By Sue Boland
We claim, as a natural right, the same privilege of acting as we think best, which is accorded to the other half of mankind—a right bestowed upon us by God, when he created man in his own image, after his own likeness, both male and female, and gave them equal dominion: Genesis, 1st chap., 26th, 27th, and 28th verses.
—Matilda Joslyn Gage, speech at the Third National Woman’s Rights Convention, Syracuse, New York, Sept. 8–10, 1852
Matilda Joslyn Gage was twenty-six years old in 1852, when she attended her first woman’s rights convention and nervously gave her first woman’s rights speech in a soft voice (she was unaccustomed to large audiences). Her speech is notable for showcasing her research skills, which would become a hallmark of her writing. She listed the achievements of women throughout history despite the “iron hand” of custom. Turning to the present, she cited laws copied from statute books that were unfair to women, summarizing: “Custom has been, and is now, the mistress who plants her foot on the too willing neck of prostrate womanhood.” Gage blamed custom no fewer than five times as the reason the natural rights of women and enslaved people were “treated with the greatest contempt.” The solution, she said, was for women to arouse the public “to a full sense of the justice of our claims.” She commanded: “Remember your duty to God, and your own sex, as well as to man. Let us make such use of our talent, as to receive the plaudit of our Maker, of well done, good and faithful servant.”
This certainly doesn’t sound like the Matilda Joslyn Gage that I’ve come to know and love—the nineteenth-century suffrage leader written out of history and recovered in the twentieth century by Sally Roesch Wagner;1 the feminist icon who told women to think for themselves, especially when interpreting the Bible; the historian of all things feminine who blamed the worst crimes of humanity upon Christianity; the resolute freethinker who left the woman suffrage movement to fight the merger of church and state in the United States; and the mother-in-law who inspired L. Frank Baum to create the utopian Land of Oz, ruled by Princess Ozma with help from Dorothy and the good witch Glinda.
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