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MATILDA JOSLYN GAGE: forgotten feminist

Sally Roesch Wagner

Introduced by Susan B. Anthony at the International Council of Women in 1888, Matilda Josyln Gage began her speech with a brief sketch of her early entry into the suffrage movement: I have frequently been asked what first turned by thoughts towards woman's rights. I think I was born with a hatred of oppression, and, too, in my father's house, I was trained in the anti-slavery ranks, for it was one of the stations on the underground railway, and a home of anti-slavery speakers. Well I remember the wonder with which, when a young girl, I looked upon Abby Kelly, when she spoke of the wrongs of black women and black men. Then I remember, before the Round House in my city of Syracuse was finished, a large and enthusiastic anti-slavery convention was held there, attended by thousands of people who all joined in singing William Lloyd Garrison's song, "I'm an Abolitionist and glory in the Name," and as they rang out that glorious defiance against wrong, it thrilled my very heart, and I feel it echoing to this day. I am indebted to my father for something better than a collegiate education. He taught me to think for myself, and not to accept the word of any man, or society, or human being, but to fully examine for myself. My father was a physician, training me himself, giving me lessons in physiology and anatomy, and while I was a young girl he spoke of my entering Geneva Medical College, whose president was his old professor, and studying for a physician, but that was not to be. I had been married quite a number of years when Elizabeth Blackwell was graduated from that institution, which opened its doors to admit her, closing them, upon her graduation, to women, until since its union with the Syracuse University.

Gage in 1852But with regard to woman's rights proper, when I saw the reports of the first convention in the New York Tribune, I knew my place; and when I read the notice of a convention to be held in Syracuse, in 1852, I at once decided to publicly join the ranks of those who spoke against wrong. But I was entirely ignorant of all parliamentary rule, or what was necessary to be done. I prepared my speech, and going to the convention, sat near the front, and with a palpitating heart waited until I obtained courage to go upon the platform, probably to the interference of arrangements, for I knew nothing about the proper course for me to take. But I was so sweetly welcomed by the sainted Lucretia Mott, who gave me a place, and, when I had finished speaking, referred so pleasantly to what I had said, and to her my heart turned always with truest affection.

Soon after the close of the convention, almost immediately afterwards, it was criticized from the pulpit by the Rev. Mr. Ashley, of the Episcopal Church, and Rev. Mr. Sunderland, now of this city, but then established at Syracuse. With the latter gentleman I carried on a long newspaper controversy. As Miss Grew has truly said, it is not religion that has opposed woman suffrage, because true religion believes in undoing the heavy burdens and letting the oppressed go free. But from the church and from theology this reform has met opposition at every step.

It was Gage's outspoken opposition to the bigotry of Christian theology that would eventually cost her dearly. The price of liberty to Matilda Joslyn Gage became historical invisibility.

"Until liberty is attained--the broadest, the deepest, the highest liberty for all--not one set alone, one clique alone, but for men and women, black and white, Irish, Germans, Americans, and Negroes, there can be no permanent peace." Gage spoke these words during the Civil War, and they characterize her life-long commitment to the struggle of freedom for all people.

As a child during the 1830's, she circulated anti-slavery petitions. Gage's entire life was spent within a thirty mile radius of Syracuse, New York, and her home, like that of her parents, was a station on the underground railroad. As a young wife and mother in 1850, Gage signed a petition stating that she would face the penalty of a six month prison term and a $2,000 fine rather than obey the newly enacted Fugitive Slave law, which made criminals of anyone assisting slaves to freedom anywhere in the United States.

During the 1870's, Gage wrote a series of controversial articles decrying the brutal and unjust treatment American Indians had received. Having already broken numerous treaties, the government was trying to force citizenship upon Native Americans, she argued, thus destroying their independent nation status, and further opening "wide the door to the grasping avarice of the white man." Gage, who was adopted into the wolf clan of the Mohawk nation and given the name Ka-ron-ien-ha-wi (Sky Carrier), wrote of the superior form of government practiced by the Six Nation Iroquois Confederacy, in which "the power between the sexes was nearly equal." This indigenous practice of woman's rights became her vision.

Gage never fragmented her beliefs about changing the world. To her, all freedoms hung together on the same thread and the struggle for them could not be separated. Still, there was one goal that became her life's work and that was the struggle for the complete liberation of women.

Gage entered the movement, as did Susan B. Anthony, in 1852, four years after the first convention in Seneca Falls. Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gage and Anthony went on to become the "triumvirate" of the radical wing of the woman's rights movement, the largely separatist National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). The three names of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, "linked together in the authorship of the History of Woman Suffrage, will ever hold a grateful place in the hearts of posterity," wrote a suffragist paper in 1888. Anthony was primarily an activist; Stanton was primarily a theoretician. Gage was both.

The NWSA chose civil disobedience as a tactic in the early 1870's and Gage was one of the many women from Santa Cruz, California to Vineland, New Jersey who broke the law by voting (or attempting to) in 1871. Gage, like most of them, was unsuccessful. The following year Anthony successfully cast her ballot and was promptly arrested, her case becoming the test case for woman's right to vote. Gage alone among the NWSA women saw the importance of this political trial, and came to Anthony's aid, sitting with her through the proceedings and standing in support when Anthony, found guilty, refused to pay the imposed fine. Twenty years later, Gage's vote became the test case for the constitutionality of a New York law which gave women the franchise in School Commissioner elections. Like Anthony, she lost her case and the limited right to school suffrage was taken away from New York women.

Gage created a unique suffrage strategy in 1877, based on the way in which convicted male criminals who had lost the right to vote could directly petition Congress and regain their suffrage. Following the form they used, Gage petitioned Congress to grant her "relief from her political liabilities" and to restore her lawful right to vote as a citizen. A bill to enfranchise her was introduced in Congress, and although it was defeated, the resulting publicity convinced the NWSA to adopt Gage's plan as a major tactic in the suffrage struggle. A terrible injustice showed itself when men, although convicted of a felony, could regain the right to vote, but a law-abiding, tax-paying woman couldn't gain that right.

A founding member of the National Woman Suffrage Association, Gage's offices in that organization during the twenty years of its existence (1869-1889) roughly correspond to those held by Anthony. She helped form both the Virginia and the New York state suffrage associations, and was an officer in the latter for twenty years. From 1878 to 1881 she published The National Citizen and Ballot Box, the official paper of the NWSA.

Although busy with her state and national work, Gage always found time for the door-to-door petition and local organizing work that was the backbone of the movement. In 1880, when the New York Woman Suffrage Association gained women the right to vote and run for office in school elections, Gage helped organize the women of her village, Fayetteville, and they elected an all-woman slate of officers.

From History of Woman SuffrageWith Stanton, Gage co-authored the major documents of the NWSA. The group's yearly "Plan of Action," the addresses to the Presidential conventions every four years, and the day-to-day formulations of theory and strategy came primarily from their pens. When the nation prepared to celebrate the Centennial in 1876, the NWSA countered that "liberty to-day is...but the heritage of one-half the people, the men who alone could vote. They "determined to place on record for the daughters of 1976, the fact that their mothers of 1876 had thus asserted their equality of rights, and thus impeached the government of today for its injustice towards women," as Gage wrote. She and Stanton drew up a "Declaration of Rights of Women," which Anthony and Gage presented at the official July 4 ceremony in Philadelphia. They had been denied permission to do so, and knew they faced the possibility of arrest for their action. Gage, who was fifty at the time, was unmoved by the danger and declared: "We of this Centennial year must not forget that this country owes its birth to disobedience to law."

Many of her contributions to the movement were literary and theoretical. "She always had a knack of rummaging through old libraries, bringing more startling facts to light than any woman I ever knew," Stanton once said of her friend and co-worker. Concerned with the way in which women were written out of history, Gage documented many previously unacknowledged accomplishments of her sex.

The cotton gin wasn't really invented by Eli Whitney, Gage maintained in her pamphlet, "Woman as Inventor," but rather by Catherine Littlefield Greene, who had the idea for the gin and engaged Whitney to construct it. In "Who Planned the Tennessee Campaign of 1862?" Gage argued that this important military campaign which changed the course of the Civil War, generally credited to General Grant, was actually the brainchild of Anna Ella Carroll. Lincoln asked that the matter be kept quiet, Gage documented, as he feared that the union troops would be demoralized by the knowledge that this brilliant strategy was the product of a civilian - "and that civilian a woman", according to a top Congressional leader quoted by Gage.

Described as "one of the most logical, fearless and scientific writers of her day," one of Gage's primary contributions to feminist thought was her pioneering work on the origins of woman's oppression. At a time when woman's rights advocates almost universally believed that steady progress characterized the history of woman's condition, Gage asserted that the opposite was true. She believed in the existence of prehistoric matriarchies (the "Matriarchate" in her words) in which "woman ruled; she was the first in the family, the state, religion." Far from woman using her power over man oppressively, Gage maintained that "never was justice more perfect, never civilization higher than under the Matriarchate."

The downfall of womankind in the West corresponded to the rise in Christianity, Gage believed. A political overthrow created the Patriarchate, and the Church had been the major institution to maintain it, she contended. Steeped in the triple doctrines of obedience to authority, woman's subordination to man, and woman's responsibility for original sin, the Church, Gage said, was the primary enemy of women, "the stronghold of woman's oppression."

When the militant suffrage campaign failed to win women the right to vote, and governmental decision-making seemed more responsive to moneyed interests than to the mandate of the voters, Gage became increasingly "sick of the song of suffrage." Believing that reform measures were partial solutions which left intact the underlying causes of social injustice, Gage never saw the vote as an end in itself. It was rather a tool, "the lever with which to lift one-half of humanity from the depths of degradation" caused by "the four-fold bondage of women" to the State, the Church, the capitalist and the home, she and Stanton agreed. Increasingly the ballot seemed to her to be an ineffective tool.

Brady PhotoAs the country moved toward the Right in the late 1880's, carried along by a conservative religious movement that had as its goal the creation of a Christian state, Gage decided it was time to launch a full-scale attack on the "bulwark of woman's slavery" - the Church. Believing that the danger to religious liberty and a secular state was immediate, Gage and Stanton began talking of the need for a feminist anti-Church organization. Anthony, in the meantime, was increasingly moving toward a single-minded focus on the vote. When Anthony led her followers in merging the two existing suffrage organizations, thereby bringing in the conservative Women's Christian Temperance Union forces, Gage left the suffrage movement and formed the anti-Church group she had been considering. Made up of anarchists, prison reformers, labor leaders and feminists, the Woman's National Liberal Union was viewed as one of the most radical organizations in the country, and Gage's mail was intercepted by the government.

Stanton chose to become president of Anthony's combined National American Woman Suffrage Association rather than join Gage's group. Anthony denounced Gage's "secession" (as she called it) from the suffrage ranks, and Gage spent her last eight years estranged from most of her movement allies and friends of the previous forty years.

Loneliness was not the only price Gage paid for her uncompromising radical vision. Historians tracing an undeviating line of a single-issue suffrage struggle from the 1848 Seneca Falls convention to the adoption of woman suffrage in 1920, don't know where to fit Gage. The contemporariness of her thought makes Gage even today a threat to the status quo.

She decried the unequal treatment of the prostitute and her client and the "practice of non-conviction or of pardoning" in rape trials. Unequal pay, the double standard, wife battering, the sexual abuse of female children - she addressed all these issues and more. Her vision, of a "regenerated World" which would result from the overthrow of every existing form of the major institutions of woman's oppression, (church, family, state and capitalist) is not cooptable.

In Old AgeOne of the few women who stood beside Gage when she took on her unpopular battle against the Church was Lillie Devereux Blake, one of the major figures in the NWSA. Years later Blake's daughter Catherine remembered Matilda Joslyn Gage: "Mrs. Gage was a tireless student, a fine research worker, thorough in all she undertook; she had a deep sense of justice and at times an appalling frankness of speech - which I loved! One was never in doubt as to where Mrs. Gage stood...She was absolutely honest in all her dealings, and I would take her word at any time as against anybody else's. I always loved and admired her greatly. I think that in some ways she was the greatest of those (suffrage leaders.) Someone should write an adequate life of this great leader," she concluded.

Sally Roesch Wagner, Ph.D. is widely regarded as the leading authority on the life and work of Matilda Joslyn Gage. She can be reached at

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