Matilda Joslyn Gage: The Radical Visionary Erased from History

Matilda Joslyn Gage: The Radical Visionary Erased from History

In 1890, pioneering feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage warned starkly: "The prolonged slavery of woman is the darkest page in human history." She penned this searing indictment in her groundbreaking—yet now forgotten—magnum opus, analyzing the historical subjugation of women by religion and law.     

Gage's 500-page treatise represented the culmination of a radical 40-year career crusading for abolition, Native rights and female suffrage alongside legends like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Somehow, her own haunting prediction of erasure proved prescient.      

Today, Matilda Joslyn Gage remains all but scrubbed from the annals of women's rights history—despite playing an essential role in theorizing many of its most expansive visions. Her unconventional views on race, organized religion and female bodily autonomy ultimately provoked too much for her contemporaries.      

"No one was a better intellectual match for Anthony and Stanton than Matilda," notes historian Sally Roesch Wagner—yet "she was written out of history" due precisely to her uncompromising ideas.     

As Gage herself once warned starkly, "The careful student will discover that insubordination is a prime factor in gaining freedom."      

Early Life and Influences     

Born Matilda Electa Joslyn in 1826 in Cicero, New York, Gage seemed destined to rebel against society's strictures from birth. Her childhood home functioned as a busy station along the Underground Railroad, instilling early the values of freedom fighting.      

Gage's father, Dr. Hezekiah Joslyn, encouraged his daughters to pursue a classical education despite proscriptions limiting girls' access to advanced training in Latin, mathematics and philosophy. Though deprived of attending college formally, Gage took private classes with professors at Syracuse University.       

Her favorite instructor, Rev. Samuel J. May—a prominent Unitarian reformer—helped shape the outspoken advocacy style she would later deploy in campaigning for abolition and women's rights. May also introduced Gage to key activists like Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who became defining influences on her intellectual development.       

After marrying an abolitionist merchant named Henry Hill Gage in 1845, Matilda threw herself into several reform movements, including anti-slavery societies and the women's dress reform campaign. Her parlor became a bustling salon for revolutionaries and intellectuals debating how to transform society.       

From Dress Reform to Women's Suffrage      

Gage's initial entrée into organized women's rights activism began with the dress reform movement in the late 1840s. She helped establish a local committee to promote "bloomers"—a liberating new style of baggy pants worn under a knee-length dress.      

The outfit, designed by her cousin Elizabeth Smith Miller, challenged prevailing Victorian notions of female propriety and modesty. Gage embraced the bloomers' symbolic rejection of patriarchal control over women's bodies.     

She also grew increasingly involved with the burgeoning women's rights conventions cropping up regionally, helping arrange the third national gathering in Syracuse by 1852. There, Gage befriended Susan B. Anthony, forging a union that evolved into an integral intellectual and strategic partnership for nearly 40 years.       

Their first major endeavor together involved campaigning against prostitution and marital rape—then euphemistically referred to as " restellism " and "legalized prostitution." Gage viewed bodily sovereignty as foundational to female liberation.  


True freedom for women cannot exist while religious and legal systems uphold their subjugation. Liberation demands we challenge these foundations with unwavering courage.     

By the 1860s, Gage began focusing intensely on winning women's suffrage—which she viewed as an essential tool for overhauling sexist laws on rape, domestic abuse, child custody and employment. She founded the Woman's National Loyalty League in 1863, eventually presenting President Lincoln with over 100,000 signatures urging abolition and "securing to all persons...their right to life, liberty and happiness."       

Seeing Black men gain voting rights after the Civil War, while women remained disenfranchised, steeled Gage's commitment to federal action. She co-founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869 alongside Stanton and Anthony. There, she helped introduce the group's first constitutional amendment for suffrage.     

An Uncompromising Militant               

Where Gage began distinguishing herself was in the uncompromising militancy of her rhetoric and direct action protests. Impatient with incremental reform, she grew increasingly strident in attacking the church as the root of female subjugation.       

"It is not alone that men have excluded women from councils, synods and Church government, but they have further shown their disrespect by declaring her unfit for positions of trust within the Church itself," Gage proclaimed with her typical bluntness in an NWSA convention keynote.  

Her searing rebukes grew only more inflammatory after the divisive passage of the 14th and 15th amendments, which enfranchised Black men while leaving women behind. Gage accused the Republican Party of betrayal in prioritizing African American male voting rights over universalist liberty.       

"The careful student will discover that so long as woman's subordination is taught from the pulpit, she will be degraded in the pews," Gage declared in one blistering editorial.     

By 1890, Gage began openly encouraging tax resistance amongst propertied women to protest their lack of electoral representation. She stopped paying taxes on her Fayetteville home, prompting authorities to seize her goods at auction.       

Gage used the incident to stage a theatrical mock funeral in town, complete with a coffin marked "Liberty, Died Under Taxation Without Representation." Such provocative antics foreshadowed tactics later adopted by British suffragettes.       

Her no-holds-barred militancy started alienating more moderate suffragists, including Stanton and Anthony. As the movement professionalized in the 1890s, Gage's absolutism and anti-religiosity rendered her a liability in lobbying politicians.       

"When women ceased to fear the devil and began to trust reason, they found they had mental ability to understand civil laws and Constitutions," Gage thundered undeterred.       

Intersections of Race, Religion and Gender       

Beyond her radicalism on female bodily autonomy, Gage also stood out in connecting women's liberation to racial justice and Native sovereignty. She was one of the first suffragists to decry the horrific lynchings of Black men in the South.      

In editorials for The National Citizen and Ballot Box—the newspaper she co-published with Stanton—Gage spotlighted how allegations of sexual aggression against white women were wielded to justify racial terror. She understood how race, religion and gender hierarchies all served to mutually reinforce systems of oppression.       

Gage's personal papers also reveal a profound respect for Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) matriarchal traditions. She developed a deep friendship with a Mohawk elder named Ely Parker, eventually penning a history of the Haudenosaunee Confederation government hailing their superior women's rights.       

"The division of power between the sexes in this Indian republic was nearly equal," Gage wrote admiringly of the Haudenosaunee model. She lifted up Native women's authority in selecting male chiefs and managing property as aspirational for white women.       

Gage's embrace of racial equality and women of color rendered her an increasing anomaly within the suffragist movement as it grew more exclusionary entering the 20th century. Southern white chapters began instituting segregationist policies and courting conservative donors by appealing to racism.     

By the 1890s, even Anthony and Stanton had started touting women's suffrage as an essential "counterbalance" to Black and immigrant male voters. Gage found herself increasingly sidelined by the organization she had co-founded.     

A Magnum Opus Ignored       

Amidst rising backlash to her unconventional views, Gage retreated in the 1890s to pen what she considered her defining work—Woman , Church and State. The impeccably researched 500-page tome, published in 1893, laid out a comprehensive case for why male-dominated religion represented the most powerful force behind women's oppression throughout history.       

Gage dissected Biblical justifications for female obedience, church-sanctioned witch burnings in the Middle Ages, and celibacy vows compelling nuns into domestic servitude. She exposed centuries of ecclesiastical courts and canon laws subjugating women.     

"During the Christian ages, the Church has not one record in its favor as a promoter of science, as a disseminator of knowledge, or as a supporter of human liberty," Gage wrote.     

The book shocked readers with its searing repudiation of Christianity, specifically as a patriarchal weapon. Gage held little back in attacking revered male religious authorities like Martin Luther for reducing women to mere vessels for reproduction.       

She went so far as to declare: "The most stupendous system of organized robbery which the world has ever known has been that of the Church toward women."     

Gage had hoped to galvanize women around this radical feminist framework. But the book backfired spectacularly. Suffragist leaders recoiled at its blistering rhetoric amidst rising nativism and hardening racial attitudes. Stanton and Anthony moved to formally distance the NWSA from Gage's anti-religious screeds.       

The controversial tome sold less than 1,000 copies initially before quickly dropping out of print for nearly a century. Gage found herself not only estranged from the movement she helped build, but also impoverished by the book's failure. She died just five years later in 1898, at the age of 71, isolated and embittered.       

A Troubled Legacy       

Matilda Joslyn Gage's uncompromising militancy and radical social critiques rendered her a pariah in the eyes of the suffragist establishment by her death. Most early retrospectives sanitized her legacy by omitting her most revolutionary later stances.       

Renewed scholarly interest in Gage only began emerging again in the 1970s with a broader feminist reappraisal of women's history. Academics began spotlighting her prescient analysis of how religious and legal structures had long served to mutually reinforce female subjugation.       

"She was about 100 years ahead of her time in her ideas," notes historian Sally Roesch Wagner. "She anticipated modern feminist theory in connecting all forms of oppression under one umbrella of tyrannical patriarchy."     

Wagner points to Gage's early use of an "intersectional" framework in highlighting how racial, religious and sexual hierarchies functioned interdependently. Gage was one of the first to dissect how stereotypes of white female fragility fueled racist myths about sexually aggressive Black and Native men.       

Her searing retort that "the careful student will discover that insubordination is a prime factor in gaining freedom" also resonates strongly with current movements' emphasis on bold direct action and unapologetic truth-telling.     

In an era still grappling with battles over reproductive autonomy, Native land rights and racial justice, Gage's assertive voice reverberates once more. Despite her own chilling prediction, the radical visionary refused to compromise or soften her unequivocal demands for full equality on all fronts.     

"Although she was marginalized in her own time, erased and silenced, we now have the opportunity to amplify her prophetic legacy for a new generation," reflects Sally Roesch Wagner, the author of Matilda Joslyn Gage: She Who Holds the Sky     

As the women's movement reckons today with its own historical racial and class hierarchies, Matilda Joslyn Gage's unapologetic intersectional militancy rings out as a guiding light.         

Nora Activist

Nora Activist

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