Matilda Joslyn Gage

American reformer Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898) was a leader in the struggle for women's rights in the nineteenth century. A onetime leader of the National Woman Suffrage Association, she wrote numerous speeches, essays, and books that analyzed the role of women throughout history and provided arguments for rejecting the traditions that perpetuated the oppression of women, African slaves, Native Americans, and other minorities in America.

Matilda Joslyn Gage was a leading figure in the women's suffrage movement of the late 1800s in the United States. A colleague of such prominent women's rights activists as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gage became a primary voice of the movement with her numerous speeches and feminist writings. Her works often stressed the historic accomplishments of women and the way in which men had frequently taken credit for or denied women's contributions. Gage herself was denied recognition of her achievements when she left the mainstream women's suffrage organization to form a more radical group; the resulting animosity led Anthony and Stanton to remove references to Gage in their book on the history of the suffrage movement. Because of this lack of documentation on Gage's role, she has often been overlooked by the generations that followed her.

Gage was born on March 24, 1826, in Cicero, New York. Her parents, Hezekiah and Helen Leslie Joslyn, were both supporters of liberal social reforms and took an active role in the education of their only child. Her father, who was a doctor, took charge of Gage's early schooling, instructing her at home in subjects such as Greek, physiology, and mathematics. Her learning was supplemented by her exposure to the ideas of scientists, philosophers, and theologians who were frequent guests of her parents. As she grew older, however, her parents decided she needed a more formal education and enrolled her in the Clinton New York Liberal Institute.


Used Literary Talents for Reform

Gage ended her schooling at the age of 18 when she married businessman Henry H. Gage. The couple, who eventually had four children, first settled in Syracuse, New York, but later moved to Fayetteville, New York. Gage continued to study independently to expand her knowledge, taking a particular interest in theology—a subject she would pursue throughout her life. In order to read original versions of the Bible, for instance, she furthered her studies of Greek and taught herself Hebrew. She also began to devote her energies to various social causes. An active abolitionist, she opened her home to escaped slaves as a stop on the Underground Railroad. As a supporter of the temperance movement to outlaw alcohol, she composed articles and gave speeches on the topic at meetings and conventions. The talent for organization and communication that she displayed in these activities were later devoted to the main work of her life—the fight for women's rights, including the right to vote.

Her days in the women's rights movement began when Gage delivered a speech at the Third National Women's Rights Convention in 1852 in Syracuse. Although, at the age of 26, she was the youngest speaker at the event, her words were so well-received that they were later published and circulated to gain support for the cause. Gage's talk focused on the numerous accomplishments of women throughout history and the need for women to escape the legal and economic shackles placed on them by society. She drew a parallel between the limited rights of women in America and the institution of slavery, stating that both forms of oppression stemmed from the same patriarchal attitudes. Over the next decade, Gage increased her stature in women's rights circles, holding a number of organization posts, writing articles, and giving speeches.


Elected Head of Suffrage Group

In 1869, Gage played a central role in the creation of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and became a member of the group's advisory council. Throughout the 1870s, she was in the forefront of the increasingly radical statements and actions of the women's rights movement. In 1873, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for her illegal attempt to vote in New York. Gage joined Anthony in attempting to convince prospective jurors of the rightness of their struggle. Traveling to various townships across the state, she presented a reasoned and spirited speech titled "The United States on Trial, Not Susan B. Anthony." After her election to the top posts in both the National and New York suffrage organizations in 1875, Gage appeared before the U.S. Congress to testify in favor of a suffrage bill under consideration. When the government failed to pass the measure, she wrote a strongly worded protest that was circulated at the NWSA convention in Washington, D.C., in January of 1876. The essay declared that women should not participate in upcoming celebrations of the country's centennial because the nation was not a true democracy, but an inequitable power-system controlled by men. These statements raised the ire of government officials, and police were sent to close down the convention on the grounds that it was an illegal assembly. Gage refused to put an end to the gathering, telling enthusiastic supporters that if arrested, she would continue the convention in jail.

In May of that year, Gage willingly handed over her national post to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, acknowledging the importance of having the most widely-known suffragist in the country represent the group during the centennial. She began to focus her efforts even more on writing in order to spread her ideas on women's rights and other social reforms. In 1878, she began a three-year tenure as editor of the NWSA newspaper, National Citizen and Ballot Box. Her articles covered such topics as the treatment of women prisoners, prostitution, the plight of Native Americans, and the role of Christianity in the oppression of women. These writings became the basis of many NWSA policies and inspired some court cases challenging the limits of women's rights.


Documented Women's Fight for Suffrage

With Stanton, Gage contributed a great deal of writing to the ambitious task of compiling a complete history of women's fight for suffrage. The first volume of the 3,000 page, three-part History of Woman Suffrage appeared in 1881. The two women also collaborated on a revised version of the Bible published under the title The Women's Bible. Gage applied her previous Biblical studies to research on the Old Testament for the project's Revising Committee. Her other literary work of that time included an 1880 pamphlet—"Who Planned the Tennessee Campaign of 1862?"—that showed how a woman by the name of Anna Ella Carroll had actually masterminded a critical military maneuver of the Civil War, but had not been given credit for the idea. Later in her life, Gage's writings would develop her ideas on religion and women's rights. In her 1893 book, Woman, Church, and State, she outlines a lengthy history of oppression of women by the Christian church, citing as evidence the burning of accused witches, the end of the early Church's allowance for women deacons, and the negative role of woman in the doctrine of original sin. Gage lamented the absence of the feminine in traditional concepts of God, and shocked one gathering of women in 1888 by opening a meeting with a prayer to a female God. Her attempts to extend feminist thought in this way did not find sympathy with many women activists, who found her concepts too radical.

In 1889, the NWSA merged with the other major national suffrage organization, the American Woman Suffrage Society, a more conservative body. Gage did not approve of the ideological compromises that the NWSA had made by joining the new organization, known as the National-American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She launched a more liberal organization, the Women's National Liberal Union (WNLU), which pushed for such measures as the abolition of prayer in public schools, the improvement of prisons, and the creation of labor unions. Cady and Stanton were angered by Gage's creation of the WNLU, feeling that the organization detracted from the goal of presenting a strong, unified women's lobby. Not only did they publicly condemn her efforts, they removed all references to her from the fourth volume of the History of Woman Suffrage; consequently, Gage would be ignored by many later historians.

In her final years, Gage was forced to retire from her reform activities due to her declining health. She moved to Chicago to stay in the home of one of her daughters and died there of a brain embolism on March 18, 1898. While her name has not been remembered as well as other suffragists such as Anthony and Stanton, Gage's extensive body of feminist literature serves as a record of the philosophy that drove the women's rights movement in her day. The rediscovery of these works by scholars is gradually reestablishing her reputation as one of the most influential voices among nineteenth-century woman reformers.


Further Reading on Matilda Joslyn Gage

Gage, Matilda Joslyn, Woman, Church, and State, Persephone Press, 1980.

Spender, Dale, Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them, Pandora Press, 1988.

Spender, Lynne, "Matilda Joslyn Gage: Active Intellectual," in Feminist Theorists, edited by Dale Spender, Pantheon Books, 1983.

Wagner, Sally Roesch, A Time of Protest: Suffragists Challenge the Republic, 1870-1887, Spectrum, 1987.