Matilda Joslyn Gage, (1826-1898) is one of the foremost advocates of women's rights and women's suffrage. She and her colleagues did the United States a great service in the furtherance of rights for women. Though her voice is often one that goes unheard in the histories about her era its strength has been recently noticed and its wisdom upheld. One of the most important messages of the women's rights movement was the need for the recognized value of the women in vocation and education. Most women's rights advocates believe that the full strength of any society could never be realized if half of the persons in it where not given full ability to contribute to it, not only in the voice of their vote but in the voice of their strength as productive and employed members of the society they live in.
... The boasted civilizations of antiquity were eminently one-sided, and ... they fell because society did not advance in all its parts, but sacrificed some of its constituents in order to secure the progress of others. Through the past, this has been pre-eminently the case in regard to woman. Education, except in accomplishments, has been for her ignored. (Gage 1871)
If a woman could not demonstrate her value through productive and compensated work, to the best of her ability she could not contribute fully to her society. It was women like Gage who demanded recognition for the untapped potential of a woman to intellectually and economically contribute to her household and her community.
In her 1871 speech "On The Progress Of Education And Industrial Avocations For Women" many points of her wisdom and the progress of the women's rights are detailed. Gages message is a message of hope to those who continue to fight for increased rights and equal advantages for women in education and work. In it Gage demonstrates through a thorough listing the thus far realized ability of women to meet their own potential for the greater good of society, in so doing she discredits in action rather than simply word the antiquated but oft accepted sentiment that women hold no powers for higher thought or action. Her audience, a convention of women's rights activists, were very aware of this truth but needed proof that their works and demands had not ben spent in vain over the past twenty years of the movement in America.
Gage herself was and ardent human rights advocate with an educated and able mind from her very early days. She was indoctrinated into the challenges of reformation at an early age as well, "She was exposed to the hazards of social reform ... When circulating antislavery petitions as a young girl, she was met with rebuffs and harsh words, but that only served to deepen her commitment to reform work." (Brammer 1-2) She was luckily born into a home where the education and vocation of woman and the liberty of all was a constant theme for discussion and action.
... The daughter of Dr. Hezekiah Joslyn of Cicero ... [NY] where she was born March 24th 1826. Her father was a man of profound thought and a thorough student of all new questions. His home was a station on the underground railroad, and the home of anti-slavery speakers and advanced thinkers on every subject, as well as the clergymen who often came to hold meetings in the place. (Crowell The Weekly Reader Fayetteville, NY)
Gage, unlike many of her contemporaries did not have to lurk about quietly, stealing opportunities to listen while serving tea, as the men discussed important matters of humanity, politics and higher thought. She was an engaged member of the audience from the time she was able to understand the words.
Matilda was always allowed to listen to the conversation of her father's guests, and it was a law with him that all her childish questions should be reasonably answered. Her father was her instructor in mathematics, Greek and physiology, and at the same time taught her what she most prized, to think for herself. She received her later instruction in DeRuyter and Hamilton. (Crowell The Weekly Reader Fayetteville, NY)
Her mother who sadly, goes unnamed in Gage's obituary was also accomplished and inspired more learning in her daughter. "From her mother a Scotch lady of the old and influential family of Leslie, she inherited a taste for delving into old histories and writings." (Crowell The Weekly Reader Fayetteville, NY)
The speech itself was an address or report, if you will to the Second Decade Meeting, marking the passing of twenty years since the first national convention on women's rights was held, at Worcester, Massachusetts in October of 1850. The Second Decade Meeting, held in Apollo Hall, New York on Oct. 21, 1870, was reportedly very widely attended, and the invitations were broad in scope, reaching across the seas to England and Scotland, as can be evidenced by attendees form the English Suffrage Movement and also the numerous correspondence applauding the cause but regretting their inability to attend. (Davis 4-6, 34-42) Additionally it must be mentioned that the meeting was held without affiliation to either of the two major national women's suffrage organizations.
"As those who inaugurated a reform, so momentous and far reaching in its consequences, held themselves above all party considerations and personal antagonisms, and as this gathering is to be in no way connected with either of our leading Woman Suffrage organizations, we hope that the friends of real progress everywhere will come together [pp. 6] and unitedly celebrate this twentieth anniversary of a great national movement for freedom." (Davis 5-6)
The group came together, despite the division and personal disagreements about policy and ethics. (not to say there was no strife but it is hidden from the official record of the event published din a book form as a history of the suffrage movement in the U.S.) At this time the two competing organizations were the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) (of which Gage was a member from the early 1850s to 1890) and the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). (Lindley 288)
Interestingly by 1890 Gage felt so strongly about the differences in the platforms of the two organizations that when they finally merged (in 1890) she formed her own radical group known as the Woman's National Liberal Union. (Lindley 288) Her main concern was the destructive and oppressive nature of the Christian faith toward women, so it is of some interest that her speech contains a long oration upon the progress of women in the leadership of various churches in the United States. Though this is twenty years from her complete departure from the more mainstream organizations it could be said that the seeds of her eventual and very vocal rejection of religion could be found in her beginning investigation, for this report. It could also be said that this was a rhetorical tool to demonstrate her cohesion, or at the least the cohesion of the NWSA with the attendees from the more conservative branch of the women's suffrage movement. There is additional evidence of the group attempting to mend this rift elsewhere in the whole collected works of the celebration in a letter read to the convention from a staunch Roman Catholic, not attending the convention. The woman gives thanks for her invitation and celebrates with the group the value of their works, but does not fail to mention the divisive nature of the rift between the two groups.
As a Roman Catholic, I claim for woman that she be free to become the pure daughter of the Mother of our Lord, either as virgin or wife. I claim for the maiden that she be free to engage in works of charity or mercy, or in any art or profession suited to her ability. I claim for the wife that she be free to bear her babes for the love of God and her husband, and that they be not forced upon her in fear or hate. Those who have protested against the Church and separated from her have carried with them little of the veneration for woman that has ever existed in the hearts of true Catholics. (Nichols in Davis 37)
In fact, the most striking thing about this speech specifically is the manner in which Gage keeps to the positive. She makes not even a hint of the negative, the reality being progress but hard earned and still relatively infantile. She uses the positive to build a case for the proof, of which her audience was very aware, that women are capable of higher thought, higher vocation and excellence in all and that the works of those women present and absent are not futile. This is in sharp contrast to the speeches she recorde a few years later, in an attempt to further the cause for her new radical women's organization, the darkness and fear created by the subjugation of women in the scriptures and teaching of the…