Gage was born Matilda Electa Joslyn in 1826 to Dr. Hezekiah and Helen Joslyn in Cicero, New York. Both her parents held strong liberal and abolitionist beliefs; Gage’s childhood home was a station on the Underground Railroad, assisting enslaved people as they made their escape to free states and Canada. This environment, and her mother’s love of historical research, heavily influenced Gage’s path in life.
In 1845, at age 18, she married merchant Henry Gage and the two settled in Fayetteville. They had five children though only four lived to adulthood. Following in her parents’ footsteps, their home, too, became a station on the Underground Railroad. She later faced prison time under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which made it a crime to help escaped slaves, even for those residents of the so-called “free states.”
Always willful, Gage officially became involved in the women’s rights movement in 1852 when she spoke at the National Women’s Rights Convention. The NWRC had only had its first meeting two years earlier. Gage became known for her powers of persuasion and her way with words. Regarding a law that permitted a man to leave his children to an unrelated guardian rather than the children’s mother, she wrote, “It is sometimes better to be a dead man than a live woman.” She talked a group of police into leaving the 1876 convention rather than breaking it up as an illegal assembly and she argued with polling station officials who turned away women wanting to vote in 1871. In 1873, she defended Susan B. Anthony when Anthony was put on trial for voting in that election and Gage presented all the sound and moral arguments she had for women’s suffrage, arguments that had grown in strength and conciseness through the years.
“When any man expresses doubt to me as to the use that I or any other woman might make of the ballot if we had it, my answer is, What is that to you?” Gage wrote. “If you have for years defrauded me of my rightful inheritance, and then, as a stroke of policy...concluded to restore to me my own domain, must I ask you whether I may make of it a garden of flowers, or a field of wheat, or a pasture for [cows]?”
She collaborated with Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on three volumes of the History of Women Suffrage. Gage’s stances were far more radical than those of her contemporaries, however, which would eventually lead to a split. Anthony’s primary concern was the vote, but Gage found that goal too narrow. She tried—and failed—to prevent the National Woman Suffrage Association from joining forces with the conservative movements that supported women’s voting rights primarily as a means of advancing temperance and Christian politics. Though deeply religious in her own way, Gage believed in the separation of church and state and was critical of Christianity, viewing organized religion as antagonistic to the progress of women.