I have relied on the published proceedings of the Third National Woman’s Rights Convention in Syracuse, New York, 1852, available at https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011539064, and have chosen for consistency to use “woman’s rights” and “woman suffrage,” as the suffragists of this time did. Nineteenth-century quotes are transcribed with their original spelling and punctuation. All Bible quotes are from the King James Version.
We claim, as a natural right, the same privilege of acting as we think best, which is accorded to the other half of mankind—a right bestowed upon us by God, when he created man in his own image, after his own likeness, both male and female, and gave them equal dominion: Genesis, 1st chap., 26th, 27th, and 28th verses.
—Matilda Joslyn Gage, speech at the Third National Woman’s Rights Convention, Syracuse, New York, Sept. 8–10, 1852
Matilda Joslyn Gage was twenty-six years old in 1852, when she attended her first woman’s rights convention and nervously gave her first woman’s rights speech in a soft voice (she was unaccustomed to large audiences). Her speech is notable for showcasing her research skills, which would become a hallmark of her writing. She listed the achievements of women throughout history despite the “iron hand” of custom. Turning to the present, she cited laws copied from statute books that were unfair to women, summarizing: “Custom has been, and is now, the mistress who plants her foot on the too willing neck of prostrate womanhood.” Gage blamed custom no fewer than five times as the reason the natural rights of women and enslaved people were “treated with the greatest contempt.” The solution, she said, was for women to arouse the public “to a full sense of the justice of our claims.” She commanded: “Remember your duty to God, and your own sex, as well as to man. Let us make such use of our talent, as to receive the plaudit of our Maker, of well done, good and faithful servant.”
This certainly doesn’t sound like the Matilda Joslyn Gage that I’ve come to know and love—the nineteenth-century suffrage leader written out of history and recovered in the twentieth century by Sally Roesch Wagner;1 the feminist icon who told women to think for themselves, especially when interpreting the Bible; the historian of all things feminine who blamed the worst crimes of humanity upon Christianity; the resolute freethinker who left the woman suffrage movement to fight the merger of church and state in the United States; and the mother-in-law who inspired L. Frank Baum to create the utopian Land of Oz, ruled by Princess Ozma with help from Dorothy and the good witch Glinda.
How did Gage evolve to become a super-radical heroine?
A full answer to that question would require a book-length essay. Instead, I propose to go back to the beginning and look at Gage’s first woman’s rights convention, the Third National in 1852, held at Syracuse, New York. There, God’s will for women was a primary issue.
For these women, struggling to define and obtain new rights, it was imperative to know, Where do rights come from? The debate among female thinkers, and the questions brought up by attendees on the floor of the convention, illustrate the major points of contention between the ideas of woman’s freedom and the supremacy of the Bible in nineteenth-century society, a debate that would plague feminists well into the twentieth century. For those who believe God created women subordinate and inferior to men, based on an antiquated and literal interpretation of the Bible, the arguments haven’t changed much. But the response of the woman’s rights movement was varied, depending on the person or the time. Like the United States itself, the movement was vastly different after the Civil War than it was in the 1850s, and different again during the Gilded Age as society changed. Open-minded women such as Matilda Joslyn Gage kept learning and growing, becoming more radical and courageous as they grew older.
Matilda Electa Joslyn was born in 1826 in Upstate New York on land that only a generation or two before had belonged to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and then became known as the “burned-over” district for its Protestant revivals and religious excitement. (Later in life, Gage would write about the superior status enjoyed by women in traditional Haudenosaunee culture: Haudenosaunee women held rights and duties that were almost the exact opposite of her own negligible rights as a married white woman.) In 1825, the Erie Canal was finished, bringing Yankees from the East, new ideas, and prosperity to the region.
“I think I was born with a hatred of oppression …” Matilda reminisced in 1888. She was raised by deeply religious parents who, like many in the area around Syracuse, were motivated by their Christian beliefs to become abolitionists and work to end slavery in the United States. Her father, Dr. Hezekiah Joslyn, was intellectually curious, always questioning his church and society and investigating new ideas, teaching his only child to do the same. As a young girl, Matilda was well-versed in the issues of the day. She read newspapers, talked with visitors to their home, and attended meetings, including antislavery conventions. She remembered listening to Christian abolitionist lecturer Abby Kelley [Foster], notorious as one of the first female public speakers and the first female officer of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
Unable to attend medical school because of her gender, Matilda Joslyn married an abolitionist, Henry Hill Gage, in 1845. They helped enslaved people reach freedom on the Underground Railroad, just as her parents had. A member of the Baptist church, Mrs. Gage would have heard the debates within churches and denominations over slavery that focused on different interpretations of the Bible and the duty of Christians to leave, or “come out,” of churches that supported slavery. Many “free” (anti-slavery) churches were started in the 1840s in central New York, often based on a suspicion of ecclesiastical authority.
On July 18, 1848, while recovering from the birth of her son, Thomas Clarkson, Gage read in the New York Tribune the reports of the Seneca Falls convention, the first-ever woman’s rights convention. It was a small, local meeting organized quickly by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. In the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments, God is mentioned in a positive way, as the Creator of natural rights. In the Declaration’s words, the first injury to woman by man is denial of her “right to the elective franchise,” resulting in laws over “the formation of which she had no voice.” A woman’s lack of the “first right of a citizen” results in a cascade of wrongs in marriage, divorce, property, employment, education, morality, and her own self-respect. Men are blamed for keeping women out of the ministry and participation in the church, as well as for assigning to them a limited sphere of action. In the resolutions, God as Creator intends more for women; “corrupt customs and a perverted application of the Scriptures” are blamed for her “circumscribed limits.”
A war of words erupted after the convention, which was chronicled in the local newspaper. A minister wrote to the paper claiming the existing government was established by God, and “woman’s rights mocked both Christianity and democracy.” Stanton replied to defend and explain her Declaration and the convention.
As the movement spread, it became common for the reactions of ministers, theologians, and other learned men to appear after a woman’s rights convention or lecturer came to town. Often sermons were published in the newspapers or as pamphlets. Quick to correct the women’s brazen and obviously misled assertions, clergymen became the movement’s chief opposition, alleging heresy and Christian infidelity on the part of women who had stepped out of their domestic sphere.
Clergymembers felt justified in starting public religious debates because nineteenth-century society was infused with Protestant Christianity as the dominant belief system. As historian Beverly Zink-Sawyer says, “most gender battles of the nineteenth century … were fought against a backdrop of biblical, ecclesiastical, and theological issues.”2 Likewise, Nancy Isenberg wrote, “An alliance between church and state contributed significantly to cultural and legal perceptions of women’s civil status.”3 The worst laws and social tenets affecting women and girls had Christian origins, and were defended by men using the Bible or even God himself (when there was no other logical case to be made).
Two women were challenging the clergy and educating the public as successful traveling lecturers: Ernestine L. Rose and Antoinette L. Brown [Blackwell].4 Both were becoming well known as apologists for the woman’s rights movement. But they couldn’t have been more different in their approaches. Rose was a staunch atheist, freethinker, and immigrant of Jewish ethnicity. By 1852, she had already spent over a decade working for married women’s property rights in New York State. Meanwhile, Brown was born in Upstate New York, raised as a Congregationalist, and in 1852 had become the first woman to complete Oberlin College’s advanced theology program. Her goal was to become a minister.5 Brown was already considered a preacher—many women in the United States had preached—but so far none had been ordained by a Christian church or denomination as a minister.
After a few more local conventions, it was time for the woman’s rights movement to go national—or at least multistate, as most reformers lived in the Northeast United States. The first two national woman’s rights conventions were in held in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1850 and 1851. These meetings had a more conservative Christian mood than had the Seneca Falls convention. Religious imagery was employed by all the speakers except one—Ernestine Rose. Her speech at the 1851 convention is considered her finest, and it is an amazing speech—but her only criticism of religion in the speech is of man’s influence over woman, “for she has been made to believe that she was created for his benefit only.” Rose closes with a rousing call to remember “we have a crusade before us, far holier and more righteous than led warriors to Palestine. …” Bonnie S. Anderson, Rose’s biographer, feels that Rose used restraint at women’s conventions, only expressing her atheism when necessary.6 In this way, she was able to be an integral part of a movement that she cared about, serving on numerous committees and becoming a good friend of Susan B. Anthony.
Antoinette Brown also spoke in Worcester in 1851. For her speech, she revised a paper she had written at Oberlin that refuted and reinterpreted biblical injunctions against women speaking in public. The speech was well-received, boosting her career on the lyceum circuit and as a traveling preacher. Brown and Rose did not square off in Worcester, but the stage was set for their confrontation the following year.
Matilda Joslyn Gage was happy to see that the Third National Convention was coming to central New York. She would later say, “I knew my place; and when I read the notice of a convention to be held in Syracuse, in 1852, I at once decided to publicly join the ranks of those who spoke against wrong.” She could have easily claimed she was too busy. In the four years since her son Thomas Clarkson was born in 1848, Gage had endured the loss of a month-old baby boy, Charles, in 1850, and given birth to daughter Julia in May of 1851. Her daughter Helen, age six, accompanied her mother to the convention.7
Years later in History of Woman Suffrage, which they edited together, Gage, Stanton, and Anthony called the 1852 convention “remarkable” with “immense audiences” and “unusually earnest and brilliant” debates. The local Daily Journal pronounced it “the most dignified, orderly, and interesting deliberative body ever convened in this city. … The galaxy of bold women—for they were really bold, indeed they are daring women—presented a spectacle the like of which we never before witnessed.”
This convention was also Susan B. Anthony’s first woman’s rights convention; she attended as a representative of a temperance society and participated but did not give a speech. Elizabeth Cady Stanton could not attend – she was caring for four young boys and was several months pregnant with her first daughter – but she wrote a letter that was read to the convention. The venerated Lucretia Mott was elected to preside as the convention president and was universally praised for her dignity and ability. Her name and those of other prominent abolitionists such as Lucy Stone, Syracuse’s Rev. Samuel J. May, and millionaire philanthropist Gerrit Smith (who was a cousin of Stanton’s), listed on the official “call” and reprinted in newspapers, enticed hundreds of people to travel to Syracuse and thousands to attend the three-day convention.
On Wednesday, September 8, the Old City Hall in Syracuse (on the site of the current City Hall) was filled with people willing to pay one shilling (about twenty-five cents) to be a part of the Third National Woman Right’s Convention. The official agenda was to talk about organization and whether a woman’s rights society should be launched (which didn’t happen until after the Civil War, when the focus turned to suffrage). Of course, lots of repetitive speeches were given and long letters read. It sounds incredibly boring to time travelers from the twenty-first century, but newspaper accounts describe occasions of laughter and of indignation, when the audience hissed and stamped their feet. To people for whom electricity had not yet been harnessed, the novelty of a woman’s rights convention was interesting, even entertaining. They were in for a treat—a debate between a female theology student and a female atheist, something no one had seen before. Antoinette Brown and Ernestine Rose’s different views “roused a prolonged and somewhat bitter discussion” about biblical authority vs. individual judgment.
The debate was further propelled forward by two men, Mr. Brigham and Rev. Hatch, from outside of the reform community, who represent the opinions of a Protestant-based, conservative society. Their comments are included in this account – not just for humor’s sake, but because I believe they were offered sincerely and represent the thinking many at that time who questioned new ideas that could potentially turn their world upside down. The attitudes of Brigham and Hatch illustrate what early woman’s rights advocates were up against.
On the afternoon of the first day, Antoinette Brown rose to speak. She claimed that man cannot represent woman at the ballot box because they are different. The law is wholly masculine, created by men with masculine thoughts, feelings, and biases; therefore, the law cannot represent women. Common justice demands that some of the lawmakers should be women. Ernestine Rose complimented Brown but said that it doesn’t matter if men and women are different; they both possess equal rights. She demanded that justice be done for woman. “Give woman her right to vote, and all the rest follows.” Brown rejoined that the world recognizes a difference between men and women, and one sex cannot represent the other. According to the New-York Daily Tribune, “Miss Brown speaks very distinctly, and, with clear and calm enunciation, makes her arguments unanswerable. … Mrs. Rose spoke at great length in her own peculiar logical manner, to an audience deeply interested, and was frequently cheered.”
In response to Brown’s talk about the differences between men and women, Mr. J. B. Brigham, a schoolteacher, wanted to say a few words: “The ‘feminine element’ which women possessed in opposition to the masculine element in men, showed their spheres were not the same, and that woman was only truly lovely and happy, when in her own sphere and her own element. … He thought that women ought to be keepers at home, and mind domestic concerns.” Mr. Brigham stated that, in his opinion, the true object of the convention was not to acquire “any real or supposed rights” but to make the speakers “conspicuous”—and that women should instead go to “the sinks of perdition”8 and do good, but not make themselves “conspicuous.” “He wished to urge upon those engaged in this convention to “claim nothing masculine for women.” For Brigham and most of nineteenth-century society, attracting attention was a masculine pursuit.
Lucretia Mott, a master at speaking extemporaneously, responded to Brigham “and spoke at considerable length,” citing women from the Bible such as Deborah, Jael, and Phoebe. Unfortunately, this speech was not fully recorded.
The next day, Thursday, discussion began on the following resolution, which had been submitted by Lucretia Mott: “Resolved, That as the imbruted slave, who is contented with his lot, and who would not be free, if any such there be, only gives evidence of the depth of his degradation; so the woman who is satisfied with her inferior condition, answering that she has all the rights she wants, but exhibits the enervating effect to which she is subjected.”
Ernestine Rose agreed with the resolution:
Woman is a slave, from the cradle to the grave. Father, guardian, husband—master still. One conveys her, like a piece of property, over to the other. She is said to have been created only for man’s benefit, not for her own. … The misfortune is, that by oppression woman is rendered insensible to her own disease. Women oppose this reform more than men.
Lucretia Mott spoke of English legal expert Sir William Blackstone, who “defines the law of marriage to be that the husband and wife are one person, and that person, the husband. Thus women are degraded by law, by the monopoly of the Church, and all the circumstances with which she is surrounded.”
At this point in history, with little education and few professions open to them, most women had no choice but to get married. A wife’s legal rights and obligations were subsumed utterly by the man’s. They became one person in the law, defined as the husband, symbolized by the woman taking his name. A married woman could not own property, keep a salary for herself, sign legal documents, or even have the right to custody of her own children. The struggle to chip away at these laws at the state level began before the suffrage movement and lasted for over a century.
The religious justification for married women being nonpersons was the expression found several times in the Bible, “the two shall be one flesh.” As the property owner and legal representative, the husband voted on behalf of his wife and became the “public face” of their family. Being a wife and mother and taking care of the home became the “woman’s sphere.” Stepping out of one’s sphere by speaking in public or attending a convention was inappropriate for white middle- and upper-class women, who worked hard to develop a “sense of propriety.” The qualities of modesty and submission were so important to the identity of women that those who acted like men were said to be “unsexed.” Women who attended and spoke at conventions were certainly considered by society to be “unsexed.”
That evening, “the hall was crowded still more if possible, than on last evening. There was not a standing place left.” Mr. Brigham came back to further clarify his thoughts on feminine and masculine elements, as well as woman’s sphere in the “domestic circle.” The Herald noted “much laughter” at his remarks. When asked what single women were to do, Brigham said:
Those who are not able to fill their proper sphere must be only content with a lower one. (Laughter.) This convention ought not to be called a Woman’s Rights Convention … I would call it Woman’s Sphere Convention. (Shouts of laughter.) The world and the devil often lured women out of their sphere. (Renewed laughter.)
One of the Ladies—Which side do you join—God or the devil?
Mr. Brigham—I would rather side with God and the truth. (Another burst of uproarious laughter followed in the background, which the President [Mott] rebuked.) 9
Mrs. Palmerton, an “old lady of about sixty-five years of age,” was inspired to relate a story. She said she had been preaching the Gospel for fifteen years despite opposition:
It was insisted that she should hold her tongue because she brought death into the world. This was the most curiossest argument she ever heard. If a woman brought death, she also brought life. A clergyman once said to her, that woman was the wickedest thing God ever made. Her reply to him was, that if one rib taken from man was so awfully wicked, what must a mass of wickedness the whole man must be! (The convention convulsed in laughter.)
Unfortunately for Antoinette Brown, she had to get the convention back to serious business. She submitted her first woman’s rights resolution to the committee: “Resolved, That the Bible recognizes the rights, duties and privileges of Woman as a public teacher, as every way equal with those of man; that it enjoins upon her no subjection that is not enjoined upon him; and that it truly and practically recognizes neither male nor female in Christ Jesus.”
“God created the first human pair equals in rights, possessions and authority,” Brown said. One of the results of sin was that man would rule over woman, which Brown claimed to be a prediction, not a command by God. The submission commanded in the New Testament was not just for the wife but for everyone. The Bible says three times, “Yea, all of you be subject one to another.”
Then Brown moved on to another phrase often repeated by critics, “Man is the head of woman. True, but only in the sense in which Christ is represented as head of His body, the Church … the mystical Head and Body, or Christ and His Church, symbolize oneness, union.” As for the injunction, “let your women keep silence in the churches” (I Cor. 14:34), Brown interpreted that verse from the context as women being told not to talk unless she does teach. A similar but much thornier passage was I Timothy 2:11-14: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”
Everyone in that room would have been well-acquainted with the story of Genesis. Eve was said to have been formed out of Adam’s rib as a “help meet,” or helper, for him. God warned them not to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve believed a serpent, who told her that she could eat the fruit, and then gave some fruit to Adam to eat, thus causing the fall of mankind. Brown believed that the passage from I Timothy did not forbid woman’s teaching but only teaching in a “dictatorial spirit,” and that the reference to Eve was merely a warning to women, not blame for Eve’s sin. “The Bible is truly democratic. Do as you would be done by, is its golden commandment, recognizing neither male nor female in Christ Jesus,” she stated.
Then it was Ernestine Rose’s turn to submit a resolution, but first she wanted to say something about the Bible: “For my part, I see no need to appeal to any written authority, particularly when it is so obscure and indefinite as to admit of different interpretations.” As an example, she brought up the Boston Tea Party from Revolutionary days. Rather than pay unjust taxes, if the inhabitants of Boston had looked to the Bible, it would have told them to “give unto Cesar what belonged to Cesar.” She continued, “On Human Rights and Freedom—on a subject that is as self-evident as that two and two make four, there is no need of any written authority.”
Rose’s resolution called for rights for women as an act of justice; that as she has to pay taxes to maintain the government, woman has a right to participate in it; that as she is subject to the laws of her country, she is entitled to a voice in their enactment. “Any difference, therefore, in political, civil and social rights, on account of sex, is in direct violation of the principles of justice and humanity.” In defending her resolution, Rose again complimented Brown as an “able theologian.” She told a humorous story about a member of Parliament, which “caused peal after peal of laughter.” (It’s evident why she was a popular speaker.) The resolution was adopted. The Tribune said, “Mrs. Rose’s speeches are all characterized by great power and clearness of reasoning, and are listened to with profound attention. The interest of the meeting continues great, and, although the heat is intense, the audience is attentive.”
On Friday, the last day of the convention, members turned their attention back to Antoinette Brown’s resolution, which they called “the Bible argument.” Thomas M’Clintock, a Quaker businessman and abolitionist from Waterloo, New York,10 said he hoped the resolution would not pass: “To go back to any particular era for a standard of truth, is to adopt an imperfect standard, and impede the progress of truth and goodness.”
M’Clintock and Lucretia Mott knew each other from the Quaker community in Philadelphia. Like M’Clintock, Mott did not believe in the authority of the Bible, which might seem surprising for a Quaker minister. But she was a radical Quaker, a supporter of Elias Hicks (1748–1830), whose unorthodoxy precipitated the Schism of 1827 in the Society of Friends. According to Mott’s biographer, Carol Faulkner, Mott agreed with Hicks and Quaker founder George Fox “that every human being had the ability to know God, a doctrine known as ‘the inner light.’”11 Rather than relying on the Bible, individuals could receive divine revelation through quiet meditation.
Brown commented, “The question is, whether the Bible does agree with nature. If it can be shown that the Bible harmonizes with truth, why should we not do so? Why should not the Convention do this, whatever may be its idea of the Bible?” It sounds as if she was a little incredulous that a simple resolution affirming the authority of the Bible was not passing easily in a convention filled with followers of Christ.
At that point, a Congregational minister from Massachusetts, a Rev. Mr. Junius (or Julius) L. Hatch, a stranger to the rest of the convention, was inspired to speak up: “The question is, whether this Convention recognizes the paramount authority of the Bible. There is a contrary impression abroad, and from what has now taken place, there seems to be grounds for it, and it is likely to do this cause great injury.” As president of the convention, Mott replied,
That question is not before the Convention. We come to affirm great fundamental truths, and all we find in the Book to corroborate these truths, we gladly receive. We have as good a right to use our ability in bringing Jesus and the Apostles to confirm our opinions, as the several Divines [clergy] have to use their ingenuity to bring the Bible to bear on their peculiar views.
Ernestine Rose also answered, saying that she didn’t object to anyone interpreting the Bible as they thought best, but she didn’t want that interpretation to “go forth as the doctrine of this Convention … It is the view of Miss Brown only, which is as good as that of any other minister, but that is all.”
Rev. Hatch wasn’t satisfied. In the afternoon, he asked to address the convention, went to the front of the room, and proceeded to make a “coarse and ribald speech” that was received “with marked disapprobation by the entire audience.” He said:
Now, I don’t see what women have to complain of. There is deference always paid them above the other sex. A seat is given them while gentlemen are left standing.
I think women are losing their influence by these conventions. (Murmurs of disapprobation) In her proper sphere she has influence as man has not. It is for her good I now rise to speak.
God is strong, wine is strong; but women are stronger. There is not one in this assembly who has not felt that force. Every married man here has felt it. I am a bachelor. (Shouts of laughter.)
Now, this is the reason that I object to these conventions. I want woman to retain that blessed influence. … Woman, true woman, is like the modest violet, half concealed—that hid itself until sought—that modesty which led women to blush, to cast down their eyes, when meeting men, or walking up the aisle of a church—to drop the veil, and wear long skirts,12 instead of imitating the sun flower, which lifted up its head, seeming to say, “Come and admire me.” (Great excitement.)
Hatch kept talking until “the indignation of the audience became universal” and Mott managed to stop him. The proceedings don’t say what made the audience indignant, but fortunately, the Herald and Tribune do:
Rev. Mr. Hatch—God grant the day may never come when women shall put on that masculine character and men femininity. May God put off the evil day, when the only means of distinguishing the sex is by the organs of **** 13—when such an hermaphrodite character will mark both sexes, that in case of an accident, the only way to determine the sex is by an anatomical examination.14 (Most terrible confusion and uproar, hisses, cries of “shame,” and a scene beggaring description.)
The President said, he had so outraged the convention that he could not be allowed to speak any more.
Rev. Mr. Hatch—I have only three lines more.
President: —No, you cannot be allowed to say any more.
The reverend trod off the stand “curtly and deliberately amidst a storm of hisses and tremendous excitement,” the audience calling out, “Sit down! Sit down! Shut up!”
Not to be deterred by Rev. Hatch and his shocking speech, Antoinette Brown gave one last stab at passing her resolution on the Bible: “Is it the infallible rule of faith and practice? I think it is. … As a Convention, we do not commit ourselves to theological opinions. But still there must be some right interpretation of the Bible.”
Rose came back, a little bit stronger this time, “I object to the resolution … we have met here for nobler purposes than to discuss Theology. We need no such authority. Our claims are on the broad basis of Human Rights, irrespective of what Moses, Paul, or Peter, may say.”
As a longtime veteran of Bible study and antislavery agitation, Mott decided to put an end to the discussion. Biblical stories such as “The Curse of Ham” (Noah’s son) and phrases such as “slaves, obey your earthly masters” had long been used to condone slavery, but the Bible and God were also used to justify inaction or compromise by those who hoped slavery could be ended gradually or restricted to the South. Mott spoke of the early days of the abolition movement and of time wasted “bandying Scripture texts” at meetings. “The business of the friends of the cause was to show the inherent right of man to himself and to his earnings. … These being self-evident truths, the Anti-Slavery Society wisely excluded Scripture discussions.” She moved to lay Brown’s resolution on the table, and the motion was unanimously carried. Later that evening, a doxology (hymn of praise to God) was sung to the melody of “Old Hundredth” and the convention adjourned.
The problem with self-evident truths and natural rights is that some people have a different view of nature that they think is self-evident. As soon as the Syracuse convention ended, editors across New York State and beyond started writing lengthy editorials, pro- and anti-woman’s rights, but this one sums up the “anti” argument: “How did woman first become subject to man as she now is all over the world? By her nature, her sex, just as the negro is and always will be, to the end of time, inferior to the white race, and, therefore, doomed to subjection; but happier than she would be in any other condition, just because it is the law of her nature.”
At least two sermons were preached in central New York in 1852 against the woman’s rights convention: one by the Rev. Mr. Ashley, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Syracuse, and another by the Rev. Byron Sunderland, a Congregationalist minister also of Syracuse. Sunderland was conservative but not excessively so. A graduate of Union Theological Seminary, in 1853 he became pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., chaplain of the Senate during the Civil War, and a friend of Abraham Lincoln. He preached in favor of the abolition of slavery and invited Frederick Douglass to speak from the church’s pulpit. In 1886, he solemnized the marriage of President Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom in the White House. In other words, Sunderland was no “crackpot”; he espoused views typical at the time.
Sunderland was alarmed by a few women wearing pants at the convention and chose for his sermon a text from Deuteronomy 22:5: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.”
Sunderland saw the removal of gender differences as a slippery slope, albeit with leaps of logic. First, a woman wore trousers, then she assumed the work of a man, “and the next we see is a Convention! … And when the manifestation has gone thus far it appears that every thing is to be turned topsy-turvy, and in the universal confusion nobody can tell which is which.” The Reverend deduced that if God cared enough about clothing to make a law, then it was unlawful for one gender to claim another gender’s sphere of activity. He saw the convention as a “mixture and amalgamation of the masculine and feminine and how pernicious and deadly is the influence arising therefrom.” When women “disregard the fundamental principles of human society,” they create “a social earthquake or volcanoe that will leave everything in ruins.” Although Sunderland does not use the word hermaphrodite, it’s interesting that, like Hatch, his main concern is knowing a person’s gender, which was fundamental to knowing a person’s role in life and standard of behavior.
Sunderland saved the harshest words of his sermon for married women:
The marriage relation merges the rights of the man and the woman. … The man is made the head and representative of the woman, and she has no right to do anything within the limits imposed by the marriage vow but by his permission, because he becomes responsible for her acts. If our first mother [Eve] had consulted her husband as she was bound to do, we cannot tell what a different turn things might have taken.
That there is a prescribed order and that in that order one must have the preference in authority and power before the other, and that this preference is given to the man rather than the woman is as clear as the sun.
And this principle justly derived from the Bible in its application to married females disposes of the whole subject of their right to vote whether in church or state and of their eligibility to civil office. They have no such right because by marriage contract they are one with their husbands.
Sunderland went on to define the role of married women as in the home. In a particularly chilling passage, he admits that some men may become abusive: “If redress can be had without a violation of the fundamental order, or in other words without making the remedy worse than the disease then it ought to be attempted. But neither a man nor a woman has a right to go beyond the limits of the legitimate sphere to displace a given evil by the introduction of a greater evil still.”
The rest of the sermon is given up to railing against women who “pervert the teachings of the Bible, or repudiate them altogether” and the men who support them. To this minister, woman’s rights didn’t just go against Christianity, it “disregarded the fundamental principles of human society,” which could lead to “infidelity and social chaos.” He closed by hoping “the time may never come” when the “sentiments of a few misguided, but gifted and attractive women … are received by the great majority of our countrywomen.”
Well! Reading this sermon in the Syracuse Daily Star, Matilda Joslyn Gage—new to the woman’s rights movement, well-educated for a woman in 1852 but nowhere near the level of a Presbyterian minister—decided that she couldn’t let this sermon go unchallenged. Writing to the newspaper under the initial “M.,” Gage proceeded, with thorough research and extensive knowledge of the Bible, to answer each of Sunderland’s points, even quoting the Bible commentary written by the famous scholar Adam Clarke. Sunderland and Gage went back and forth several times before exhausting their subject matter. The Lily, a woman’s rights newspaper written, edited, and published by Amelia Bloomer in Seneca Falls, New York, eagerly covered the debate and praised “M.”: “Taking scripture as the basis of her remarks, she proceeds, in a grave and logical manner, to review his discourse, and completely demolishes his arguments.”
When it came to Eve, Sunderland had preached that she was “bound to consult her husband in the relation established by the creation of the first pair.” Adam was in charge because he was created first, and she was just a “helper.” Gage wrote: “Some persons might think the order of creation would imply just the contrary: for as we trace the progress of creation step by step, we perceive that the inferior were first made and each successive thing created, exceeded in rank the preceding one.”
She then quoted Adam Clarke regarding the translation of the word “help meet:” “If the word be rendered scrupulously literally, it signifies one like, or as himself, standing opposite to or before him. And this implies that the woman was to be a perfect resemblance of the man, possessing neither inferiority nor superiority, but being in all things like and equal to himself.”
However, reading further in Clarke’s Commentary, as Sunderland pointed out to Gage, he also writes: “On the other hand the woman should consider that the man was not made for her, but that she was made for the man, and derived, under God, her being from him; therefore the wife should see that she reverence her husband, Ephesians 5:33.” This gets to the crux of the problem. The role of woman was determined at her creation. For nineteenth-century society, submission and inferiority were part of a woman’s being, fundamental to who she is, and to how and why she was created.
Oddly enough, understanding this concept is critical to understanding why the woman suffrage movement split in 1869 into two rival organizations: the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), run by Lucy Stone and others in Boston with assistance from Antoinette Brown Blackwell; and the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), run by Gage, Anthony, and Stanton. (At about the same time, Ernestine Rose and her husband went back to Europe to live.) Not only did the two groups disagree on prioritizing the vote for male African Americans over women and have different political strategies for winning the vote—one appealing to states for suffrage, the other working toward an amendment to the Constitution—but they also held diametrically opposing views of religion. The AWSA posited that God gave women equal rights and that Christianity had “civilized” the world; eventually, it expected, women would achieve the equal status with men that was intended at creation. In contrast, the NWSA was more progressive. With Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage writing most of the documents—and with Gage editing the Association’s official newspaper, The National Citizen and Ballot Box, giving her a forum to express her frustrations about the church—the NWSA had a decidedly infidel reputation.
Some histories of the suffrage movement gloss over these fundamental differences and imply that the two factions had separated over petty differences. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. One group held a positive view of religion and the other a negative one—it was the basis of their philosophies. The AWSA was reinterpreting the Bible and trying to convince people of a beneficent God who bestowed and sustained woman’s rights, while the NWSA was helping women to think for themselves and recognize Christianity as a major cause of their oppression. Gage focused on developing a theory of direct revelation to each woman from her creator and teaching women to look within for self-respect. A lifelong fascination with women’s history led Gage to expose the men and patriarchal institutions who used the notion of a masculine god, united with the power of government, to further injustice and rob women of their birthright.
Susan B. Anthony wasn’t happy about any of this. She would have preferred to eliminate any discussion of religion in the woman suffrage movement; it caused division in the ranks and compromised the movement’s image. But eliminating religious controversy was impossible. One simple truth has become my core belief as a woman suffrage historian: I/we cannot discuss woman suffrage without talking about women’s rights, and I/we cannot discuss women’s rights without talking about religion, specifically Christianity. These concepts are intertwined and inseparable—religion defined who women were and what their rights were, while voting was the key to unlocking those rights. Many esteemed historians have ignored or downplayed the role of religion in the suffrage movement, focusing on the law, politics, and other aspects of the struggle. (Many others are still doing so.) When religion is taken out of the story of suffrage, one inevitable result is that Gage’s importance is ignored or downplayed.
As we celebrate 100 years of women attaining the vote, let’s remember that Matilda Joslyn Gage said, “There is but one thing on earth or beyond that is of real value; but one thing I ever especially desired; that is freedom.”
1 Wagner’s latest book is a suffrage anthology that contains several Gage works: Sally Roesch Wagner, editor/introduction; foreword by Gloria Steinem, The Women’s Suffrage Movement (New York: Penguin Books, 2019). Wagner’s biography of Gage is titled Matilda Joslyn Gage: She Who Holds the Sky (Aberdeen, S. D.: Sky Carrier Press, 1999).
2 Beverly Zink-Sawyer, From Preachers to Suffragists: Woman’s Rights and Religious Conviction in the Lives of Three Nineteenth-Century American Clergywomen (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), p. 8.
3 Nancy Isenberg, “’Pillars in the Same Temple and Priests of the Same Worship’: Woman’s Rights and the Politics of Church and State in Antebellum America,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 85, No. 1 (June, 1998), 100.
4 Brown married Samuel Blackwell in 1856.
5 Brown was ordained on September 15, 1853, in South Butler, New York.
6 Bonnie S. Anderson, The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) 73.
7 Matilda’s youngest child, Maud, was born in 1861 and married L. Frank Baum in 1882.
8 Another source says “breathing-holes of perdition.”
9 It’s possible that the Herald reporter exaggerated the reactions of the crowd; although overall, he was respectful and his reports mostly match up with other reports. The September 13 edition promised a “rich and racy” article about the last day’s proceedings—so lengthy it had to be held over until the next day’s edition, when the title proclaimed: “Battle between a Woman Minister and a Man Minister. GREAT UPROAR AND CONFUSION.” History of Woman Suffrage says that James Gordon Bennett, Sr., publisher/editor of the Herald, “pandered to the lowest tastes in the community.” The New-York Daily Tribune was edited by Horace Greeley, a woman’s rights supporter at the time. Both newspapers claimed to be the most popular daily in New York City and were read extensively across the United States. Much of the convention news was transmitted by telegraph.
10 His wife, Mary Ann M’Clintock, and daughter Elizabeth took part in the planning of the 1848 convention in Seneca Falls.
11 Carol Faulkner, Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) 10.
12 This is a jab at Lucy Stone and a few other women who were wearing “pantalets” under a knee-length skirt, also known as the Bloomer costume.
13 This is a newspaper’s way of censoring a word it can’t (or won’t) print.
14 In the nineteenth century, hermaphrodite meant a person with both male and female biological sexual characteristics. By adding the word character, Hatch seems to be using hermaphrodite as an adjective like androgynous, describing a person with both masculine and feminine gender expression through clothing, hair, and/or manner.