During her life, Matilda Joslyn Gage was recognized as an important figure in the movement for suffrage and woman's rights. Working alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she made important contributions to the movement. Despite evidence of her significance, historians have not recognized Matilda Joslyn Gage's important role in the struggle for woman's rights in the nineteenth century. Joslyn Gage is unknown, yet she very clearly played an important role in the movement, rivaling Anthony in activism and Cady Stanton in the formation and propagation of movement ideology.
Deeply interested and involved
in circulating petitions, writing letters, and discussing the issues
of slavery and woman's rights, Joslyn Gage entered the public sphere of the movement at the
National Woman's Rights Convention in Syracuse, New York, in 1852. She delivered a speech that
attracted the attention of Lucretia Coffin Mott, and her speech was printed and distributed as part of the movement literature. This speech, so unlike the arguments of others at the time, typifies the kind of analysis the Joslyn Gage utilized throughout her life. Most arguments of the time focused on what women could do if they had the opportunity; Joslyn Gage's argument centered around what women had already done and how men had minimized or stolen those achievements.
After 1852, Joslyn Gage became prominent in the Abolitionist and Suffrage movements, writing and speaking against slavery and the oppression of women. She was extremely active and was responsible, at least in part, for many of the important documents of the woman's movement. She was president of the New York State Woman Suffrage Society for nine years; president of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), 1875-1876 (giving up the presidency to let Cady Stanton preside during the centennial of the Declaration of Independence), and chair of the executive committee and general secretary of the National for many years. In 1888, she was largely responsible for arranging the International Congress of Women. She was a member of the National Council of Women of the United States and a member of the revising committee of The Woman's Bible to which she also was a contributor. She edited the monthly paper of the National, The National Citizen and Ballot Box, and wrote tirelessly for the cause.
In 1872, when Susan B. Anthony
was arrested and tried for voting, Joslyn Gage was the only
one who went to her aid, taking her case to potential jury members and sitting with her through
the trial. Joslyn Gage was also instrumental in producing the Woman's Declaration of Rights in 1876. Joslyn Gage was with Anthony when she presented it to the Centennial and delivered it on the street.
Joslyn Gage, Cady Stanton, and Anthony also worked together on the History of Woman
Suffrage. She was responsible for the first two chapters of volume one, including "Preceding
Causes," which provides an incisive analysis of the issues facing woman's rights advocates.
Volume one also includes a rather lengthy entry by Joslyn Gage, which foreshadowed the ideas
she would develop in her book Woman, Church, and State.
Joslyn Gage remained active
in the NWSA until its merger in 1890 with the American Woman
Suffrage Association (AWSA), after which she left the NWSA to start her own organization (the Woman's National Liberal Union), but she continued writing and speaking for woman's rights. In 1893, she finished Woman, Church, and State, a fully developed attack on the church, which she referred to as her "chief life-work."
Joslyn Gage did not support
the view that women needed to prove their worthiness.
Ironically, she concluded from her research that women had proven their worthiness throughout
the ages but had been written out of history by men. Over the years, she focused more and more
on the deeper issues of woman's rights and oppression. Supporting her view that women already
had the right to vote but it was being denied by men, she formulated involved legal arguments to
make her case. For Joslyn Gage, patriarchy, what she called the "patriarchate," was the direct
cause of woman's oppression. She connected prostitution, marriage customs, property rights,
divorce, rape, and custody rights to patriarchy, but her analysis did not stop there. She supported equal pay and respect for women workers, argued for valuing work in the home, supported women's right to control their bodies, proved that women had made significant contributions to history which had been ignored, and attacked the church as the primary sponsor of patriarchy.
Ironically, she was marginalized from the woman suffrage movement for that type of analysis. In the later decades of the nineteenth century, Anthony became more conservative, and she orchestrated the eventual merger with the more conservative AWSA. The formation of the NAWSA created an organization that was no longer supportive of general arguments for woman's rights, particularly arguments targeting the church and the state. Joslyn Gage and others who challenged patriarchy were marginalized and excluded from the movement. Even Cady Stanton, the president for the first two years of NAWSA, was denounced by the organization in 1895 for her work on the Woman's Bible.
Her contributions and influence
were overlooked by scholars for most of this century, but within the last
fifteen years, they have begun to rediscover Joslyn Gage's role in woman's
rights history. A reassessment of her life and work reveals one of
the most visionary feminist thinkers.