Our Forgotton Foremother: Matilda Joslyn Gage

Elisabeth Garber-Paul

Nearly 150 years after their radical ideas helped to begin the first wave of feminism, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are still household names. However Matilda Joslyn Gage, the outspoken journalist and early advocate for civil rights who worked closely with them on the day to day operations of the National Woman Suffrage Association, has largely been left out of the story.

Nearly 150 years after their radical ideas helped to begin the first wave of feminism, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are still household names. However Matilda Joslyn Gage, the outspoken journalist and early advocate for civil rights who worked closely with them on the day to day operations of the National Woman Suffrage Association, has largely been left out of the story.

With Anthony and Cady Stanton, Gage helped write the 1876 Declaration of Rights of Women. She went with Anthony to present it in Philadelphia during the Centennial World’s Fair—and risked arrest in doing so.

But Gage did more than advocate equality for women—she saw how issues were interconnected, and therefore how the struggles were inherently linked, a big picture mentality that led Gloria Steinam to call her a “woman who was ahead of the women who were ahead of their time.”

“Until liberty is attained,” Gage wrote, “the broadest, the deepest, the highest liberty for all—not one set alone, one clique alone, but for men and women, black and white, Irish, Germans, Americans, and Negroes, there can be no permanent peace.”

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And while she may not be prominent in history books, her has message has lived on in an unusual manner—through Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz.

“Gage wrote about the superior position of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) women and supported treaty rights and Native sovereignty,” wrote feminist scholar Sally Roesch Wagner, director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation. “Influenced by the Haudenosaunee egalitarian culture, she in turn influenced the utopian feminist vision of her son-in-law, L. Frank Baum, in his 14 Oz books.” (Book two ends with Tip, a little boy, learning that he is under a sex-change spell and is, in fact, a princess. Perhaps the first instance of a transgender protagonist in young adult fiction?)

Gage’s house in Fayetteville, NY, once a stop on the Underground Railroad, is now under construction to become a monument to Gage’s work and an educational center for the community—though the foundation is still raising funds to complete the renovations. And perhaps we should take these times of unjust laws and assassinations as an opportunity to look to the past, to our forgotten foremothers, to see that, as long as there has been the need, strong women have been using their voices to advocate for liberty and justice.

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