Our Forgotton Foremother: Matilda Joslyn Gage


Nearly 150 years after their radical ideas helped to begin the first wave of feminism, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are still household names. However Matilda Joslyn Gage, the outspoken journalist and early advocate for civil rights who worked closely with them on the day to day operations of the National Woman Suffrage Association, has largely been left out of the story.

With Anthony and Cady Stanton, Gage helped write the 1876 Declaration of Rights of Women. She went with Anthony to present it in Philadelphia during the Centennial World’s Fair—and risked arrest in doing so.

But Gage did more than advocate equality for women—she saw how issues were interconnected, and therefore how the struggles were inherently linked, a big picture mentality that led Gloria Steinam to call her a “woman who was ahead of the women who were ahead of their time.”

“Until liberty is attained,” Gage wrote, “the broadest, the deepest, the highest liberty for all—not one set alone, one clique alone, but for men and women, black and white, Irish, Germans, Americans, and Negroes, there can be no permanent peace.”

And while she may not be prominent in history books, her has message has lived on in an unusual manner—through Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz.

“Gage wrote about the superior position of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) women and supported treaty rights and Native sovereignty,” wrote feminist scholar Sally Roesch Wagner, director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation. “Influenced by the Haudenosaunee egalitarian culture, she in turn influenced the utopian feminist vision of her son-in-law, L. Frank Baum, in his 14 Oz books.” (Book two ends with Tip, a little boy, learning that he is under a sex-change spell and is, in fact, a princess. Perhaps the first instance of a transgender protagonist in young adult fiction?)

Gage’s house in Fayetteville, NY, once a stop on the Underground Railroad, is now under construction to become a monument to Gage’s work and an educational center for the community—though the foundation is still raising funds to complete the renovations. And perhaps we should take these times of unjust laws and assassinations as an opportunity to look to the past, to our forgotten foremothers, to see that, as long as there has been the need, strong women have been using their voices to advocate for liberty and justice.

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  • invalid-0

    Great story, Liz — thank you so much for introducing Gage to your readers. And if I might add Matilda Joslyn Gage’s ideas on reproductive rights, she said:

    The law of motherhood should be entirely under woman’s control, but in order to be that, woman must first of all be held as having a right to herself. When society, and especially the church, becomes permeated with the belief that woman was created for herself, and not for man, that she and not man should be the law of the family, when the old Pauline doctrine that neither husband nor wife has control of their own bodies, is done away, when his most diabolical doctrine that woman was made for man, is utterly overthrown, as it must and will be; when each girl born into the world is taught from birth that she, and no other, has a right to her own body; when each boy from birth is taught self-control, self-restraint, and that man has no right to enforce maternity, then “science” will not be asked to step into the domain of justice and inherent right, to settle questions of this nature. Each woman will be a law unto herself and the world. There is no more pernicious doctrine—none more degrading to womanhood, that that now permeating society, as to the necessities of man’s nature, “necessities” which call for the sacrifice of woman. We do not believe it—beginning nor end. We do believe—most fully—in the right of woman to herself, and in her right to the control of all such questions.
    (“Our Book Table.” by Matilda Joslyn Gage
    The National Citizen and Ballot Box, November, 1878, p. 2)

    Thank you for your outstanding work.
    In Sisterhood,
    Sally Roesch Wagner, Ph.D.
    Executive Director
    The Matilda Joslyn Gage Center
    matildajoslyngage.org

  • http://hi-architecture.blogspot.com/ invalid-0

    The sanctity of motherhood at us in the country is protected by the law (though, apparently, as any sanctity can be protected by the law in the secular state?)