Famous New Yorker: Matilda Joslyn Gage

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Photo source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number LC-USZ62-73362]

For women in 19th century America, the struggle for voting rights was the cause of a lifetime. For Matilda Joslyn Gage, it was just part of a lifelong struggle for equality and social justice.

Matilda Joslyn was born in Cicero, Onondaga County, on March 24, 1826. Her father, Dr. Hezekiah Joslyn, was an abolitionist – an advocate for an immediate end to slavery. Joslyn was a founder of the abolitionist Liberty Party and personally assisted escapees from slavery as they fled through New York State. Matilda followed her father’s example after marrying Henry Hill Gage in 1845. In Fayetteville, where Henry ran a dry-goods store, the Gages’ home became a station on the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves. By aiding fugitives from slavery, both Gages risked prosecution in federal courts and a large fine. They believed the cause was worth the risk.

While she took part in the struggle for black freedom, Matilda Joslyn Gage keenly felt her own lack of liberty as a woman. She could not vote and had few rights over her property. Society assumed women to be dependent on men, but participation in the anti-slavery movement proved them capable of moral leadership. Gage believed women capable of further leadership if given more opportunities for self-reliance. That included the moral and intellectual self-reliance that came with the right to vote. Gage first addressed a women’s-rights convention in 1852. After the Civil War, she became a national leader in the women’s-rights movement.

In 1871 Gage tried to vote in a local election and was arrested. She hoped that the resulting trial would expose the injustice of denying votes to women. While involved in civil disobedience she took a greater role in organizing the women’s movement. She was elected president of the National Women’s Suffrage Association in 1875. In 1878 she became the owner and publisher of the National Citizen & Ballot Box newspaper. Her lobbying and propaganda paid off when New York State passed a law in 1880 allowing women to vote in local school-board elections. Further progress was slow in coming. Gage claimed the right to vote for the statewide office of school commissioner on the basis of an 1892 law, but an appeals court rejected her claim in January 1894.

Gage was considered a radical among early feminists. While some women demanded the vote because they considered themselves more intelligent than poor, minority, or immigrant men, Gage believed in racial equality. She was dedicated not only to securing rights for blacks but also to defending the rights and recognizing the sovereignty of Native Americans, whose cultures were often more fair to women than white culture. While some women sought the vote to enforce traditional moral codes, Gage challenged organized religion’s influence over marriage rights and family law. She founded the Woman’s National Liberal Union in 1890 in part to oppose what she saw as many churches’ support for gender inequality.

Matilda Joslyn Gage was recognized as a widely-published, sometimes controversial author and activist when she died on March 18, 1898. Her books ranged from a survey of women inventors to a massive critique of Christianity’s attitudes toward women. Her vision of a better world influenced by women influenced another author: her son-in-law L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment recognizing women’s right to vote proved that Gage’s legacy would be more than just a fantasy.

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