Matilda Joslyn Gage. Likely not a name you’ve heard before, which seems to be just what some important fellow suffragists intended. Angelica Shirley Carpenter, the author of this well-researched biography, reveals the strains in that movement to gain women the right to vote. And she brings to light a woman of passionate commitment, responsible to family but also to something larger, who endured arrest and abuse and wore herself out for women’s rights.
Matilda Electa Joslyn was born in 1826 to a prosperous family. Her father was a doctor, and rare for the time, he sometimes took his young daughter with him to make calls. Occasionally she even helped with patients. The work, and her father, inspired her and she decided to become a doctor.
Dr. Joslyn had the courage of his convictions. His home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. He edited a temperance newspaper. And he championed the rights of women and children. Like Matilda’s mother, he believed in freedom for all. The two sometimes took Matilda to political meetings, educated her well, and she became a woman of strong opinions. Carpenter writes:
“I have frequently been asked what first turned my thoughts towards woman’s rights,” Matilda wrote later. “I think I was born with a hatred of oppression, and, too, in my father’s house, I was trained in the anti-slavery ranks.” In Matilda’s youth, no organization existed to fight for the rights of women, but she came to realize that the reform strategies that worked for one group could work for others, too.
Matilda saw the limitations for women of her time, and she herself came up hard against the patriarchy when she was refused entrance to medical school, despite a fine education, means, and a passion for the field. Her crime was being female.
At age eleven, Matilda joined a Christian church, but as time went on, she rejected many of the ideas she heard there, especially the story of Adam and Eve. “The Christian Church…is based upon the fact of woman servitude; upon the theory that woman brought sin and death into the world, and that therefore she was punished by being placed in a condition of inferiority to man.”
Eventually, her scholarship and vocal opinions on this topic may have been a factor in the turning away from her that occurred in the 1870s, by which time she had long been a public figure for women’s suffrage. And there may have been a clash of personalities and ambitions, too.
She had been, quite literally, one of the three main founders of the movement, along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They worked together to organize and publicize national meetings, wrote policy papers and met with officials and made public appearances together. Matilda’s near-invisibility in the histories of that movement is a surprising fall, when the other two women are yet revered. Carpenter here goes some distance in righting that wrong. And her book convincingly argues that it is those same two women, Anthony and Stanton, who are most responsible for banishing Gage.
Born Criminal: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Radical Suffragist is a fascinating look at the nascent women’s movement of the 19th century, and at a powerful figure in that movement, who was in danger of being forgotten. It also resonates in the twenty-first century, as resistance to women’s equality continues, and differences of religion, lifestyle, and class, and competition, still muddy the water for activist women. The author has given us some insights that could be put to use today.
Further, Carpenter restates with fresh vigor the significance of the early feminists, the challenges they faced, and their continuing impact. We need the reminder. She allows Matilda’s powerful words to reach us again: “The longer I work, the more I see that woman’s cause is the world’s cause.”