Friday, March 18, 2011

In History: Matilda Joslyn Gage

This is the 69th post in a weekly feature here at Spare Candy, called "In History." Some posts might be little more than a photo, others full on features. If you have any suggestions for a person or event that should be featured, or would like to submit a guest post or cross post, e-mail me at rosiered23 (at) sparecandy (dot) com.

Matilda Electa Joslyn Gage was born in Cicero, N.Y., on March 24, 1826. She was a suffragist, a Native American activist, an abolitionist, a freethinker, and a prolific author.

Gage spent her childhood in a house that was a station of the underground railroad. She faced prison for her actions under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which criminalized assistance to escaped slaves. Even though she was beset by both financial and physical (cardiac) problems throughout her life, her work for women's rights was extensive, practical, and often brilliantly executed.

Gage became involved in the women's rights movement in 1852 when she decided to speak at the National Women's Rights Convention in Syracuse, N.Y. She served as president of the National Woman Suffrage Association from 1875 to 1876, and served as either Chair of the Executive Committee or Vice President for more than 20 years. During the 1876 convention, she successfully argued against a group of police who claimed the association was holding an illegal assembly. They left without pressing charges.

Gage was considered to be more radical than either Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton (with whom she wrote "History of Woman Suffrage"). Along with Stanton, she was a vocal critic of the Christian Church, which put her at odds with conservative suffragists such as Frances Willard and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Rather than arguing that women deserved the vote because their feminine morality would then properly influence legislation (as the WCTU did), she argued that they deserved suffrage as a "natural right."

Despite her opposition to the Church, Gage was in her own way deeply religious, and she joined Stanton's Revising Committee to write "The Woman's Bible."

Gage was well-educated and a prolific writer—the most gifted and educated woman of her age, claimed her devoted son-in-law, L. Frank Baum (yes, that Baum -- the author of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"). She corresponded with numerous newspapers, reporting on developments in the woman suffrage movement. In 1878 she bought the Ballot Box, a monthly journal of a Toledo, Ohio, suffrage association, when its editor, Sarah R.L. Williams, decided to retire. Gage turned it into The National Citizen and Ballot Box, explaining her intentions for the paper:
Its especial object will be to secure national protection to women citizens in the exercise of their rights to vote...it will oppose Class Legislation of whatever form ... Women of every class, condition, rank and name will find this paper their friend.
Gage became its primary editor for the next three years (until 1881), producing and publishing essays on a wide range of issues. Each edition included regular columns about prominent women in history and female inventors. Gage wrote clearly, logically, and often with a dry wit and a well-honed sense of irony. Writing about laws which allowed a man to will his children to a guardian unrelated to their mother, Gage observed:
It is sometimes better to be a dead man than a live woman.
As a result of the campaigning of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association under Gage, the state of New York granted female suffrage for electing members of the school boards. Gage ensured that every woman in her area (Fayetteville, N.Y.) had the opportunity to vote by writing letters making them aware of their rights, and sitting at the polls making sure nobody was turned away.

In 1871, Gage was part of a group of 10 women who attempted to vote. Reportedly, she stood by and argued with the polling officials on behalf of each individual woman. She supported Victoria Woodhull and (later) Ulysses S. Grant in the 1872 presidential election. In 1873 she defended Susan B. Anthony when Anthony was placed on trial for having voted in that election, making compelling legal and moral arguments.

In 1884, Gage was an Elector-at-Large for Belva Lockwood and the Equal Rights Party.

Gage unsuccessfully tried to prevent the conservative takeover of the women's suffrage movement. Susan B. Anthony, who had helped to found the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), was primarily concerned with gaining the vote, an outlook which Gage found too narrow. Conservative suffragists were drawn into the organization, and these women tended not to support general social reform, or attacks on the church.

The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), part of the conservative wing of the suffrage movement (and formerly at odds with the National), was open to the prospect of merging with the NWSA under Anthony, while Anthony was working toward unifying the suffrage movement under the single goal of gaining the vote. The merger of the two organizations, pushed through by Lucy Stone, Alice Stone Blackwell and Anthony, produced the National American Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890. While Stanton and Gage maintained their radical positions, they found that the only women's issue really unifying the NAWSA was the move for suffrage.

This prompted Gage to establish the Women's National Liberal Union (WNLU) in 1890, of which she was president until her death (by stroke) in 1898. Attracting more radical members than NAWSA, the WNLU was the perfect mouthpiece for her attacks on religion. She became the editor of the official journal of the WNLU, The Liberal Thinker. In 1893, she published "Woman, Church and State," a book which outlined the variety of ways in which Christianity had oppressed women and reinforced patriarchal systems.

Works about Native Americans in the United States by Lewis Henry Morgan and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft also influenced Gage. She decried the brutal treatment of Native Americans in her writings and public speeches. She was angered that the Federal government of the United States attempted to confer citizenship (including suffrage) upon Native Americans (who, Gage argued, opposed taxation, and generally did not seek citizenship) while still withholding the vote from women.

In her 1893 work "Woman, Church and State," she cited the Iroquois society, among others, as a "Matriarchate" in which women had true power, noting that a system of descent through the female line and female property rights led to a more equal relationship between men and women. Gage spent time among the Iroquois and received the name Karonienhawi - "she who holds the sky" - upon her initiation into the Wolf Clan. She was admitted into the Iroquois Council of Matrons.

Gage died on March 18, 1898.

I find this extremely interesting, as I hadn't heard of it before, but it makes so much sense: In 1993, scientific historian Margaret W. Rossiter coined the term "Matilda effect," after Gage, to identify the social situation where woman scientists inaccurately receive less credit for their scientific work than an objective examination of their actual effort would reveal.

You can read more about Gage at the Matilda Josyln Gage Foundation's website: http://www.matildajoslyngage.org/.

Woman, Church and State Historic Print (S): [Matilda (Joslyn) Gage, 1826-1898. bust portrait, facing left]

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