Matilda Joslyn Gage
“There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home or Heaven.
That word is Liberty.”
Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights
“When any man expresses doubt to me as to the use that I or any other woman might make of the ballot if we had it, my answer is, What is that to you?” Gage wrote. “If you have for years defrauded me of my rightful inheritance, and then, as a stroke of policy…concluded to restore to me my own domain, must I ask you whether I may make of it a garden of flowers, or a field of wheat, or a pasture for [cows]?”
She collaborated with Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on three volumes of the History of Women Suffrage. Gage’s stances were far more radical than those of her contemporaries, however, which would eventually lead to a split. Anthony’s primary concern was the vote, but Gage found that goal too narrow. She tried—and failed—to prevent the National Woman Suffrage Association from joining forces with the conservative movements that supported women’s voting rights primarily as a means of advancing temperance and Christian politics. Though deeply religious in her own way, Gage believed in the separation of church and state and was critical of Christianity, viewing organized religion as antagonistic to the progress of women.
“It has not been without bitter resistance by the clergy that woman’s property and education rights have advanced,” Gage wrote. “Woman’s anti-slavery work, her temperance work, her demand for personal rights, for political equality, for religious freedom and every step of kindred character has met with opposition from the church as a body and from the clergy as exponents of its views.”
Gage left the NWSA and founded the Woman’s National Liberal Union in 1890, attracting more like-minded pursuers of suffrage and equality. As president of the WNLU, Gage also acted as editor of the organization’s journal, The Liberal Thinker. In this publication, she continued to criticize what she saw as Christianity’s upholding of men as the masters of women—“Both church and state, claiming to be of divine origin, assume divine right of man over woman; while church and state have thought for man, man has assumed the right to think for woman.”—and also wrote thoughtfully about a wide range of subjects from abortion, to divorce, to the treatment of Native Americans, all with an eye toward individual liberty.
Much of her later years were spent among the Iroquois tribe, whose gender equality she admired. The tribe’s matrilineal system of family groups, as well as female property rights, showed Gage a dynamic between men and women that appeared more equal and desirable. She would eventually be initiated into the Wolf Clan; receive the Iroquois name of Karonienhawi, meaning “she who holds the sky;” and be welcomed into the Iroquois Council of Matrons.
Matilda Joslyn Gage died in March of 1898 at age 71 in the Chicago home of her daughter Maud and son-in-law Frank L. Baum of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz fame, whom Maud married long before he experienced any significant writing success of his own (to her mother’s brief chagrin). Baum reportedly claimed his mother-in-law to be the most gifted and educated woman of her age.
A memorial stone in Fayetteville Cemetery bears Gage’s own words as her epitaph: “There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home or Heaven. That word is Liberty.”
National Woman Suffrage Association
Dedicated to educating current and future generations about Gage’s work and its power to drive contemporary social change.
The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation was founded in 2000 when Sally Roesch Wagner, the leading authority on Gage, brought together a nationwide network of diverse people with a common goal: to bring this vitally important suffragist back to her rightful place in history.
The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation is dedicated to celebrating and promoting Gage’s legacy and the continuing significance of her life, her thought, her writings and her inspiration for the present and the future.