History has almost forgotten that in their heyday, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage were known as the "triumvirate" who served at the helm of the woman’s rights movement. Of the three, Anthony was the most accommodating toward religion, eventually welcoming the Women’s Christian Temperance Union into the suffrage 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 dis- crimination against women in her best-known book, Woman, Church, and State.
Gage attended the 1878 convention of the New York State Freethinkers Association held at Watkins Glen, then Watkins. There she gave her first freethought lecture, whose thesis became the core of Woman, Church, and State. But perhaps the most surprising legacy of her feminism and freethought appears in the works of L. Frank Baum, husband of Gage’s daughter Maud and a frequent visitor to Gage’s Fayetteville home. In later years Gage spent several winters with Frank and Maud at their Syracuse home; during these visits she conducted suffrage work and worked on her books.
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.)
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 closet freethinker who sought to keep Christian groups in the suffrage movement, as the sole founding leader of the suffrage movement. Stanton, who revealed her infidel views late in life after 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 forgotten by history until the mid-1990s, when her memory was rehabilitated largely through the efforts of feminist scholar Sally Roesch Wagner.
In 2011 Gage’s Fayetteville home opened 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.
For more information on Matilda Joslyn Gage see The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation.