FARGO — When you hear the words “women’s suffrage,” you likely think of women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. And that’s perfectly normal. Their names are irrevocably tied to the history of a movement that began in 1848 and didn’t culminate until 1920 when white women earned the right to vote (other minority women wouldn’t earn the right for many more years). Anthony and Cady Stanton were instrumental in the movement, to be sure, providing tireless leadership up until their deaths.
But they weren’t alone.
A third woman was just as important as those two leaders; she literally worked alongside Anthony and Cady Stanton in the fight for women to be able to vote.
Yet you’ve likely never heard of her.
And if you have heard of her, it’s probably in relation to her famous son-in-law, L. Frank Baum and writer of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."
Matilda Joslyn Gage.
Her story is one of relentless reform fueled by an incredible desire to give women more rights to guide the path of their own lives. Her story began in New York but ended up spanning west to Dakota Territory, thanks to her four children who settled in that wild frontier: three in Aberdeen, S.D., and one near Edgeley, N.D. (Two daughters actually ended up living in Fargo at the end of their lives, according to an April 16, 1915 issue of The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican.)
Here are six of the most interesting facts about a woman who changed the course of history for women in America and was effectively erased from it by the women she spent a lifetime advocating alongside, culled from Angela Carpenter Shirley’s book “Born Criminal: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Radical Suffragist.”
1. Matilda’s hatred of oppression of any kind emerged early in life.
The only child of a revered doctor and his high-born wife, Matilda learned at an early age to think for herself and speak up when she felt something wasn’t right. Her parents encouraged her to learn, and she aspired to follow her father by becoming a doctor. She also grew close to an aunt who had owned a business herself — something unheard of in the early 1800s.
Matilda decided at a young age that she would be a self-sufficient woman in charge of her own destiny. Not only that, but Matilda’s parents had their home in Cicero, N.Y., placed on the Underground Railroad, so she frequently saw slaves who were seeking a better life passing through their home en route to freedom.
2. Matilda engaged in the movement early on.
The first convention to advocate for women’s rights took place in Seneca, New York, in 1848. Matilda wasn’t there because she had just given birth the day before, but she did attend her first convention in 1852 in Syracuse, N.Y., with her 7-year-old daughter Helen in tow. Matilda was 26 at the time.
In fact, she requested the opportunity to speak to the group and took the stage holding her daughter’s hand. Matilda spoke about a number of women who had already accomplished so much in history and immediately shot to fame as an impassioned speaker and inspired leader.
Those in attendance noted the “moral courage” it took for such a young woman — the youngest at the event — to step up and speak at such an event, according to History of Woman Suffrage. Matilda would spend the next 40 years of her life writing, speaking and advocating for more rights for women.
3. Matilda was a successful working mother.
Over the course of her life, Matilda gave birth to five children, four of whom lived to adulthood. At a time when mothers working outside of the home was wildly uncommon, Matilda managed to balance her family life with a fairly rigorous professional schedule that involved speaking engagements throughout New York and beyond.
No matter how busy her family kept her, Matilda never wavered in her dedication to the cause of women’s rights. Her contemporaries wrote, “although Mrs. Gage was surrounded with a family of small children for years, yet she was always a student, an omnivorous reader and liberal thinker, and her pen was ever at work answering the attacks on the woman movement.”
That doesn’t mean her children didn’t experience some backlash, thanks to their mother’s public persona as a face of the women’s rights movement, but by all accounts, they bore nothing but fierce pride about Matilda’s work. In fact, after her mother died on March 25, 1898, eldest child Helen wrote, “I thought how much a few strokes of her pen had done for the welfare of her children, how much it had accomplished for humanity.”
4. Matilda was discovered by a researcher who was one of the first to earn a doctorate in women’s studies.
In the 1970s, Sally Roesch Wagner was working on a master’s degree in psychology at California State University Sacramento when a colleague stumbled across the name Matilda Joslyn Gage who had connections to Aberdeen, S.D., Roesch Wagner’s hometown. Roesch Wagner had never heard of the woman, but she did know a Matilda Gage who lived in Aberdeen and soon discovered the woman she knew of was Matilda Joslyn Gage’s granddaughter. She made arrangements to talk with Matilda Jewell Gage, expecting a quick, unremarkable visit.
“I walked in expecting to stay for an hour and instead walked into the rest of my life,” Roesch Wagner recalled in an Oct. 26 interview. That encounter led her to earn a Ph.D. in women’s studies — one of only two women to do so in the country at that time — and she went on to found a women’s studies program, relocate to Fayetteville, N.Y., to live in Matilda’s home, and eventually establish a foundation for social justice dialogue in honor of the forgotten feminist. Roesch Wagner has now become the single most authoritative voice on Matilda Joslyn Gage as a suffrage leader and a nationally recognized lecturer on the movement.
5. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton deliberately and effectively erased Matilda from the history of the women’s rights movement.
In the late 1870s, all three women embarked on an ambitious project to chronicle the history of the movement they had already dedicated a quarter of a century to. Anthony took the reins as publisher and business manager of the project, leaving the writing up to her talented colleagues. Matilda contributed scrapbooks of newspaper clippings she had been saving for years (books still available to view in the Library of Congress), and the trio dedicated more than a decade to the effort. By the time the first of three volumes was published in 1881, Anthony and Cady Stanton began claiming all the credit for themselves, starting with a November 1880 interview where they failed to note Matilda’s incredible contributions.
By 1890, the women’s rights movement split, with Anthony directing her efforts toward suffrage only and more radical reformers like Matilda and Cady Stanton focusing on equal rights for all. By the time Matilda died in 1898 (even though she was the youngest of the trio), she had been ostracized from the effort for maintaining her stalwart views on rights for all marginalized groups. Anthony and Cady Stanton (who went on to live for several more years) seized the opportunity to reduce Matilda’s leadership in the movement to mere footnotes and mentions in revised editions of “History of Woman Suffrage” and their own life stories.
Carpenter said Anthony hired a writer to compose her biography under her close supervision, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton “blithely wrote this autobiography and didn’t mention Matilda Joslyn Gage.”
Matilda’s unfortunate exclusion from the history of a movement she passionately and ardently supported during her lifetime inspired a phenomenon known as “The Matilda Effect” in scientific circles when women’s achievements are diminished or overshadowed by those of male scientists.
“Just as it is ironic that Joslyn Gage, who felt it important to recover and leave behind a history of women’s accomplishments, was lost to history; it is ironic that establishing her place in history and uncovering why she was lost is met with disbelief and disdain by those unable to see beyond conventional history and the sanctification of figures within the movement for woman suffrage,” Leila Brammer writes in “Excluded from Suffrage History: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Nineteenth-Century American Feminist.”
6. Women’s rights weren’t Matilda’s only passion.
During her life, Matilda advocated for rights for many marginalized groups, not just women. She particularly admired democratic Native American communities where women were equal to men, and she even became an honorary member of the Mohawk tribe, earning a name that means “She Who Holds the Sky.” Matilda also studied astrology (this was the topic of her first lecture as a 17-year-old), theosophy, and even witchcraft.
A prolific writer and researcher, Matilda’s views on a variety of topics were controversial for the time yet undeniably advanced for the 19th century. Scholars who discovered her work decades later marveled at her theories and insights, all of which came from a forgotten feminist who lived during the Victorian era.
The work is not yet done.
This year marks the centennial of white women finally attaining a federal right to vote, and as much celebration as that occasion demands, work remains to be done. The beliefs Matilda espoused her whole life — that all humans are equal and thus deserve the same rights, that women are entitled to the same pay and recognition men earn — continue to resonate today.
“Women’s rights are always timely,” Carpenter said. “As long as they are, Matilda will remain a point of interest.”
Roesch Wagner said during an Oct. 22 presentation about woman suffrage for the Vermont Humanities Council that peace is not the absence of war, but rather the presence of equality and justice.
“We are still in the process of democracy,” she said. “This year is a commemoration, not a celebration, because we still have work to do.”
In fact, Roesch Wagner speculated that if Matilda was alive today, she’d be outraged by the lack of progress women have made since she became involved nearly 170 years ago.
“She’d say, ‘Get off your fannies and do something,'” Roesch Wagner said. “It’s perfectly incomprehensible, and she would let us know that.”
Author’s note: This article merely scratches the surface of the fascinating life of Matilda Joslyn Gage. To learn more about her, in addition to “Born Criminal”, "She Who Holds the Sky," and “Excluded from Suffrage History”, please consider also reading her own work like “History of Woman Suffrage” (available online), “Woman, Church and State” (Matilda’s masterwork), as well as numerous other writings available through the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation.