Where’s the last place you’d expect to unearth a heretofore-unguessed chapter in feminist history? How about a biography of L. Frank Baum, author of the classic fairytale, The Wizard of Oz?
The biography in question is Finding Oz, by Evan I. Schwartz, which my mother and I began reading over the holidays. While the focus is, of course, mainly on Baum himself, Schwartz also describes a lot of the political and social environment of the day, as well as Baum’s own social environment. As part of this, Schwartz devotes a fair amount of time to Baum’s wife, Maud Gage, and her mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage.
I’ve never made a study of American feminist history, and neither I nor my mother had ever heard of Matilda Gage before. We had definitely, however, heard of two of her colleagues, with whom she worked closely on many feminist projects over the years: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Here are some of the highlights of their collaboration, related in Finding Oz:
After the Civil War, when prominent feminists formed the National Woman Suffrage Association—with Stanton as president and Anthony “the corresponding secretary”—Mrs. Gage took the post of chairman [sic] of the executive committee.
Gage defended Anthony in the latter’s trial for attempting to vote in the 1872 presidential election. Four years later, in 1876, she collaborated with Anthony on a major PR stunt at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
President Ulysses S. Grant had already rebuffed a formal request by suffragist leaders to read a statement at the celebration. But, like all good citizen-activists before and since, Gage, Anthony, and their three companions (who go unnamed in the book) refused to give up when faced with obstruction by an unenlightened authority.
Instead, they infiltrated the ceremony and, at a suitably dramatic moment during a reading from that selfsame Declaration of Independence, Gage and Anthony stormed the podium. Gage carried a scroll listing the suffragist’s demands, which she passed to Anthony, and which Anthony in turn presented to Vice-President Thomas Ferry, saying, “We present to you this Declaration of Rights of the Women Citizens of the United States.”
The suffragists then made good their escape, though not before scattering leaflets amongst the crowd. These read:
“The Women of the United States, denied for one hundred years the only means of self-government—the ballot—are political slaves, with greater cause for discontent, rebellion and revolution, than the men of 1776 … We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.”
Schwartz describes the event as “an indelible scene in American history,” but neither I nor my mother had an inkling of such an incredible scene ever having taken place.
Following this remarkable feat, Anthony, Gage, and Stanton—mostly the latter two—went on to write the first three volumes of History of Woman Suffrage. Ida Husted Harper later expanded the series by another three volumes. Wikipedia assures me History of Woman Suffrage was “the standard scholarly resource [on the women’s movement] for much of the 20th century,” but again, neither I nor my mother had ever heard of it.
On the specific topic of Matilda Gage, Wikipedia explains she “was considered to be more radical than” her two collaborators, Stanton and Anthony. Schwartz adds that she “fought a more principled fight than either of them.”
It sounds like Gage was one hell of a woman. Apart from being a dedicated feminist activist, she campaigned for the abolition of slavery in the midst of the Civil War (back when Lincoln and the Congress were still trying to make the war about preserving the union, rather than ending slavery). She named her son Thomas Clarkson after an abolitionist, and always took pride that her father’s house was a station on the Underground Railroad.
She also stood for the rights of American Indians, though I’m not familiar enough with the New York Indian tribes she wrote of to judge whether her description of their culture is accurate, or Noble Savage romanticism.
Apart from her work on the first three volumes of History of Woman Suffrage, Gage wrote many articles and books of her own, Woman, Church and State prominently among the latter.
Schwartz paints a picture of a woman whose rhetoric was powerful and robust in writing and in oratory, using juicy descriptive phrases such as “her venomous logic.”
Finding Oz also includes a nice selection of quotes from Matilda Gage, such as this one from the suffrage movement’s third convention in Syracuse, 1852: “There will be a long moral warfare before the citadel yields. In the meantime, let us take possession of the outposts. Fear not any attempt to frown down the revolution.”
She also criticized both Christianity as practiced in this country and the US government, referring at one point to “the tyranny of Church and State” and declaring: “The progress of our movement will overthrow every existing form of these institutions; its end will be a regenerated world.” (In later years, her strident criticism of the Church in the US often put her at odds with other leaders of the movement.)
Matilda Joslyn Gage died on March 18th, 1898. Despite such a dynamic personality and her decades of tireless activism, she has apparently faded from our collective memory. Schwartz points out that she “is rarely mentioned in histories of the [women’s] movement. She remains obscure outside her old hometown, where her house has been designated a landmark by the state of New York.”
This is a shame, as it means students of feminism and the population in general are denied knowledge of a fascinating and inspiring figure of US history.
Lincoln Alpern is an off-and-on college student whose passions include social justice and sci-fi-fantasy literature. He spreads his time about equally between Peekskill, New York, and Yellow Springs, Ohio.