A Woman's Pursuit of Independence in Eighteenth-Century America
A woman shopkeeper’s struggle to achieve economic self-sufficiency in eighteenth-century Boston
One of the most compelling figures in colonial America, Elizabeth Murray (1726–1785) was a Scottish immigrant who settled in Boston in her early twenties and took up shopkeeping. For many years, she practiced her trade successfully while marrying three times, once to a much older man who left her an extremely rich widow. This biography chronicles the life of this extraordinary "ordinary" woman who tried to make a place for herself and other women in the world by asserting her own independence inside and outside of the home.
As an importer and retailer of British goods, Murray conducted business with merchants and manufacturers in England and buyers in the American colonies, even traveling to London to select her own stock. Deeply satisfied by her work and the economic freedom it brought her, she acted as mentor to other women, helping them to establish shops of their own. She also protected her autonomy by demanding prenuptial agreements from her second and third husbands that gave her a measure of control over her property that was rare for a married woman of her day.
The spirit of independence that Murray so valued in herself and nurtured in other women was severely tested by the upheavals of the American Revolution. With strong loyalties to both Britain and America, she was torn by the conflict, especially when close relatives chose opposing sides and her third husband abandoned her, leaving her to defend the family estate alone. Her wartime experiences—wild midnight rides, accusations of being a spy, quartering both royal and rebel troops, and brief imprisonment—vividly capture the turmoil of the Revolution and highlight the range of her political commitments.
"There are so few biographies of women in the eighteenth century grounded on primary materials; Cleary's work is both needed and original. Besides writing a compelling narrative history, Cleary raises important questions about women. She explores issues of work, money, identity, politics, inheritance, and the passing on of 'character' and fortune to female relatives. This book is a lively and important addition to our knowledge of both women and the American Revolutionary era."—June Namias, author of White Captives: Gender and
Ethnicity on the American Frontier, 1607–1862
"Precisely because Murray breaks ideological and historiographical rules, she commands attention. . . . In this brave book, Cleary manages to knock some of the bricks out of historiographical walls. With luck, the fruits of her and other feminist scholars' labors will soon fill library shelves and force reconsideration of how American entrepreneurship came into being. In that account, Elizabeth Murray will stand alongside Alexander Hamilton, with her surrogate daughters all in a row, as cofounders of the wealthiest empire the world has ever known."—Women's Review of Books
"Scholars of early American history will find much of interest in this rare book-length portrait of an eighteenth-century woman. Cleary tells an engaging story. The quotations from eighteenth-century letters keep us as close as possible to the perspective that Elizabeth Murray had at that time and help us to avoid superimposing a present-day view of the world onto her and her contemporaries. . . . Cleary provides a broader context by bringing in other women's and men's stories where relevant, so we end up with more than one woman's story. Without a heavy theoretical or historiographical overlay, the stories illustrate many of the key issues and experiences of the time, such as immigration, trade and consumption, family and community, and the American Revolution, and thus makes a useful contribution to scholarship on early American history."—
, American Historical Review