By Tress Klassen
Shunned by her fellow suffragists and ignored by history for her radical views about feminism, religion, and race, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and her role in history, deserves to be shared with the world. This day, the anniversary of Gage’s birthday, and this month, National Women’s History Month, is the time to do just that.
On July 4, 1876, Matilda Gage awoke, got out of bed, and prepared for the day. She probably carried out a typical morning routine; getting dressed, eating breakfast, fixing her hair. But with every habitual, mundane motion, Gage took another step closer to reaching one of the most pivotal and memorable moments in women’s suffrage – a moment she helped to engineer.
Gage and her fellow suffragists arrived at Philadelphia’s grand centennial Independence Day celebration with an agenda that extended far beyond fireworks (Read More) and flags – rather, an agenda that involved civil disobedience, deception, and a lot of courage.
Long before Independence Day, the National Women Suffrage Association (NWSA), for which Gage served as president, had written the Declaration of Rights of Women of the United States, a document that described the history of the oppression of women, the rights women deserved, and the evidence that demonstrated women’s equality.
The document, signed by hundreds of women, concluded with the lines, “We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.”
This declaration of rights was the reason for the suffragists’ presence at Philadelphia’s Independence Day ceremony. Gage and four other women of the NWSA sat at a platform facing Independence Square, where the ceremony was to take place.
Notable political figures of the time, including Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, acting-Vice President Thomas Ferry, and Gen. William Sherman surrounded the women. Thousands of spectators filled Independence Square, and even more flocked to the nearby streets and hung from trees around the square to catch a glimpse of the proceedings.
It was to this crowd that the women of the NWSA longed to present their declaration. But they had been denied permission, on all levels of the political ladder: from the president of the Centennial Commission, all the way to the vice president.
Gage, though, was not to be deterred. She and the other women, in her own words, “would not, they dared not, sacrifice the golden opportunity to which they had so long looked forward; their work was not for them alone, nor alone for the present generation, but for all women of all time.”
When the ceremony began, the women started to wait, sitting on the edge of their seats in anticipation, preparing for the time to make their move. That time came, as Vice President Ferry announced the reading of the Declaration of Independence.
At that moment, Gage and the women rose, and rapidly proceeded down the aisle, towards the vice president. The element of surprise was on their side – military officers, guards, and guests all stood aside, dumbfounded, as the group of women marched past.
When they reached Ferry, Gage revealed a concealed scroll – the women’s declaration – and handed it to him. He accepted it, pale and shaken, and with that, the Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States became a part of the nation’s centennial celebration of independence.
It’s doubtful that many people have heard this story, simply because Gage played such an integral, and controversial, role in the proceedings. This event, though, is a critical point in the history of women’s suffrage. It’s not only important, but it’s also impressive – just like Matilda Gage was.
Here at Syracuse University, Gage is a ghost. Her invisibility here is especially poignant, because Gage lived in the Syracuse area. Her house, a historical monument, stands on East Genesee Street – it’s not even 15 minutes away. While students may not be flocking to her house to learn about Gage, they do have the opportunity to discover her mystery. Syracuse is home to Professor Sally Roesch Wagner, the leading authority on Ms. Matilda Gage.
Professor Wagner would probably agree that it’s not possible to quickly detail all of Gage’s views and contributions, but the highlights make it clear what type of thinker Gage was, and demonstrate why she’s been written out of history – and why that needs to change. Gage deserves to have her words be heard.
Gage on Suffrage: “Are women governed? Most certainly; they pay taxes, they are held amenable to laws; they are tried for crimes; they are fined, imprisoned, hung. The government wields strong power over them. Have they consented to this power of the government? Have they a recognized right to the ballot? Has their consent been asked through their votes? Have they had a voice in saying what taxes shall be levied on their property, what penalties they shall pay for crimes? No. They are ruled without their consent.”
Gage on the Church: “In the name of religion, the worst crimes against humanity have ever been perpetrated…The injustice of man towards woman under the laws of both Church and State engrafted upon society, have resulted in many evils unsuspected by the world, which if known would strike it with amazement and terror…The careful student of history will discover that Christianity has been of very little value in advancing civilization, but has done a great deal toward retarding it.”
Gage on Abortion: “Enforced 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.”
Gage on Equality: “Woman desires freedom in order to become what she has the innate power of becoming. She is a living growing organism as much as is a tree, and like that tree, she needs room and freedom. A tree planted close beside a stonewall, cannot grow upon the side next to the wall. Sunshine and air may meet it upon the opposite side, its branches may put forth in one direction, but the stone wall prevents its becoming a tree of symmetrical proportions.”
And yet, Gage is ignored. She is invisible in the eyes of history, which tells the tale of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, without realizing that Gage was the third woman of the most powerful triumvirate in the history of the women’s suffrage movement.
Consequently, the public knows nothing of this woman – type “Matilda” into Google, and she doesn’t even come up as a search suggestion (anyone interested in Matilda Ledger or the cast of the Matilda movie is in luck though).
History is written by the victors, and Gage was too ahead of her time to be treated kindly by history. Gage was a suffragist, an abolitionist, an author, a champion of rights for all people—women, African-Americans, and Native Americans. But her condemnations of the church, her support of women’s rights to abortion, these radical views have exiled her. And this exile is tragic, because Gage doesn’t just deserve to be understood by history – people today deserve to understand Gage.
To read more on Matilda Gage:
To learn more about her house in Syracuse:
Tress Klassen works as the opinions Web editor at The Student Voice. She is a freshman magazine major at SU.