Saturday, March 23, 2013

Matilda Electa Joslyn Gage, born March 24, 1826

Matilda Joslyn was born March 24, 1826, in Cicero, New York, a daughter of the abolitionist Hezekiah Joslyn and his wife, Helen Leslie.

Doctor Hezekiah Joslyn
Matilda spent her childhood in a house which was used as a station of the underground railroadAs a child during the 1830's, she circulated anti-slavery petitions. 

Her father provided her early education, which included mathematics, Greek, and biology, after which she attended the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York. 
“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."
She married Henry Hill Gage, a merchant, on January 6, 1845, at the age of 19.  The couple lived in Syracuse, New York at the beginning of their marriage.

She was 35 years old when the Civil War began.

Matilda Gage with one of her daughters
She had five children with Henry Hill Gage: Charles Henry (who died in infancy), Helen Leslie, Thomas Clarkson, Julia Louise, and MaudMatilda named her son, Thomas Clarkson, after a famous English abolitionist.

As a young wife and mother in 1850, Gage signed a petition stating that she would face the penalty of 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.

Helen Leslie Gage, Matilda’s eldest daughter, noted that one of her “earliest remembrances is that of a black man on his knees before her mother, thanking her for a chance of life and liberty.” Julia Gage Carpenter, another daughter, also asserted to a newspaper reporter that the home had been an Underground Railroad station and that her mother continued to shelter slaves until the close of the Civil War, despite threats that she should discontinue the practice. 

Matilda Gage had become involved in the women's rights movement in 1852 when she decided to speak at the National Women's Rights Convention in Syracuse, New York, four years after the first convention in Seneca Falls.  

When the Gage family moved to Fayetteville in 1854, their house at 210 East Genesee Street “quickly became a gathering place for workers in the anti-slavery, temperance and woman suffrage causes,” according to Barbara Rivette, historian for the village of Fayetteville. Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Charles Sumner were among abolitionists who visited the home.
Matilda Joslyn Gage House, 
Fayetteville, New York
Henry Hill Gage, Matilda’s husband, was likewise active in anti-slavery work. While Matilda, with the ladies of Fayetteville, raised funds for “the suffering in Kansas,” Henry was part of a group who issued a call for the first meeting of the “Fremont Club” in Fayetteville in 1856, supporting the new Republican Party and the non-extension of slavery into the territories. Henry signed at least one petition to oppose the spread of slavery and draped his store in mourning on the day that the abolitionist martyr, John Brown, was executed. Henry again displayed his anti-slavery convictions in 1863, in celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation.

During the Civil War, a general moratorium was declared within the movement for women's rights, so that women could devote their efforts to the war efforts.  Matilda Gage was “one of the most enthusiastic workers in Fayetteville in preparing hospital supplies” for Union soldiers and held various teas and social gatherings at her home in order to raise funds for the Union cause. In 1862, Gage presented a flag on behalf of the Ladies of Fayetteville to the 122nd Regiment of New York State Volunteers. 

At a time when the administration maintained that the war was being fought simply to preserve the Union, Gage stated in her flag presentation speech that the war’s purpose was far more important. This war was to end slavery. She predicted:
"There can be no permanent peace until the cause of the war is destroyed. And what caused the war? Slavery! And nothing else. That is the corner stone and key stone of the whole. The cries of down-trodden millions arising to the throne of God."
In 1862, both Henry and Matilda spoke at a Washington birthday celebration. Matilda talked about the Women’s Volunteer Aid Societies of the North, describing it as “the stupendous volunteer system called into life by the fall of Fort Sumter and the President’s Proclamation of April 15,” while Henry quoted from one of Washington’s letters to General Lafayette: “I have long considered Slavery a most serious evil, both socially and politically, and should rejoice in any scheme to get rid of so great a burden…and I trust we shall finally have a confederacy of Free States.”

Thomas Clarkson Gage recalled his mother’s reaction to news about the murder of Lincoln: “I rushed through the house to tell my mother. The shock was so great that she went into convulsions and we had to have the aid of a doctor to save her life.”

Gage was considered to be more radical than either Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton  (with whom she wrote the History of Woman Suffrage)

Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Along with Stanton, she was a vocal critic of the Christian Church, which put her at odds with conservative suffragists such as Frances Willard and the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Rather than arguing that women deserved the vote because their feminine morality would then properly influence legislation (as the WCTU did), she argued that they deserved suffrage as a "natural right".

Despite her opposition to the Church, Gage was in her own way deeply religious, and she joined Stanton's Revising Committee to write The Woman's Bible. She became a Theosophist and encouraged her children and their spouses to do so.

As a result of the campaigning of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association under Gage, the state of New York granted female suffrage for electing members of the school boards. Gage ensured that every woman in her area (Fayetteville, New York) had the opportunity to vote by writing letters making them aware of their rights, and sitting at the polls making sure nobody was turned away.
In 1871, Gage was part of a group of 10 women who attempted to vote. Reportedly, she stood by and argued with the polling officials on behalf of each individual woman. 
In 1873 she defended Susan B. Anthony when Anthony was placed on trial for having voted in the 1872 presidential election.

She served as president of the National Women's Suffrage Association (NWSA) from 1875 to 1876.

In 1878 she bought the Ballot Box, a monthly journal of a Toledo, Ohio suffrage association, when its editor decided to retire. Gage turned it into The National Citizen and Ballot Box.  Gage became its primary editor for the next three years (until 1881), producing and publishing essays on a wide range of issues. Each edition bore the words 'The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword', and included regular columns about prominent women in history and female inventors.

Gage unsuccessfully tried to prevent the conservative takeover of the women's suffrage movement. Susan B. Anthony who had helped to found the National Woman Suffrage Association, was primarily concerned with gaining the vote, an outlook which Gage found too narrow. Conservative suffragists were drawn into the organisation, and these women tended not to support general social reform, or attacks on the church.

The American Woman Suffrage Assocation (AWSA), part of the conservative wing of the suffrage movement (and formerly at odds with the National), was open to the prospect of merging with the NWSA under Anthony, while Anthony was working toward unifying the suffrage movement under the single goal of gaining the vote. The merger of the two organizations, pushed through by Anthony, Lucy Stone,  and Alice Stone Blackwell, produced the National American Woman Suffrage Associaton  (NAWSA) in 1890. While Stanton and Gage maintained their radical positions, they found that the only women's issue really unifying the NAWSA was the move for suffrage.
This prompted Gage to establish the Women's National Liberal Union (WNLU) in 1890, of which she was president until her death in 1898. Attracting more radical members than NAWSA, the WNLU was the perfect mouthpiece for her attacks on religion. She became the editor of the official journal of the WNLU, The Liberal Thinker.
Gage was an avid opponent of the various Christian churches, and she strongly supported the separation of church and state, believing "that the greatest injury to the world has arisen from theological laws – from a union of Church and State". 

In 1893, she published Woman, Church and State, a book which outlined the variety of ways in which Christianity had oppressed women and reinforced patriarchal systems. It was wide-ranging and built extensively upon arguments and ideas she had previously put forth in speeches (and in a chapter of History of Woman Suffrage which bore the same name).

She cited the Iroquois society, among others, as a 'Matriarchate' in which women had true power, noting that a system of descent through the female line and female property rights led to a more equal relationship between men and women. Gage spent time among the Iroquois and received the name Karonienhawi - "she who holds the sky" - upon her initiation into the Wolf Clan. She was admitted into the Iroquois Council of Matrons.

Her youngest daughter, Maud, initially horrified her mother when she chose to marry L. Frank Baum (later the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Ozat a time when he was a struggling actor with only a handful of plays to his writing credit. However, after the initial announcement, Gage started laughing, apparently realizing that her emphasis on all individuals making up their own minds was not lost on her headstrong daughter, who gave up a chance at a law career when the opportunity for women was rare. Maud and Frank married in 1882.
L. Frank Baum
When Matilda’s husband Henry died in 1884, winters alone in the large Gage Home were expensive and lonely, so every winter for the next fourteen years until her death, Matilda closed up her Fayetteville home and lived with her daughter and son-in-law.  

She died of a stroke while visiting the Baum home in Chicago, Illinois in 1898, at the age of 72.

Though Gage was cremated, there is a memorial stone at Fayetteville Cemetery that bears her motto, "There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home or Heaven. That word is Liberty."

Matilda Gage Memorial Stone

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