Electa Joslyn Gage was a suffragist, a Native American activist,
an abolitionist, a freethinker, and a prolific author, who was "born
with a hatred of oppression". Though born in Cicero, New York,
Gage maintained residence in Fayetteville, New York for the majority
of her life. She is enterred at Fayetteville Cemetery.
Joslyn Gage spent her childhood in a house which was a station
of the underground railroad. She faced prison for her actions
under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 which criminalized assistance
to escaped slaves. Even though she was beset by both financial
and physical (cardiac) problems throughout her life, her work
for women's rights was extensive, practical, and often brilliantly
became involved in the women's rights movement in 1853 when she
decided to speak at the National Women's Rights Convention in
Syracuse, New York. She served as president of the National Woman
Suffrage Association from 1875 to 1876. During the 1876 convention,
she successfully argued against a group of police who claimed
the association was holding an illegal assembly. They left without
was considered to be more radical than either Susan
or Elizabeth Cady Stanton (with whom she wrote A History of Woman
Suffrage). Along with Cady Stanton, she was a vocal critic of
the Christian Church, which put her at odds with conservative
suffragists such as Frances Willard and the Woman's Christian
Temperance Union. 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'.
of the Ballot Box
Gage was well-educated and a prolific writer. She corresponded
with numerous newspapers, reporting on developments in the female
suffrage movement. In 1878 she bought the Ballot Box, a monthly
journal of a Toledo, Ohio suffrage association, when its editor
Susan Williams decided to retire. Gage turned it into The National
Citizen and Ballot Box, explaining her intentions for the paper
especial object will be to secure national protection to women
citizens in the exercise of their rights to vote...it will oppose
Class Legislation of whatever form...Women of every class, condition,
rank and name will find this paper their friend (Reference: "Prospectus",
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 wrote clearly, logically, and often
with a dry wit and a well-honed sense of irony. Writing about
laws which allowed a man to will his children to a guardian unrelated
to their mother, Gage observed:
is sometimes better to be a dead man than a live woman. “
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, NY) 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.
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. She supported Victoria Woodhull
and (later) Ulysses S Grant in the 1872 presidential election.
In 1873 she defended Susan
B. Anthony when Anthony was placed
on trial for having voted in that election, making compelling
legal and moral arguments.
of the Women's National Liberal Union
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 (NWSA), 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.
American Woman Suffrage Association (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
organisations, pushed through by Anthony under controversial circumstances,
produced the National American Suffrage Association in 1890. While
Stanton and Gage maintained their radical positions, they found
that the only women's issue really unifying the National American
was the move for suffrage.
prompted Gage to establish the Women's National Liberal Union
(WNLU) in 1890, of which she was president until her death (by
stroke) in 1898. Attracting more radical members than the National
American, 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.
was an avid opponent of the various Christian churches, and she
strongly supported the separation of the church and the state,
believing "that the greatest injury to the world has arisen
from theological laws,-from a union of Church and State".
She wrote in October 1881,
this country to be a political and not a religious organisation...the
editor of the NATIONAL CITIZEN will use all her influence of voice
and pen against "Sabbath Laws", the uses of the "Bible
in School," and pre-eminently against an amendment which
shall introduce "God in the Constitution." (Reference:
"God in the Constitution", page 2)
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).
on social issues
Like many other suffragists, Gage considered abortion a regrettable
tragedy, although her views on the subject were more complex than
simple opposition, and may seem confusing to those familiar with
the modern abortion debate. In 1868, she wrote a letter to The
Revolution (a women's rights paper edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton
and Parker Pillsbury), supporting the typical women's rights view
of the time that abortion was an institution supported, dominated
and furthered by men. Gage wrote:
short article on "Child Murder" in your paper of March
12th touched a subject which lies deeper down in woman's wrongs
than any other. This is the denial of the right to herself ...
nowhere has the marital union of the sexes been one in which woman
has had control over her own body.
motherhood is a crime against the body of the mother and the soul
of the child....But the crime of abortion is not one in which
the guilt lies solely or even chiefly with the woman....I hesitate
not to assert that most of this crime of "child murder,"
"abortion," "infanticide," lies at the door
of the male sex.”
a woman has laughed a silent, derisive laugh at the decisions
of eminent medical and legal authorities, in cases of crimes committed
against her as a woman. Never, until she sits as juror on such
trials, will or can just decisions be rendered.”
Gage opposed abortion on principle, blaming it on the 'selfish
desire' of husbands to maintain their wealth by reducing their
offspring, her letter called not for the outlawing of abortions,
but for the turning of the decision over to the woman in question.
Gage was quite concerned with the rights of a woman over her own
life and body. In 1881 she wrote, on the subject of divorce:
they preach as does Rev. Crummell, of "the hidden mystery
of generation, the wondrous secret of propagated life, committed
to the trust of woman," they bring up a self-evident fact
of nature which needs no other inspiration, to show the world
that the mother, and the not the father, is the true head of the
family, and that she should be able to free herself from the adulterous
husband, keeping her own body a holy temple for its divine-human
uses, of which as priestess and holder of the altar she alone
should have control. "
about Native Americans in the United States by Lewis Henry Morgan
and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft also influenced Gage. She decried the
brutal treatment of Native Americans in her writings and public
speeches. She was angered that the Federal government of the United
States attempted to confer citizenship (including suffrage) upon
Native Americans (who, Gage argued, opposed taxation, and generally
did not seek citizenship) while still withholding the vote from
women. She wrote in 1878:
the Indians have been oppressed - are now, is true, but the United
States has treaties with them, recognising them as distinct political
communities, and duty towards them demands not an enforced citizenship
but a faithful living up to its obligations on the part of the
In her 1893 work Woman, Church and State 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.
Gage was the wife of Henry Hill Gage, with whom she had four children.
Gage's daughter Maud married Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum.
Gage acted as editor of The National Citizen and Ballot Box, May
1879 - October 1881, (available on microfilm) and as editor of
The Liberal Thinker, from 1890 - onwards. These publications offered
her the opportunity to publish essays and opinion pieces. The
following is a partial list of published works:
"Is Woman Her Own?", published in The Revolution, April
9th 1868, ed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Parker Pillsbury. pp 215-216.
2. "Prospectus", published in The National Citizen and
Ballot Box, ed. Matilda E. J. Gage. May 1878 p 1.
3. "Indian Citizenship", published in The National Citizen
and Ballot Box, ed. Matilda E. J. Gage. May 1878 p 2.
4. "All The Rights I Want", published in The National
Citizen and Ballot Box, ed. Matilda E. J. Gage. January 1879 p
5. "A Sermon Against Woman", published in The National
Citizen and Ballot Box, ed. Matilda E. J. Gage. September 1881
6. "God in the Constitution", published in The National
Citizen and Ballot Box, ed. Matilda E. J. Gage. October 1881 p
7. Woman As Inventor, 1870, Fayetteville, NY: F.A. Darling
8. History of Woman Suffrage, 1881, Chapters by Cady Stanton,
E., Anthony, S.B., Gage, M. E. J., Harper, I.H. (published again
in 1985 by Salem NH: Ayer Company)
9. Woman, Church and State, 1893 (published again in 1980 by Watertowne
MA: Persephone Press)
In 1993, historian of science Margaret W. Rossiter coined the
term "Matilda effect," named after Matilda J. Gage,
to identify the social situation where woman scientists inaccurately
receive less credit for their scientific work than an objective
examination of their actual effort would reveal. The Matilda effect
is a corollary to the "Matthew effect" postulated by
the famous sociologist Robert K. Merton.