History Happened Here with Matilda Joslyn Gage

Bridge Street

On June 4, 1919 the 19th Amendment passed by the Senate and the moment was monumental in securing a woman’s right to vote in the United States. Much of the work that was done a century ago and is largely in part due to the grassroots efforts of first-wave feminists including one Central New York woman.

Women in the US were taking up their pens in defense of their gender as early as the 1840s and Central New York was the epicenter of their activism. In 1848, the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, where 68 women and 32 men signed the Declaration of Sentiments.

Although we hear so much of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in terms of first-wave feminism in the US, we often let these names overshadow that of Matilda Joslyn Gage, “a name that more Americans should know,” says Robert Searing, Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) Curator of History.

The radical suffragist was born in Cicero in 1826, and later lived in Fayetteville, playing a vital role in the enfranchisement of women in early-20th-century America. After delivering a powerful speech at the third National Convention for Women’s Rights in 1852—with her five children in tow—Gage readily became a de facto triumvir of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, alongside Stanton and Anthony. The unstoppable three then went on to publish the first three volumes [1881–1887] of the History of Woman Suffrage which Searing describes as “sort of the treatise on the subject in the 19th century.”

By the time of her death in 1898, women’s movements had become a lot more conservative. But this hadn’t stopped Gage from organizing extreme feminist action across the nation until the very end. This includes writing an acerbic criticism of Christianity and the misogyny therein called Woman, Church, and State, promoting a matrilineal society, and sympathizing with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, having been part of the Wolf Clan herself.

To put it in a word, Searing notes that “she was a radical, a very radical woman.” And like so many other radicals, Gage was pushed to the sidelines in the wake of more digestible, more moderate figures.

If you want to learn more about Matilda Joslyn Gage or any other important pieces of Onondaga County history, visit the OHA Museum at 321 Montgomery Street in Syracuse or the Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center at the Onondaga Lake Parkway in Liverpool.

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