On this day in 1826, the writer, activist, and so much more, Matilda Joslyn Gage was born. There tends to be a problem for me when I write about the suffragist of the 19th century: they are so Christian. But Gage was a harsh critic of Christianity, which (if you haven’t noticed) is an extremely sexist religion as portrayed in the canon. She was more of a religious eclectic and mystic. In religion and politics, she was far more radical in her thinking than other more well known suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Brownell Anthony.
That in itself is typical of our sexist society. Sensing this, historian Margaret Rossiter coined the term “Matilda Effect.” This is the effect that is entirely still with us where female scientists are not given proper credit. A fantastic example of this is Rosalind Franklin. She died before her work was recognized by the Nobel committee, but her name was not even mentioned when Crick, Watson, and Wilkins were given theirs. What’s more, in his memoir, Watson made repeated attacks on her as a scientist and generally minimized her contributions to the science.
I think a different thing has gone on with Gage’s reputation. We always choose to celebrate the political activists who in hindsight seem less threatening. For all his greatness, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday because Malcolm X still scares white folk. Similarly, Matilda Joslyn Gage is exactly the kind of women who today we call “bossy” or “bitchy” or the word my female friends insist I not us: a c-word. A great example of this was that Gage didn’t think, like most suffragists of the time, that women should be given the vote because of their feminine moral superiority; she believed in the essential equality of the sexes.
She was also against abortion, but for the most radical of reasons. She argued that men wanted to maintain their fortunes by having few children to dilute their inheritance. Although this theory is very clearly wedded to her social class, it is essentially a socialistic argument. Indeed, she argued that it was a “self-evident fact of nature which needs no other inspiration, to show the world that the mother, and not the father, is the true head of the family.” This was in reference to allowing women to divorce unfaithful men. It’s interesting that both of these conclusions would appeal to modern social conservatives. But her arguments are in the service of freeing women—the exact opposite of what the social conservatives are attempting to do.
She was also an outspoken advocate for Native American independence. She seemed particularly concerned about the floating commitments to the native populations. Whatever was in the interest of the United States at any time, that was the policy. Even today I occasionally hear people arguing that Native Americans should not be able to have casinos. So 150 years ago, she was still ahead of many Americans today. I couldn’t find any statues of her. We need to make some.
Happy birthday Matilda Joslyn Gage!