Matilda Joslyn Gage: New York’s Neglected Suffragist
By Susan Ingalls Lewis
Most New Yorkers probably recognize the names of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, though we may not realize that these advocates for women’s rights spent most of their lives in New York State. But few have ever heard of a third leader from New York: Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898). Like Anthony and Stanton, Gage began her activism in the abolition movement, but devoted most of her life to fighting gender inequality. With them, she was a founding member of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and a co-author and co-editor of the first three volumes of History of Woman Suffrage, published 1881-1886. Gage also became an advocate for Native American rights. Yet even historians of women, like myself, know little about Gage’s beliefs and accomplishments.
Matilda Joslyn was born in the town of Cicero, in Onondaga County, north of Syracuse and south of Oneida Lake, where her family was active in the Underground Railroad. As a married woman and mother, Gage lived in Fayetteville, a village east of Syracuse, where her home also became a refuge for enslaved people attempting to escape their bondage. New York’s strategic position on the way to Canada made the state a prime location for “stops” on the route from slavery to freedom beyond U.S. borders. Gage’s antislavery sentiments were shared by her husband, a merchant, her Baptist Church, and many in her Fayetteville community, who became strong supporters of the new Republican Party and the Union cause in the Civil War.
Although Gage did not attend the famous 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls (neither did Anthony), she was a speaker at the 1852 National Convention for Women’s Rights held in Syracuse, New York. Her speech included these words:
Although our country makes great professions in regard to general liberty, yet the right to particular liberty, natural equality, and personal independence, of two great portions of this country, is treated, from custom, with the greatest contempt; and color in the one instance, and sex in the other, are brought as reasons why they should be so derided; and the mere mention of such, natural rights is frowned upon, as tending to promote sedition and anarchy.
Here we can see the way Gage framed her arguments for both abolition and women’s rights. In the first case, she states that women are being held by the American Republic as subjects rather than citizens; in the second, that both Americans held in slavery and U.S. women are being denied their liberty, equality, and independence – but that, ironically, the “mere mention” of these problems is “frowned upon” as “tending to promote sedition and anarchy.” In Gage’s words, as in the Declaration of Sentiments written at Seneca Falls four years earlier, we recognize deliberate echoes of the arguments made by American Patriots in the Declaration of Independence now applied to people of African descent and the female sex.
Gage, Anthony, and Stanton took part in numerous and varied efforts on behalf of increasing women’s legal, political, and economic rights: petition drives, lobbying efforts, and speaking tours, plus the writing, editing, and publication of articles, journals, and books. One of Susan B. Anthony’s most famous tactics in the fight for women’s suffrage was her insistence on registering for the vote, and actually voting, in 1872 in Rochester. Although initially allowed to proceed, the following year Anthony was tried and convicted for the act of voting illegally. This story is well known to students of Women’s History, and highlighted in Ken Burns’s documentary on Anthony and Stanton, Not for Ourselves Alone. Far less well known is Matilda Joslyn Gage’s role in speaking on Anthony’s behalf (indeed, the documentary makes Anthony seem like the only speaker). According to the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, “Gage was the only suffragist who came to Anthony’s aid, supporting her during her trial, speaking out on her behalf, and writing an analysis of the case for the Albany Law Journal.” Just a few of Gage’s many points follow:
Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. That is the axiom of our republic. From this axiom we understand that powers used by the government without the consent of the governed, are not just powers but that on the contrary, they are unjust powers, usurped powers, illegal powers
In what way does the consent of the governed come?
By and through the ballot alone. . . .
Women come into the world endowed with the same natural rights as men, and this by virtue of their common humanity, and when prevented or restrained from their exercise, they are enslaved.
Again, students of Susan B. Anthony’s life know that she published The Revolution (1868-1872), the official paper of the National Woman Suffrage Association. But Gage also published a newspaper, The National Citizen and Ballot Box (1878-1881). “Women of every class, condition, rank and name will find this paper their friend,” she wrote. Articles promoted women’s rights and provided examples of women leaders and inventors. Gage also used its pages to champion the rights of Native Americans, pointing out that the federal government was guilty of breaking all its treaties with Indians, and attempting to eliminate the independence of their nations. In 1893, Gage was adopted into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation and given the name, Ka-ron-ien-ha-wi , “She Who Holds the Sky.” Her admiration for the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, had been expressed years earlier in a series of articles for The New York Evening Post, where she highlighted the power that women held in their society, which she hailed as “matriarchal” rather than “patriarchal” on the European model.
Gage made what feminist historians now consider the “radical” demand for voting rights, based on natural human rights rather than women’s special nature as wives and mothers. Her revolutionary views extended to religion. When in 1890 Anthony moved to merge the NWSA into a new organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) focused primarily on the vote, Gage objected because the new group included the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and others she felt were trying to foster a Christian, rather than secular, nation. Instead, Gage formed her own group, the Woman’s National Liberal Union, “made up of anarchists, prison reformers, labor leaders and feminists,” thus alienating her former friends and colleagues. Gage had worked with Stanton to produce The Woman’s Bible, but went even further in her own Woman, Church and State (1893), in which she argued that the Christian Church was largely responsible for the oppression of women. In a period where Protestant beliefs were considered a central tenet of the American identity and women’s virtue, her views were extremely controversial.
Matilda Joslyn Gage is often referred to as “forgotten,” though I believe neglected is a better term. Women’s historians, myself included, have certainly heard of Gage. Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner has been attempting to restore Gage to her place in history for more than thirty years. Two books on Gage’s life have been published: Matilda Joslyn Gage: She Who Holds The Sky (1999), by Wagner, Founder and Executive Director of The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, Inc., and Excluded from Suffrage History: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Nineteenth-Century American Feminist (2000), by Leila R. Brammer, Professor of Communication Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College. Yet, despite these monographs and the creation of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation in 2000, I believe that her life and work remain under-recognized by New Yorkers.
New York State was more than just a stage-set on which Gage’s activism played out. The state’s geographic position made it a natural stop on the Underground Railroad. As a breeding ground for the radical causes of abolition and women’s rights, Central New York provided an environment in which Gage’s ideas could flourish. The proximity of Fayetteville to Rochester (home of Susan B. Anthony) and Seneca Falls (Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s residence for many years) facilitated Gage’s collaboration with these leaders whose names are so much better known than hers today. Thus, Gage was close by when Anthony’s trial for voting illegally was moved from Monroe County to Canandaigua in Ontario County (on the basis that Anthony’s speeches on her own behalf had already convinced the local citizens of her cause). Living in the former lands of the Iroquois, Gage was exposed to their history and culture, and inspired by the power that Haudenosaunee women traditionally enjoyed within their communities. It was not accidental that her innovative ideas developed in New York.
One final surprising connection to New York State history—in 1882 Gage’s youngest daughter married an unsuccessful playwright and actor whom she met in Syracuse. Although Gage was originally set against the match (and particularly against her daughter leaving Cornell), she eventually grew fond of her son-in-law, Frank L. Baum, who later found fame and fortune as the author of the Wizard of Oz series. I had always imagined that Baum was a native of Kansas—who would have guessed that he was born, grew up, and lived in New York State until he was 32 years old?
 Matilda Joslyn Gage, Speech to the National Women’s Rights Convention, 1852. http://www.matildajoslyngage.org/gage-home/womens-rights-room/gages-writing/national-womans-rights-convention-1852/
 Women’s Rights Room, Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation. http://www.matildajoslyngage.org/gage-home/womens-rights-room/
 Matilda Joslyn Gage, Speech on Behalf of Susan B. Anthony, 1873. http://www.infoplease.com/t/hist/anthony-trial/7.html
 Matilda Joslyn Gage, “National Citizen and Ballot Box,” Accessible Archives. http://www.accessible-archives.com/collections/national-citizen-and-ballot-box/
The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation; http://www.matildajoslyngage.org/
Matilda Joslyn Gage: Forgotten Feminist, Sally Roesch Wagner; http://www.nyhistory.com/gagepage/gagebio.htm
Women’s Rights: The Matilda Joslyn Gage Home: