Matilda Gage spent her childhood in a house which was used as 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, New York. 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 over twenty 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. She became a Theosophist and encouraged her children and their spouses to do so, some of whom did.
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, New York) 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 suffrage movement believing women’s vote would achieve temperance and Christian political goals. These women were not in support of general social reform.
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 Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890. Stanton and Gage maintained their radical positions and opposed the merger of the two suffrage associations because they believed it was a threat to separation of church and state.
The successful merger of the two suffrage groups prompted Gage to establish the Woman’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 became the platform for radical and liberal ideas of the time. Gage became the editor of the official journal of the WNLU, The Liberal Thinker.
Gage was an avid opponent of the Christian churches’ because of their suppression of woman, and strongly supported the separation of church and state, believing “that the greatest injury to women arose from theological laws that subjugated woman to man. Dedicated to the separation of church and state, Gage wrote in October 1881: Believing this country to be a political and not a religious organisation … the editor of the NATIONAL CITIZEN will use all her influence of voice and pen against “Sabbath Laws”, the uses of the “Bible in School”, and pre-eminently against an amendment which shall introduce “God in the Constitution.”
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. It was wide-ranging and built extensively upon arguments and ideas she had previously put forth in speeches (and in a chapter of History of Woman Suffrage which bore the same name).
Like many other suffragists, Gage considered abortion a regrettable tragedy, although her views on the subject were more complex than simple opposition. In 1868, she wrote a letter to The Revolution (a women’s rights paper edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Parker Pillsbury), supporting the view that abortion was an institution supported, dominated and furthered by men. Gage opposed abortion on principle, blaming it on the ‘selfish desire’ of husbands to maintain their wealth by reducing their offspring:
The short article on “Child Murder” in your paper of March 12 that touched a subject which lies deeper down in woman’s wrongs than any other. This is the denial of the right to herself … nowhere has the marital union of the sexes been one in which woman has had control over her own body. Enforced motherhood is a crime against the body of the mother and the soul of the child….But the crime of abortion is not one in which the guilt lies solely or even chiefly with the woman….I hesitate not to assert that most of this crime of “child murder”, “abortion”, “infanticide”, lies at the door of the male sex. Many a woman has laughed a silent, derisive laugh at the decisions of eminent medical and legal authorities, in cases of crimes committed against her as a woman. Never, until she sits as juror on such trials, will or can just decisions be rendered.
—(Reference: “Is Woman Her Own?” pages 215-216.)
Gage was quite concerned with the rights of a woman over her own life and body. In 1881 she wrote, on the subject of divorce:
When they preach as does Rev. Crummell, of “the hidden mystery of generation, the wondrous secret of propagated life, committed to the trust of woman,” they bring up a self-evident fact of nature which needs no other inspiration, to show the world that the mother, and not the father, is the true head of the family, and that she should be able to free herself from the adulterous husband, keeping her own body a holy temple for its divine-human uses, of which as priestess and holder of the altar she alone should have control.
Other feminists of the period referred to “voluntary motherhood,” achieved through consensual nonprocreative sexual practices, periodic or permanent sexual abstinence, or (most importantly) the right of a woman (especially a wife) to refuse sex. 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 impose citizenship upon Native Americans thereby negating their (Iroquoia) status as a separate nation and their treaty privileges.
She wrote in 1878:
That the Indians have been oppressed – are now, is true, but the United States has treaties with them, recognising them as distinct political communities, and duty towards them demands not an enforced citizenship but a faithful living up to its obligations on the part of the government. 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.
A daughter of the early abolitionist Hezekiah Joslyn, Gage was the wife of Henry Hill Gage, with whom she had five children: Charles Henry (who died in infancy), Helen Leslie, Thomas Clarkson, Julia Louise, and Maud. Gage maintained residence in Fayetteville, New York for the majority of her life. Although Gage was cremated, there is a memorial stone at Fayetteville Cemetery that bears her slogan “There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home or Heaven. That word is Liberty.”
Maud, who was ten years younger than Julia, initially horrified her mother when she chose to marry author L. Frank Baum (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) at a time when he was a struggling actor with only a handful of plays (of which only The Maid of Arran survives) to his writing credit. However, a few minutes after the initial announcement, Gage started laughing, apparently realizing that her emphasis on all individuals making up their own minds was not lost on her headstrong daughter, who gave up a chance at a law career when the opportunity for women was rare. Gage spent six months of every year with Maud and Frank, and died in the Baum home in Chicago, Illinois in 1898. Gage’s son Thomas Clarkson Gage and his wife Sophia had a daughter named Dorothy Louise Gage, who was born in Bloomington, Illinois on June 11, 1898, but died five months later, on November 11, 1898.
The death so upset the child’s aunt Maud, who had always longed for a daughter, that she required medical attention. Thomas Clarkson Gage’s child was the namesake of her uncle Frank Baum’s famed fictional character, Dorothy Gale. In 1996, Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, a biographer of Matilda Joslyn Gage, located young Dorothy’s grave in Bloomington. A memorial was erected in the child’s memory at her gravesite on May 21, 1997. This child is often mistaken for her cousin of the same name, Dorothy Louise Gage (1883–1889), Helen Leslie (Gage) Gage’s child.
- March, 24, 1826
- Cicero, New York
- March, 18, 1898
- Chicago, Illinois
- Fayetteville Cemetery
- Fayetteville, New York