History has almost forgotten that in their heyday, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826–1898) were known as the "triumvirate" who jointly led the National Woman Suffrage Association, the radical wing of the woman’s rights movement. (Nineteenth-century practice was to use the singular, woman's; later practice was to use the plural, women's). Of the three, Anthony was the most accommodating toward religion, eventually welcoming the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union into the movement. Stanton published her radical critiques of religion such as The Woman’s Bible only after she had established her reputation as a pillar of the suffrage movement. Gage, on the other hand, was always outspoken in challenging religion, sharply criticizing Christianity for institutionalizing discrimination against women in her best-known book, Woman, Church, and State.
Matilda Electa Joslyn was born in 1826 at the Cicero, New York, home of Dr. Hezekiah Joslyn and his wife Helen. She grew up in an unusually comfortable home, by the standards of that time and place—and in an abolitionist home that was an active station on the Underground Railroad. Moreover, her father raised her in a novel way, teaching her physiology and anatomy, among other subjects. Even as a young girl, she would ride alongside him on his medical rounds to outlying communities. When she was older he attempted unsuccessfully to secure her admission to a medical school. (There are interesting parallels between Matilda's upbringing and that of both Elizabeth Cady [the future Elizabeth Cady Stanton] and Mary Edwards Walker, whose fathers also provided their daughters with the sort of education usually limited to boys.) Matilda Joslyn Gage later wrote of her father’s tutelage: “If there has been one education of more value to me than all others, it was the training I received from my father to think for myself. ... This one early lesson of examining all questions for myself has been of infinitely more value to me than all the classics and sciences of the world would have been without free thought.”
Matilda Joslyn married the abolition activist Henry Hill Gage in 1845. They would have five children, four of whom lived to adulthood.
In 1869 a split occurred between more- and less-socially radical suffrage activists. Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which sought a federal woman's suffrage amendment to the Constitution. The more moderate American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), led by Lucy Stone and others, sought to win woman's suffrage state by state.
The same trio (Gage, Stanton, and Anthony) began work on The History of Woman Suffrage in 1876. The third volume of the multi-volume series, the last they would co-edit together, was published in 1886.
After two decades of separation, an increasingly conservative Susan B. Anthony reached out to Lucy Stone to heal the rift between NWSA and AWSA. In 1890, though not without controversy, the organizations merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Anthony sought a suffragism that was less culturally radical—and especially, less critical of religion. Radicals such as Stanton and Gage wound up sidelined from leadership. Yet Stanton's reputation was so strong that she was persuaded to accept a figurehead presidency of NAWSA starting in 1890. This precipitated a break with Gage, who had counseled Stanton to stand firm in resisting Anthony's veer toward moderatism. Gage would take no further part in the suffrage movement.
Perhaps the most surprising legacy of Gage's feminism and freethought appears in the works of L. Frank Baum, husband of her daughter Maud and a frequent visitor to Gage’s Fayetteville home.
In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and many other children’s books, L. Frank Baum presented a remarkable assortment of strong female characters and championed critical thinking over obscurantism and worshipfulness. (The moment when Toto goes "behind the curtain" and proves that the Wizard is no wizard at all is only the best-known appearance of this classic debunking device in Baum’s work.)
After her husband died in 1884, Gage spent the last fourteen winters of her life with Frank and Maud at their Syracuse home; their 1887–1891 home in Aberdeen, South Dakota; and from 1892 until her death in their Chicago home. During these visits, she conducted suffrage work and worked on her books.
Gage died at Frank and Maud’s Chicago home in 1898. She was cremated, an act bitterly opposed by Christians of the time, and her ashes were buried in the Fayetteville Cemetery beneath a rough-hewn headstone inscribed with her best-remembered saying: "There is a word sweeter than mother, home, or heaven. That word is Liberty."
Among the members of the suffrage movement’s leadership “triumvirate,” Gage was the most consistently and outspokenly critical of religion. History’s treatment of Anthony, Stanton, and Gage is most revealing. Early twentieth-century suffragists tended to look back on Anthony, a closeted freethinker who sought to keep Christian groups in the suffrage movement, as its sole founding leader. Stanton, who revealed her infidel views only late in life, having already established her reputation as a suffragist, was almost forgotten until her rediscovery by second-wave feminists of the 1960s. Gage, who had been critical of religion throughout her suffrage career, was largely excluded from history until the mid-1990s, when her memory was rehabilitated largely through the efforts of feminist scholar Sally Roesch Wagner.
Since 2011, Gage’s Fayetteville home has been open to the public as a full-time Gage museum. A new generation of historians and feminist activists are rediscovering Gage’s unique vision and wit.