Matilda Electa Joslyn Gage (1826 - 1898) was a suffragist, a Native American activist, an abolitionist, a freethinker, and a prolific author, who was "born with a hatred of oppression." Although born in Cicero, New York, Gage maintained residence in nearby Fayetteville for the majority of her life. She is interred at Fayetteville Cemetery. She was president of the National Woman Suffrage Association from 1875 to 1876. In 1890, she established the Women's National Liberal Union, (WNLU) over which she presided until her death. She saw some progress towards her goals when New York allowed women to vote for school boards. In a period when women could not hold public office, her influence on generations of women inspired many to work for social and legal change. Her defense of the rights of indigenous Americans earned her membership of the Iroquois Council of Matrons. Those women who, in the next century, stood for and gained political office, stand on her shoulders and on those of other nineteenth century champions of gender and racial equality. Her ability to influence public opinion through writing and civil society organizations testifies to the vital role that such agencies play within democratic systems.
Her awareness that equality in law does not automatically translate into actual equality (such as equal pay, equal opportunity, equal treatment) but requires a change of attitude was farsighted, anticipating the struggles that non-whites and women would still face even after the law declared that they had the same rights as white men. Her writing championed women's achievements that had often not attracted the credit they deserved. What has been called the "Matilda effect" refers to women receiving less credit, compared with men, for their scientific work than an objective examination of their actual effort would reveal.
Matilda Gage spent her childhood in a house which was a station of the underground railroad. She faced prison for her actions under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 which criminalized the assistance of 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 Woman'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 Cady 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 co-authored, without credit, Stanton's The Woman's Bible. She became a theosophist and encouraged her children and their spouses to do so, some of whom did.
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. She corresponded with numerous newspapers, reporting on developments in the female 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 thus:
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 bore the words "The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword," and 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, 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 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 Anthony under controversial circumstances, produced the National American Suffrage Association in 1890. While Stanton and Gage maintained their radical positions, they found that the only women's issue really unifying the National American 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 the National American, 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.
Gage was an avid opponent of the various Christian churches, and she strongly supported the separation of the church and the state, believing "that the greatest injury to the world has arisen from theological laws—from a union of Church and State." She wrote in October 1881,
Believing this country to be a political and not a religious organization…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 typical women's rights view of the time that abortion was an institution supported, dominated and furthered by men. Gage wrote:
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.
Gage opposed abortion on principle, blaming it on the "selfish desire" of husbands to maintain their wealth by reducing their offspring. Her letter called not for the outlawing of abortions, but for the turning of the decision over to women. 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. 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 the 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.
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. She wrote in 1878:
That the Indians have been oppressed—are now, is true, but the United States has treaties with them, recognizing 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.
Maud, who was ten years younger than Julia, appears to have instilled Matilda's values. She initially horrified her mother when she chose to marry The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum 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. Matilda spent six months of every year with Maud and Frank, and died in the Baum home in Chicago, Illinois, in 1898.
Helen and her husband, Charles H. Gage (she married a third cousin) named their daughter, who died in infancy, Dorothy Louise Gage, who became the namesake of Dorothy Gale. As theosophists, both the Baums and the Gages believed in reincarnation, and thought this might have been Matilda, whose spark is apparently written into the character.
In The Dreamer of Oz: The L. Frank Baum Story, Matilda was played by Rue McClanahan, whose relationship with Frank was wrongly portrayed as antagonistic, and presented Gage as the inspiration for the Wicked Witch of the West. Annette O'Toole played Maud, and Nancy Morgan and Pat Skipper played Helen and Charles, respectively.
Gage acted as editor of The National Citizen and Ballot Box, May 1878-October 1881 (available on microfilm), and as editor of The Liberal Thinker, from 1890 and on. These publications offered her the opportunity to publish essays and opinion pieces. The following is a partial list of published works:
Gage lived and died in the century before women in the United States achieved the vote, except for limited participation in school board elections. Her views on the rights of indigenous Americans, too, were well ahead of any effective change in how the authorities treated them. In a period when women could not hold public office, her influence on generations of women inspired many to work for social and legal change. Those women who, in the next century, stood for and gained political office, stand on her shoulders and on those of other nineteenth century champions of gender and racial equality. Her ability to influence public opinion through writing and civil society organizations testifies to the vital role that such agencies play within democratic systems.
In 1993, scientific historian Margaret W. Rossiter coined the term "Matilda effect," after Matilda 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. The "Matilda effect" is a corollary to the "Matthew effect," which was postulated by the sociologist Robert K. Merton.
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