The following is a Woman of Courage profile written and produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women.
1998 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Matilda Joslyn Gage, the “forgotten” foremother of the women’s rights movement. She was a contemporary of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, with whom she co-authored the first three volumes of the definitive History of Women Suffrage. Gage was always one of the more radical leaders of the women’s rights movement and her writing focused on the significant accomplishments of women in invention, military affairs, and in history.
Matilda Joslyn was born in Cicero, New York, east of Syracuse, on March 25, 1826. Raised in an Abolitionist home that was a station on the Underground railroad, she described her early life: “I think I was born with a hatred of oppression, and, too, in my father's house, I was trained in the anti-slavery ranks, for it was one of the stations on the underground railway, and a home of anti-slavery speakers.” As a child she circulated anti-slavery petitions.
She was well educated for the day. “I am indebted to my father for something better than a collegiate education. He taught me to think for myself, and not to accept the word of any man, or society, or human being, but to fully examine for myself. My father was a physician, training me himself, giving me lessons in physiology and anatomy, and while I was a young girl he spoke of my entering Geneva Medical College, whose president was his old professor, and studying for a physician, but that was not to be. I had been married quite a number of years when Elizabeth Blackwell was graduated from that institution , which opened its doors to admit her, closing them, upon her graduation, to women, until since its union with the Syracuse University.”
Gage's entire life was spent within a thirty mile radius of Syracuse and her home, like that of her parents, was a station on the underground railroad. She married Henry H. Gage, a merchant, in January 1845, and settled in Fayetteville, NY. In 1850, with four young children at home, Gage signed a petition stating that she would face a six month prison term and a $2,000 fine rather than obey the newly enacted Fugitive Slave law, which made criminals of anyone assisting slaves to freedom anywhere in the United States.
While Gage’s background was much more varied than many young women of her day, even her early training did not make her transition to outspoken feminist an easy one. She was less than 30 years old when she spoke at the third national Women's Rights convention in Syracuse in 1852. She was inaudible to her audience and “trembling in every limb” at the conclusion of her first public address.
It was not until after the Civil War, when her children were grown and her family responsibilities had lessened, that Matilda Joslyn Gage went into serious political and social activism. She believed that the rights of all people were intertwined. Just as she had fought slavery and spoke out for women’s rights, she also championed Indian rights.
She joined Elizabth Cady Stanton's National Women's Suffrage Association in 1869 and contributed to its newspaper, the Revolution. She also heled found and becasme the secretary of the New York State Women's Suffrage Association in 1869.
During the 1870's, Gage wrote a series of controversial articles condemning the brutal and unjust treatment American Indians had received. Gage was adopted into the wolf clan of the Mohawk nation and given the name Ka-ron-ien-ha-wi (Sky Carrier). She wrote about the superior form of government practiced by the Six Nation Iroquois Confederacy where "the power between the sexes was nearly equal."
With Stanton and Anthony, Gage became a leader of the radical wing of the woman's rights movement, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). The NWSA chose civil disobedience as a tactic in the early 1870's and Gage was one of the hundreds of women across the country who broke the law by attempting to vote in 1871, following passage and ratification on the 15th amendment which gave the franchise to former slaves. Gage, like most, was unsuccessful. The following year Susan B. Anthony successfully cast her ballot in Rochester, NY and was promptly arrested. Her case became the test case for woman's right to vote. Gage sat with Anthony through the trial and stood in support when Anthony, found guilty, refused to pay the imposed $100 fine.
In 1880, when the New York Woman Suffrage Association gained women the right to vote and run for office in school elections, Gage helped organize the women of her village, Fayetteville, and they elected an all-woman slate of officers. In 1892 Gage's vote became the test case for the constitutionality of that law. Like Anthony, she lost her case and the limited right of school suffrage was taken away from New York women.
In 1875 Gage, Stanton and Anthony began writing the History of Women’s Suffrage. The first three volumes, covering the period from 1848 to 1883, took over 14 years to write and totaled more than 3,000 pages. Eventually the History filled six volumes and was completed in 1922, following passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919, by Ida Husted Harper, Susan B Anthony’s friend and biographer. The History is more than a record of the leadership of the suffrage movements; it is the story of the countless women who labored for three generations in the biggest mass organization and the biggest coalition built in the 18th century.
Concerned with the way in which women were written out of history, Gage documented many previously unacknowledged accomplishments of her sex. She maintained that the cotton gin wasn't really invented by Eli Whitney, but rather by Catherine Littlefield Greene, who had the idea for the gin and engaged Whitney to construct it. Gage argued that the Tennessee Campaign of 1862, an important military campaign which changed the course of the Civil War was actually the brainchild of Anna Ella Carroll. From 1878 to 1881 she published The National Citizen and Ballot Box, the official paper of the NWSA.
Later in her life, she became increasingly frustrated when the militant suffrage campaign failed to win women the right to vote. Gage launched a full-scale attack on what she saw as the "bulwark of woman's slavery" - the Church. She and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had collaborated on The Woman’s Bible published in 1895, a major Bible criticism from a radical feminist point of view. Gage eventually left the suffrage movement and formed the Woman's National Liberal Union. The WNLU, made up of anarchists, prison reformers, labor leaders and feminists, was viewed as one of the most radical organizations in the country, and Gage's mail was intercepted by the government.
Stanton didn’t join Gage’s group, and Anthony denounced Gage's "secession" from the suffrage ranks. Gage spent her last eight years estranged from most of her suffrage allies and friends of the previous forty years. She died in Chicago on March 18, 1898. Her beliefs and radical politics kept her out of her rightful place in the history of suffrage; she was far over-shadowed by Anthony and Stanton.
Learn more The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, dedicated to educating current and future generations about Gage’s work and its power to drive contemporary social change. At the heart of our mission is the story of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a progressive visionary of women’s rights and human liberation and an often unacknowledged leader who, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote the arguments, inspired the passions and organized the political action of the 19th century woman suffrage movement in the United States.
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