By Carri Anne Yager-Parker

Sometimes getting out of bed is truly daunting – especially when we must face a major challenge, such as an abusive boss, divorce court, or a custody battle. Life is hard, under the best of circumstances. And life isn’t fair. You might be a woman who is having a tough time being heard about something important going on in your life, like getting short-changed in the workplace, getting sexually harassed, or being expected to do more menial tasks than your male colleagues. These days we use the term ‘bad ass’ to describe someone who bravely faces such challenges.

We have a long way to go in the fight to overcome oppression, and there is a long history of minorities who fought to be heard.  Such details of history are seldom talked about in our everyday conversations. For example, it’s not often enough that we hear about female historical figures who were so courageous as to change the political landscape for generations to come. One such woman dedicated much of her life to the struggle for equality. She lived long ago, but it’s never too late to recognize an original bad ass. 

Matilda Joslyn Gage (March 24, 1826 – March 18, 1898) was an abolitionist and second-generation participant in the Underground Railroad, a strong proponent of religious freedom, and an advocate for women’s rights. She began her involvement with the National Woman Suffrage Association by spreading the word of their events and messages through publications for which she wrote.  Soon after, she became one of the leaders of the movement, contributing important work alongside such revolutionaries as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.  She made public speeches, published editorials, voted as a form of civil disobedience, and educated other women about what to expect at the polls. Gage argued that those who would accuse her of breaking the law by voting were the true criminals.  In an 1880 article for her publication, The National Citizen and Ballot Box, she wrote, “The intimidation of a vote is a great crime, one of the greatest of crimes,” (Rivette, 1985). 

Her wide body of written work discussing the importance of civil rights would be a major accomplishment in any era, but it’s especially impressive that it was done in a time when women were denied the most basic human rights. They were not allowed to own property; rather, they were the property of men. Marriage was an institution of man’s ownership of woman. Men had the legal right to beat their wives, and they were socially encouraged to do so. Although expected to mother and care for children, women had no legal rights to their own children and they could lose custody of them at the whim of their husbands. Somehow, in this landscape of hostility against the rights of women, Gage seemed undaunted. Bold and innovative, her book, Woman, Church and State, explores the history of women’s oppression in the western world, describing it as a dysfunctional cultural norm rooted in a misogynistic interpretation of biblical scripture. Radical for its time, its discussion of social issues and government remain thought-provoking to this day, especially since separation of church and state continues to be a point of contention in American society. 

Gage accomplished all this with a family of four children. Her youngest child, Maude Gage, became the wife of L. Frank Baum, author of the original series of Wizard of Oz books. Matilda was close with Maude and Frank. Her influence is evident in Frank’s literary achievements, which include strong female characters and explore themes related to gender equality, and the transcendence of traditional, socially enforced gender roles. Gage’s legacy lives on in her descendants, and in permanent changes made in American culture as a result of her activism and written work.

Too often the stories of women, their struggles and successes, go untold. This leaves society in the dark about important facts and social issues. It leaves girls and women to navigate life in a culture where expectations are rapidly changing in some ways, yet the roots of our conventions continue to hold more influence than one might guess. In America, a disproportionate number of leadership roles is still held by men, there is still a wage gap, and too many women face unfair treatment at home and/or in the workplace.  It’s important for society to see females making a difference, and their accomplishments being recognized and valued. This can increase the sense of empowerment felt by females, while demonstrating that they are not less than their male counterparts in terms of ability or worth.  Society needs sheroes as well as heroes.

You can learn more about Gage, along with the inspirations and causes that were important to her, at her former residence.  A museum located at 210 E. Genesee Street in Fayetteville, NY, the Gage Home is different from many historical sites.  There you will learn about a woman who did not merely assist, in a passive role dictated by men or tradition, but acted independently as a leader on the cutting edge of civil rights theory and activism.  If you are a female, you may be inspired by her story. If you are a male, you may be inspired by her story. As stated by Matilda Joslyn Gage in a Civil War flag presentation speech, “Until liberty is attained, – the broadest, the deepest, the highest liberty for all… there can be no permanent peace.” (Wagner, 2003) When we understand our history, and herstory, we can create a better future, one of more freedom, balance, and justice.

Ref: Gage, Matilda Joslyn. (1893) Woman, Church and State. Chicago, C. H. Kerr.

Rivette, Barbara S. Fayetteville’s First Woman Voter – Matilda Joslyn Gage. Fayetteville, NY: Town of Manlius and Village of Fayetteville, 1985. Print.

Wagner, Sally Roesch. The Wonderful Mother of Oz. Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, 2003.

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