Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Recognizes Women of Achievement in the Early Republic

“A Will of Their Own” Opens April 20
March 27, 2012
News Release

The American Revolution (1775–81) was a time of drastic ideological and political change for the fledgling nation. Less well known is how this was also a time that fostered new opportunities for women to experience life beyond traditional female roles. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, with the support of the Terra Foundation for American Art, tells this story through the portraits of eight women featured in “A Will of Their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic.” The exhibition will be open April 20 through Sept. 2, 2013.

“The Portrait Gallery’s ‘A Will of Their Own’ highlights dynamic women who did not incite a collective women’s rights movement, but served as catalysts for future activism,” said Martin Sullivan, director of the National Portrait Gallery. “These lesser-known stories of the early Republic become powerful when told together.”

During the American Revolution, definitions of freedom and the rights of men were challenged in passionate debates. Women, however, still faced limited property and marriage rights, little access to education and no political power. It was in this environment that Judith Sargent Murray and others began to argue for a new status for women in American society.

A portrait of Murray (1751–1820) by John Singleton Copley serves as the centerpiece of the exhibition. Murray, beginning in 1782, published poems and essays in New England periodicals, arguing for gender equality and emphasizing education and intellectual parity. Other visionaries in the exhibition include First Lady Abigail Smith Adams, a savvy manager of the family farm and unofficial political adviser; Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, the first American-born Roman Catholic saint; Phillis Wheatley, a freed slave who became the first African American to publish a book; Anne Catharine Hoof Green, editor of the Maryland Gazette; Theodosia Burr Alston, erudite and eloquent hostess at the estate of her father, Aaron Burr; Patience Wright, America’s first native-born sculptor; and Mary Todd Whetten, who gained the confidence of the British and covertly aided the American cause.

The exhibition will be located on the first floor of the museum in an alcove of the permanent collection exhibition “American Origins.” The National Portrait Gallery will hold an academic symposium in conjunction with the exhibition Oct. 19.

Lead support of the exhibition, symposium, related educational programs and publications, and the loan of John Singleton Copley’s “Portrait of Mrs. John Stevens (Judith Sargent, later Mrs. John Murray),” is made possible through a grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art.

The National Portrait Gallery’s Frank H. Goodyear III, associate curator of photographs, and Wendy Wick Reaves, curator of prints and drawings, are the curators for this exhibition. Peter John Brownlee, associate curator at the Terra Foundation, served as coordinator for this project.

The Terra Foundation for American Art

The Terra Foundation for American Art is dedicated to fostering exploration, understanding and enjoyment of the visual arts of the United States for national and international audiences. Recognizing the importance of experiencing original works of art, the foundation provides opportunities for interaction and study, beginning with the presentation and growth of its own art collection in Chicago. To further cross-cultural dialogue on American art, the foundation supports and collaborates on innovative exhibitions, research and educational programs. Implicit in such activities is the belief that art has the potential both to distinguish cultures and to unite them. For more information, visit

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the history of America through the individuals who have shaped its culture. Through the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the American story.

The National Portrait Gallery is part of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture at Eighth and F streets N.W., Washington, D.C. Website: Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000.

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Bethany Bentley

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