.  I liked her comment, "Women are always useful in grand events."  She proved herself very useful during the Revolution, as she became an American spy.

Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American to publish a book and the first American woman to earn a living from her writing.  She was enslaved, but her writing, which was praised by Washington, Franklin and Voltaire, helped her to gain her freedom.

Of course, no exhibit on American women of achievement in the colonial period would be complete without Abigail Adams.  I won't bother to talk about her, as I'm sure everyone knows her story backwards and forwards, but I will say I like the portrait of her in the National Gallery of Art better than the one on display here.

Verdict: Take a few minutes to look at this display when you're in the building to see a larger show; you can manage it in ten minutes easily.

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