“Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States,” 1876 (with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton)
Woman, Church, and State, 1893.
History of Woman Suffrage, 1881-1886 (3 volumes; with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton)
Matilda Joslyn Gage was a central figure in the United States’ nineteenth century feminist movement. Her father, Dr. Hezkiah Joslyn, of New England stock, was an ardent abolitionist who supported liberal issues such as woman suffrage and temperance. Helen, Gage’s Scottish mother, was the youngest daughter of Sir George Leslie and was related to the Gregory family of early British scientists. Hezkiah and Helen made their home a stop on the Underground Railroad, which helped runaway slaves, and a gathering place for reformers. Their daughter was taught to be thoughtful, fearless, and truthful. Gage studied the sciences, Greek, and history at home, then attended Clinton Liberal Institute in New York. In 1845, she married a merchant, Henry H. Gage, and settled in Fayetteville, New York, where he operated a successful dry goods business. Matilda Gage had five children; four lived to adulthood. She entered public life in 1852 as the youngest woman on the platform of the National Woman’s Rights Convention in Syracuse, New York. Her fledgling speech attacked women’s subordinant social position as a cause of mental and moral lethargy.
In the postbellum United States, Gage became a significant leader in the suffrage movement at local, state, and national levels. She was a founding member of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869; she served as its secretary and vice president from 1869 to 1875 and then as its president from 1875 to 1876. In 1875, Gage was elected president of both the New York State and national suffrage organizations. In 1876, she relinquished the national post to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, though retaining the state presidency until 1879.
The year 1880 was the turning point in Gage’s career as a reformer. She had tried and failed to have NWSA oppose contemporary Christian misogynist doctrines of female inferiority. When the liberal NWSA formed a union with the conservative American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), Gage resigned. She then formed and served as president of a new organization, the Woman’s National Liberal Union (WNLU), which reflected her belief in women’s right to self-government, civil and religious liberty, and equality with men. WNLU fought for a constitutional amendment that would guarantee the separation of church and state.
Gage was an increasingly radical reformer. Her contribution to the women’s movement, along with that of Stanton, was to be a theoretician, examining economics, class structure, race, gender, and religion. She drew on anthropological discoveries about matriarchies, witchcraft, and laws that regulate female sexuality, arguing that ancient nations gave women more respect and power than did the contemporary United States. As a newspaper correspondent and editor, Gage wrote about the superior position held by women of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy and chided the U.S. government for failing to uphold its treaties. Moreover, she often acted upon her theories, campaigning for tax resistance at the centennial of the Boston Tea Party, taking up the issues of marital rape and wife battering, and fighting on behalf of Susan B. Anthony at her Rochester trial for voting.
Gage steadfastly advocated civil disobedience. Her mail was intercepted by the government, and Gage expected to be jailed under the Comstock Act for her freethinking. Writing was also among her major contributions. Gage wrote speeches, contributing to NWSA’s newspaper, the Revolution, and editing its National Citizen and Ballot Box between 1878 and 1881. She also composed a series of pamphlets, codrafting the “Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States” with Stanton and Anthony for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, editing the monthly National Citizen and Ballot Box for NWSA, and coediting the first three volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage. Late in her life, Gage assisted Stanton with the Woman’s Bible (1895-1898), but her most articulate contribution is Woman, Church, and State, in which she definitively articulates her mature belief that institutionalized Christianity is at fault for labeling women as inferior, thus creating a double standard for moral codes of behavior. Male supremacy was not ordained by God, she explains, and the tyranny of church and state must be overthrown.
During her lifetime, women leaders such as Clara Bewick Colby, editor of The Woman’s Tribune (March 28, 1888), said, “three names, Stanton, Anthony and Gage . . . will ever hold a grateful place in the hearts of posterity.” Nonetheless, Gage became unpopular among conservative suffrage coworkers, which led them to isolate and neutralize her; she was effectively written out of the history of the suffrage movement. A century later, another generation found interest in this most radical of the suffrage triumvirate, Matilda Joslyn Gage, because of her radicalism of purpose, theoretical analyses, and applications of liberal thought.
One picture of Gage, the forgotten suffragist, demonstrates her political ethos–in 1862 the women of Fayetteville asked Gage to present their flag to volunteers heading off to fight in the Civil War. Gage, usually fashionable and ladylike in appearance, took the opportunity literally to wrap herself in the American flag. So decorated, she told the audience how to stop the war: abolish its cause–slavery. Thirty-six years later, her tombstone read: “There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home, or Heaven; that word is Liberty.”