Resurrecting Matilda Joslyn Gage: “The Woman Who Was Ahead of the Women Who Were Ahead of Their Time”

Robyn E. Blumner

That pithy subtitle comes from the website of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation (matildajoslyngage.org). It’s too good not to share. If Robert Green Ingersoll is the most remarkable American most people never heard of, Matilda Joslyn Gage is his female equivalent.

Had you asked me just two years ago for a recitation of the most influential American women in the fight for woman’s suffrage, I would have instantly named Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Victoria Woodhull, and perhaps a few others if my memory had been jogged. But one name I would not have known is Gage’s.

Yet by any measure, Gage is as significant as those famed crusaders whose names come straight to mind.

Gage, along with Anthony and Stanton, founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). She published the National Citizen and Ballot Box, the NWSA’s official newspaper. Gage also coedited the first volumes of The History of Woman Suffrage with Anthony and Stanton. The three were known as “the triumvirate” of the woman’s suffrage movement.

But Gage, who died in 1898, well before her goal of suffrage was obtained in 1920, has been effectively written out of history. Undoubtedly this happened because she was adept at uncloaking the crimes of organized religion against women. Her book Woman, Church and State (1893) is a withering takedown of Christianity1. Its sweep of church history is so full of priestly licentiousness, hierarchical greed, and Handmaids Tale–like subordination of women that it’s a wonder Gage wasn’t burned at the stake.

Okay, maybe by Gage’s time Christian churches were a century or two past burning people. But she was certainly punished for her outspoken truth-telling by being consigned to historical obscurity, lest schoolchildren dig a little deeper into the suffragist heroine’s other compelling writings.

By laying bare the hypocrisy of church leaders through history—who were happy to provide concubines for “celibate” clergy as long as no marriages or legitimate offspring could lay claim to priestly property—Gage built a case against the church as provocative as it was true2.

Thanks to a nudge by Your Faithful Editor and Unrivaled Freethought Historian Tom Flynn, I was guided to the address Gage delivered to the Convention of the New York Freethinkers Association, held in Watkins (now Watkins Glen), New York, in 1878. (As it happens, it was her first public lecture on freethought topics.) In this address, you can see the makings of her larger book start to take shape.

“The Christian doctrine was that woman had brought sin and death into the world, therefore woman was taught to consider herself as a ward of hell, and to do continual penance from the fact of her existence,” Gage told the assemblage.

This insidiously manifested itself in a vast number of ways detrimental to women, but most glaringly when the Christian church usurped the levers of civil power to strip women of any rights in marriage. In England, Gage noted, canon law slowly insinuated itself into British common law. She used England as an example because so much of American jurisprudence at the time was grounded in English common law. Gage described the way the church’s edicts nudged aside what had been more egalitarian rules and secured for itself moral qua legal judgments on the “relations of marriage” including wills, divorce, legitimacy, and the like.

Gage explained that whereas previously a wife was entitled to at least one-third of a husband’s property upon his death, though he could provide more, canon law forbade her from receiving any more than a third of his property, with a third going to the church and the remaining third going to the children. Civil law, Gage said, enforced the church’s share by declaring that until the church was paid, the widow would receive nothing.

The power to dictate the rules of domestic relations meant not only a steady stream of income but that the church’s view of women as subordinate to men would be ever enshrined in the role of wife. In 1890, at the founding convention of the Woman’s National Liberal Union, an organization Gage founded to challenge the religious Right of the time, Gage pulled no punches:

It is the church and not the state, to which the teaching of woman’s inferiority is due; it is the church which primarily commanded the obedience of woman to man. It is the church which stamps with religious authority the political and domestic degradation of woman. It is the church which placed itself in opposition to all efforts looking towards her enfranchisement and it has done this under professed divine authority, and wherever we find laws of the state bearing with greater hardship upon woman than upon man, we shall ever find them due to the teachings of the church.

It took the western world until well into the twentieth century to free humanity from these choking tendrils.

If Gage could see the progress of women living in Western democracies today, she would be well pleased, though perhaps a little impatient at what took so long.

She would not be at all surprised by the sex-abuse scandal within the Catholic Church or by that institution’s banal evilness in protecting itself over its victims. Still, she would be cheered by the backlash and the hope of a larger reckoning to come.

And both the virtual collapse of the Anglican Church in the United Kingdom—where young people’s connection to it now barely registers as a rounding error—and the accelerating trend toward secularization in the United States would be music to her ears.

Gage’s freethought activism caused a deep rift between her and other members of the suffrage movement, who were either religious themselves or thought it best to keep a fractious coalition for suffrage together by not bringing religious questions into it.

But Gage deserves to be remembered, and not only for the curious fact that she was the mother-in-law to L. Frank Baum, credited with inspiring the strong female characters in Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its sequels.

When the nation celebrates the centennial of women’s suffrage in August 2020, Gage’s name should be mentioned in the same breath as those of Anthony and Stanton. We at the Center for Inquiry (CFI) will do what we can to see that it is. Meanwhile, Flynn and the Council for Secular Humanism (a program of CFI) have been actively promoting Gage’s legacy through the Freethought Trail (www.freethought-trail.org), where her marital home in Fayetteville, New York, is a featured stop.

Gage was reading church history with clear eyes. Her message that the Christian enterprise has been a grand con played on women to make them complicit in their own oppression is most obviously true. Unfortunately for Gage, those ideas were well ahead of their time when she spoke them and, unfortunately for us, perhaps still are.


References

  1. Woman, Church and State can be read for free online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/wmn/wcs/index.htm.
  2. Some of Gage’s scholarship in Woman, Church and State regarding the supposed Matriarchate of ancient history is not well documented and is suspect. Her claims about the organized Christian church, however, are better sourced and regarded as historically accurate.

Robyn E. Blumner

Robyn E. Blumner is the CEO of the Center for Inquiry and the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason &, Science. She was a nationally syndicated columnist and editorial writer for the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) for sixteen years.


That pithy subtitle comes from the website of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation (matildajoslyngage.org). It’s too good not to share. If Robert Green Ingersoll is the most remarkable American most people never heard of, Matilda Joslyn Gage is his female equivalent. Had you asked me just two years ago for a recitation of the most …

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