The Room Where She Gave Birth
By Kate Budzyn, WPAMC Class of 2019
In Gloucester, our class visited The Sargent House Museum, the 1780s five-bay clapboard house where one of the first American feminist writers, Judith Sargent Murray, lived and wrote. In 1790, Murray published “On the Equality of the Sexes,” a short and powerful essay which denied the intellectual inferiority of women and blamed gender-based inequality on girls’ lack of access to education.
For those frustrated with an American history in which white male power and wealth is still the most easily accessible narrative, any site attached most prominently to a woman feels important, precious. The Sargent House Museum’s mission is to “engage the public in the life, times, writings, and home of Judith Sargent Stevens Murray, a pioneering advocate of women’s education and equality,” and indeed the house tour centers the life story of this early American feminist.
But what makes a house a woman’s house? In the eighteenth century alone, the Sargent House was also home to Judith’s first husband, John Stevens; her second husband, John Murray, an early Universalist minister; as well as her three daughters. Subsequent generations lived in the house. In the early twentieth century, the painter John Singer Sargent, a family descendent, got involved in efforts to save the house and donated artwork to the museum. In short, the house is the site of many people’s stories. What happens when one person’s story is singled out as the most important story to tell in a historic space? How does our understanding of our shared cultural heritage shift depending on whose story is being told?
In the case of the Sargent House, the shift in understanding became apparent to me in the last room on the tour, a bedroom. Our guide pointed out a few things in the room—a four post bed, a small writing closet where Sargent Murray wrote, a side table by the window—and then told an arresting story: this was the room where Judith Sargent Murray gave birth. Despite wanting children, she had not been able to have any during her first marriage. She became pregnant for the first time during her second marriage, in her late thirties, and carried the pregnancy to term. The birth did not go well.
On the side table by the window, under a small plexiglass case, was a letter written by John Murray describing his wife’s traumatic labor. He paints a clear picture in just a few lines: “The first Sunday in August our suffering friend was taken ill. She continued to suffer more than any language can describe till the Wednesday night following. She was then, with the assistance of Doct. Thomsen, and his instruments delivered of a male child weighing very near fifteen pounds, whose spirit returned to the God who gave it, a few hours before it was born—”
By displaying this remarkable letter in the room where its painful events took place, the Sargent House Museum complicates our understanding of this eighteenth-century house and its original inhabitants. In this room, it becomes clear that this birth story—eloquently written down by a powerful woman’s partner—is not solely a woman’s story. This is not an anecdotal tidbit offered up as a gesture to “women’s history,” nor is it a quick acknowledgment of the site of someone’s birth. This is a story that tells us that the physical experiences of women are real and essential to any history.
It is rare to hear such personal stories about reproductive and sexual health in historical settings, perhaps because we today still struggle to talk about our own pain around these experiences. Many American women still struggle to access reproductive healthcare, and our maternal death rates are the highest of any developed country. I am grateful to the Sargent House Museum for its commitment to using the house to interpret a woman’s story. Through this commitment, we hear under-told stories about the lives of people in the eighteenth century, and we get a chance to compare those stories to our own.
In truth, though, all historic houses are women’s houses. Countless rooms in countless buildings were and are the sites of birth stories as challenging and compelling as this one. Judith Sargent Murray was a white woman with a prominent family and the privileges of whiteness and class, and her story is well documented in large part thanks to these privileges. It shouldn’t take wealth, whiteness and literary fame for women to earn the right for their profound physical experiences to be integral rather than exceptional.