What a Forgotten 19th Century Suffragist Can Teach Us About Women’s Rights vs. The Religious Right

Americans never move until the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour. The fifty-ninth minute is now upon us.” —Matilda Joslyn Gage, “The Dangers of the Hour” (1890)

If America is currently being “taken back” and made “great again” we seem to be landing somewhere in the late 19th century. It’s easy to say that great strides have been made toward racial and gender equality in the last 150 years, yet one can’t help being struck by the parallel discourse surrounding human rights between then and now. Nowhere is this more evident than in the battles between women’s rights and the religious right. And nowhere is it more clear than in reviewing the works of Matilda Joslyn Gage.

From her first public speech, at age 26, in front of the 1852 National Woman’s Rights Convention in Syracuse, to her culminating thoughts in the 1893 book Woman, Church, and State, Gage used philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and science to rewrite the place of women in socio-political life throughout history. Today, her colleagues Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are better remembered—invoked in recent marches, and even a Saturday Night Live skit—but Gage offers helpful lessons for examining the gender inequalities of religion.

Her prime adversary was the increasingly conservative tendencies of the Christian church, an institution that had upheld patriarchal values for centuries and that, instead of progressing toward what she called the “natural freedom of body, mind, and soul,” was working to keep America back; “the fifteenth century living in the nineteenth,” as she put it. But she would also find narratives of natural freedom in Christianity, as well as other religio-cultural traditions.

The Religious Right of the 19th Century

From its emergence as a nation of mostly non-affiliated citizens, the United States began to get religion in the 1800s. The latter half of the century saw a dramatic rise of right-wing Christian movements that lobbied for Sabbath “blue laws,” the prohibition of alcohol, prayer and bible teaching in schools, immigration bans, and, most egregiously to Gage, the call for a constitutional amendment that would rewrite the First Amendment and eliminate the separation of church and state. Along the way, strange bedfellows emerged.

Among these movements the National Reform Association (NRA), founded in 1863 by Protestant leaders, was one of the most outspoken. They realized the U.S. Constitution does not refer to Jesus Christ or the law of God in any explicit way (the Anti-Federalists of the 18th century had called it a “godless document”), and so sought to reform the founding papers, outlining the goal of their group in their constitution:

The object of this Society shall be . . . to secure such an amendment to the Constitution of the United States as will declare the nation’s allegiance to Jesus Christ and its acceptance of the moral laws of the Christian religion, and so indicate that this is a Christian nation, and place all the Christian laws, institutions and usages of our government on an undeniable legal basis in the fundamental law of the land.

Due to other major national events—the Civil War, followed by Lincoln’s assassination—the NRA’s “Christian amendment” didn’t gain traction. They nonetheless resumed their work on local levels through the next few decades. Politicians such as New Hampshire Republican senator Henry W. Blair continued the work in congress, eventually supporting the first U.S. federal law aimed at a specific ethnic group, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, expanded on by the Scott Act of 1888. Not long after, Blair would outline his upholding of a Christian nation that can only be established on the absolute exclusion of anything Other:

I yet believe that instead of selecting a final toleration of so-called religions, the American people will, by constant and irresistible pressure, gradually expel from our geographical boundaries every religion except the Christian in its valid forms.

To the 19th century conservative mindset, a Christian nation would entail teaching the bible in school (from Protestant perspectives), no work on the sabbath (some even wanted mandatory church attendance), the elimination of alcohol, no non-Christian immigrants, and a reaffirmation of male-dominance in the private and public spheres alike. But in the crossovers from one religious-political group to the next, things were more convoluted.

Blair’s anti-immigrant, anti-diversity comments came in the form of a letter he wrote to the New York Mail & Express, 19 April, 1890, and reprinted in the American Sentinel in July of that year. The Sentinel was an Adventist publication, and while they too wanted to see the coming Day of the Lord, they were against the political work of constitutional amendments, calling out Blair’s “spirit of religious despotism and intolerance” and saying he and his cohorts worked with “mediaeval methods.” Many other Christian pastors and leaders, especially Unitarians, as well as Jewish and some Catholic communities, also rallied against the right-wing drive to link church and state.

The Strange Bedfellows of Women’s Rights

In the struggle for women’s rights, most especially the right to vote, more strange bedfellows began to appear. Many of the pro-Christian causes of the NRA were shared by women’s movements such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Founded in 1874, with Frances Willard becoming president in 1879, the WCTU was the largest organization of women in the world by 1890. Among their causes, they fought for better labor conditions, educational and prison reform, raising the age of consent (some states were as low as seven years), women’s suffrage, and of course the prohibition of alcohol.

Nonetheless, Matilda Joslyn Gage feared Willard’s methods, calling her “the most dangerous woman in America” and believed, based on Willard’s own words, that the WCTU ultimately wanted to see a nation united under Christian morals, beliefs, and teachings. Along with their education reform, the WCTU simultaneously aimed to foster prayer and religious teaching in schools, more support for Sunday School teaching, upheld sabbath laws, and only sought the vote for white, native-born women. The WTCU joined forces with the American Woman Suffrage Association, and in 1890 merged with the National Woman Suffrage Association, founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in 1869.

The big tent merger meant an acquiescence to “Christian principles” that Gage found so problematic for true freedom; suffrage on their terms would only come about with a set of other restrictive laws and beliefs and Gage would not fight for women’s rights without the rights of others. Already in 1862 she had stated, “Until liberty is attained—the broadest, the deepest, the highest liberty of all—not one set alone, one clique alone, but for men and women, black and white, Irish and Germans, Americans and negroes, there can be no permanent peace.”

Dreading any further chiseling away of the wall between church and state, Gage founded her own group, the Woman’s National Liberal Union, in 1890. This move entailed that she was effectively written out of much of women’s rights history since she decisively broke with the main conventions of the time. Gage, Anthony, and Stanton had co-authored the first three volumes of History of Women Suffrage, worked together on the Woman’s Bible, and Gage served alongside the other two in leadership positions of the NWSA through the 1870s and 80s, but today it’s Anthony and Stanton’s names that are remembered as they took the moderate route. Gage was too radical to dominate the history books.

Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898)

Gage’s family was Baptist and abolitionist. Her childhood home was a stop along the Underground Railroad as well as a place where abolitionists and other freethinkers gathered. Her father supplied an education, teaching her, she says, “to think for myself, and not to accept the word of any man, or society, or human being, but to fully examine for myself.” Yet, in spite of her and her father’s arguments, as a woman she wasn’t allowed to continue her studies in medical school.

Instead, Gage married, had five children, and took on large research projects with sweeping histories, contributing a great deal to the first three volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage. But she also worked locally, organizing the women of her hometown of Fayetteville, New York to elect women to the school board. Like most women in her time, including Stanton and Anthony, she was not “for” abortion (“pro-choice” did not exist in any real way), but she did analyze the politics around it to show how medical and social conversations were male-dominated, saying “the crime of abortion is not one in which the guilt lies solely or even chiefly with the woman. . . . I hesitate not to assert that most of this crime of ‘child murder,’ ‘abortion,’ ‘infanticide,’ lies at the door of the male sex.” She also advocated for birth control education, and sought to reform the legal conventions for divorce as they were entirely “under control of man, whether in church or state.”

At the founding of the Woman’s National Liberal Union, at age 64, Gage gave an impassioned speech, “The Dangers of the Hour.” Tinged with the tone of a Jeremiad, the speech weighs too scholarly for a full prophetic voice, but it was Gage’s careful research that made her so important a figure. She maps the connections of the strange bedfellows of the WTCU and the NRA, alongside conservative forces in Catholicism and Protestantism and shows ultimately that neither women’s rights, nor those of any human, will advance as long as the institution of the Christian church prevails and pervades politics. The big tent allows too many regressive forces, and “The church has ever been a barrier to advancing civilization.” Her Union, made up of a rag-tag group of radicals, freethinkers and anarchists, was bound to be overshadowed by the larger associations, and it quickly lost momentum.

Three years later she would publish the heavily researched, carefully planned Woman, State, and Religion, which provides an excellent socio-political history of women’s place in religious and cultural traditions. Some of her history of matriarchies have been dismissed within the “rigors” of twentieth century historical criticism, but her analyses of Christian patriarchy are crucial for anyone concerned with gender and the church. She finds the mythology of Eden at the core of patriarchy, the introduction of original sin: “By false interpretation of Scripture, woman is held to duties, not rights; responsibilities, not power; and is deemed to be an appendage to man, created for his benefit and happiness.”

It’s not the bible per se that is the problem, but the interpretation of it, and she appealed to the Protestant principle of individual scripture interpretation: the priesthood of all believers extends to women, who should “be guided by her own reason.” She plays Protestantism against itself to find new approaches to the ancient myths. At the same time the new religious movements of Spiritualism and Theosophy, both founded by women, gave her new channels to understand a revived sense of the sacred.

Among a significant minority of thinkers of her age, Gage also recognized that she was living in lands that continued to be inhabited by native people, and she turned to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) societies, finding a strikingly different approach to gender relations. Instead of being “primitive,” as so many of her time suggested, Haudenosaunee women could own property, vote on issues, hold political positions, and while only a male could lead, the leaders were nominated by women. Enamored by their traditions, she was adopted into the Wolf Clan and given the name, Karonienhawi, “she who holds the sky.” Here, in the midst of a land now overrun by Euro-Americans, was a tradition in which Gage found a radical alternative, one that is filled with matriarchal power, offering a corrective to the Christianity she had been surrounded by.

Then and/as now

Political movements, like religious movements, rely on strange alliances. Issues are seldom singular, but meet across a range of social mores, cultural productions, religious practices, and political codes. As the United States continues under the fraught leadership of Donald Trump, we find new iterations of the “Christian nation,” new connections and clashes between immigration bans, the religious right, and women’s rights. But if oppression relies on strange alliances, so does resistance.

Sowing the seeds of liberation often entails looking back to the past and reaffirming elements of one’s own traditions, persons, and events that have been overlooked or willfully covered up. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer come to mind as 20th century Christian leaders who found elements of the Christian tradition to speak to liberation, rereading the old mythologies and interpreting them in a new spirit. At the same time, one must also recall King’s work on Gandhi, his visit to India, as well as nominating the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. King learned from other traditions and brought them to bear on the Christian tradition he was affiliated with.

Matilda Joslyn Gage never left the Baptist church, though she never baptized her children either. She would claim that,

True civilization is a recognition of the rights of others at every point of contact, and when this takes place the world will step out of the darkness of heathendom into a full light of a religious and political civilization grander than any of which it has yet dreamed.

For real freedom to occur, religiously and politically, it was necessary to maintain the separation of religion and politics, to keep a secular government intact, if only to more fully provide equality among the sexes and religions. Suffrage was part of the broader set of freedoms that Gage sought, but freedom goes well beyond that.

What Gage saw was that you can’t just “get out the vote.” You have to change the mythologies. New stories need to be told, even if they are the old stories that have been forgotten.


[Research for this essay is greatly indebted to the ongoing work of Sally Roesch Wagner, and the Matilda Joslyn Gage Home in Fayetteville, NY.]