Woman’s Rights Activist, Author, Editor, Theorist, and Historian
Matilda Joslyn Gage was a 19th century suffragist, historian of women, newspaper editor, author and lecturer, woman's rights activist and theorist, advocate for civil rights, and abolitionist, who served as a top officer in the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) for twenty years. A committed abolitionist who opened her home as a stop on the Underground Railroad, she challenged the laws of her nation, risking arrest and imprisonment by helping fugitive slaves escape to freedom. Gage wrote about the superior position of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) women and supported treaty rights and Native sovereignty. Influenced by the Haudenosaunee egalitarian culture, she in turn influenced the utopian feminist vision of her son-in-law, L. Frank Baum, in his fourteen Oz books.
Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Gage was one of the "triumvirate" leaders of the NWSA, running the day-to-day operations as Chair of the Executive Committee and authoring the organization’s major documents with Stanton. Together they wrote the 1876 Declaration of Rights of Women and, risking arrest, Gage and Anthony presented it at the nation’s Centennial celebration, directing their action "to the daughters of 1976." Gage played an integral part in preserving the incredible record of the suffrage movement by co-editing the first three volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage with Stanton and Anthony.
Gage, as an historian of women and editor/publisher of a suffrage paper for four years, documented women’s great accomplishments despite the discrimination and oppression they faced. A founder officer of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, she worked to change a host of laws, including those that allowed the abuse of girls and denied mothers the guardianship of their own children.
When the radical suffrage forces joined with the conservatives in 1890, Gage left the organized movement and dedicated her last eight years to exposing the patriarchal nature of the Church, exploring female spirituality, and doing matriarchal research. As founder and president of the Women’s National Liberal Union, (1890) Gage fought religious fundamentalists’ attempt to create a theocracy and helped preserve religious freedom. A remarkable scholar, Gage promoted intellectual freedom, believing that the most important lesson she ever learned was to think for herself, a lesson she passed on to girls and women throughout her life.
A prolific writer, Gage’s long and brave career culminated in her 1893 volume Woman, Church and State in which she documented the misogyny committed in the name of the Christian religion, from trafficking in women to sexual abuse by the clergy. With her clear and unapologetic writing style, and her wealth of knowledge, she backed up her theories with facts drawn from over 2000 years of human history. Her work was far more sweeping in scope than another project to which Gage contributed, the controversial Woman's Bible, edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton., Her motto, penciled into numerous autograph books and carved on her tombstone, embodies her political stand:
THERE IS A WORD SWEETER THAN MOTHER, HOME OR HEAVEN. THAT WORD IS LIBERTY.
Gage’s home in Fayetteville, New York, is owned, maintained and currently being restored by the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, which is dedicated to “educating current and future generations about Gage's work and its power to drive contemporary social change.” Visit their website at www.matildajoslyngage.org.