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Matilda Joslyn Gage

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 11/25/2019

Forgotten Foremothers
Profiles of Lesser-Known Heroines in the Fight for Women’s Rights

In 1962, Rosalind Franklin’s uncredited research into the DNA double helix helped earn James Watson and Francis Crick the Nobel Prize. The lack of recognition Franklin received has been attributed to “The Matilda Effect,” which describes the gender bias that often leads to the devaluing or even theft of the achievements of women scientists. Science historian Margaret W. Rossiter coined the term in 1993 and the woman she named it after was Matilda Joslyn Gage.

“A very slight investigation proves,” wrote Gage in “Woman as Inventor,” an article published in The North American Review in 1870, “that patents taken out in some man’s name are, in many instances, due to women. A recent noted instance of this kind is Miss Louise McLaughlin’s invention of underglaze painting on pottery. Miss McLaughlin, desiring that all artists should share in its benefits, explained her process to every person who asked her, and even wrote a book giving this information. But a certain man, seeing its value, took out a patent upon it, thus prohibiting even its inventor from using the fruit of her own brain.”

In the article, Gage chronicles inventions throughout history that can be attributed to women and ultimately why they weren’t, from thefts like those mentioned above, to laws granting all power to a woman’s husband, to the particular fatigue experienced by those who have no control in their lives. “Inventors must not only possess full freedom to exercise their powers, but there must also be a certain welcome and protection to their ideas,” wrote Gage. “Deprived, as woman is, of political power, she has to face contempt of her sex, open and covert scorn of womanhood, depreciatory allusions to her intellectual powers—all tending to hamper the expression of her inventive genius.”

Library of Congress LC-USZ62-73362 

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.

“It has not been without bitter resistance by the clergy that woman’s property and education rights have advanced,” Gage wrote. “Woman’s anti-slavery work, her temperance work, her demand for personal rights, for political equality, for religious freedom and every step of kindred character has met with opposition from the church as a body and from the clergy as exponents of its views.”

Gage left the NWSA and founded the Woman’s National Liberal Union in 1890, attracting more like-minded pursuers of suffrage and equality. As president of the WNLU, Gage also acted as editor of the organization’s journal, The Liberal Thinker. In this publication, she continued to criticize what she saw as Christianity’s upholding of men as the masters of women—“Both church and state, claiming to be of divine origin, assume divine right of man over woman; while church and state have thought for man, man has assumed the right to think for woman.”—and also wrote thoughtfully about a wide range of subjects from abortion, to divorce, to the treatment of Native Americans, all with an eye toward individual liberty.

Much of her later years were spent among the Iroquois tribe, whose gender equality she admired. The tribe’s matrilineal system of family groups, as well as female property rights, showed Gage a dynamic between men and women that appeared more equal and desirable. She would eventually be initiated into the Wolf Clan; receive the Iroquois name of Karonienhawi, meaning “she who holds the sky;” and be welcomed into the Iroquois Council of Matrons.

Matilda Joslyn Gage died in March of 1898 at age 71 in the Chicago home of her daughter Maud and son-in-law Frank L. Baum of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz fame, whom Maud married long before he experienced any significant writing success of his own (to her mother’s brief chagrin). Baum reportedly claimed his mother-in-law to be the most gifted and educated woman of her age.

A memorial stone in Fayetteville Cemetery bears Gage’s own words as her epitaph: “There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home or Heaven. That word is Liberty.

Library of Congress LC-DIG-ds-13923

National Woman Suffrage Association

National Woman Suffrage Association
Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation

Dedicated to educating current and future generations about Gage’s work and its power to drive contemporary social change.

The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation was founded in 2000 when Sally Roesch Wagner, the leading authority on Gage, brought together a nationwide network of diverse people with a common goal: to bring this vitally important suffragist back to her rightful place in history.

The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation is dedicated to celebrating and promoting Gage’s legacy and the continuing significance of her life, her thought, her writings and her inspiration for the present and the future.