In 1893, a deputy sheriff knocked on Matilda Joslyn Gage’s door in Fayetteville, New York. He served her with a supreme writ, court papers summoning her to appear before a judge for breaking the law.
“All of the crimes which I was not guilty of rushed through my mind,” she wrote later, “but I failed to remember that I was a born criminal — a woman.” Her crime: registering to vote. The verdict: guilty as charged.
The following are excerpts from Angelica Shirley Carpenter’s biography Born Criminal: Matilda Joslyn Gage: Radical Suffragist, published in September 2018 by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. They have been lightly edited for publication here. Sources may be found in the book.
Matilda Joslyn Gage was born in 1826 in Cicero, New York, near Syracuse. She lived all her life in the Syracuse area but also spent time with her adult children who lived in Dakota Territory. Her home in Fayetteville, New York, is now a museum.
Entering the Movement
“When I read the notice of a convention to be held in Syracuse in 1852,” Matilda said, “I at once decided to publicly join the ranks of those who spoke against wrong.”
Wearing her best dress, a gray brocaded silk, twenty-six-year-old Matilda took her older daughter Helen, who was almost seven. “I prepared my speech,” she wrote later, “and going to the convention, sat near the front.” Two thousand people, from eight states and Canada, packed the Syracuse City Hall.
Matilda watched as … thirty-nine-year-old Lucy Stone, in short dress and bobbed hair, read the convention’s “call,” or statement of purpose. Stone said she hoped that everyone present, even if opposed to new demands by women, would take part in the debates and help to find truth.
Lucretia Mott was elected president of the convention. From the back of the room she rose, a slight woman, age fifty-nine, in plain Quaker clothing.
“Mrs. Mott … walked forward to the platform,” Matilda wrote later, “her sweet face and placid manners at once winning the confidence of her audience.”
Like the rest of the crowd, Matilda knew that in the Society of Friends, or Quakers, women were equals with men, with the right to speak in public. “[Mrs. Mott] was well fitted,” Matilda said, “to guide the proceedings and encourage the expression of opinions from those to whom public speaking was an untried experiment.”
Susan B. Anthony, a Quaker and former school teacher from Rochester, New York, needed no particular encouragement. Like Matilda, she was attending her first women’s rights convention. Formerly active in the temperance movement, she had switched causes after learning that women were not allowed to speak at temperance meetings. Age thirty-two, she was tall and thin, with sharp features and a contralto voice. Susan B. Anthony read a letter to the convention from her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who could not travel to Syracuse because she was pregnant with her fifth child.
Matilda agreed with the proposals in Stanton’s letter: that women who owned property should refuse to pay taxes until they could vote, that men and women should be educated together, and that the abuse of women in the name of religion should be investigated.
She listened to more speeches, waiting “with a palpitating heart,” she said, “until I obtained courage to go upon the platform, probably to the interference of arrangements, for I knew nothing about the proper course for me to take.” Trembling in every limb and holding her daughter’s hand, she made her way toward the stage, where Lucretia Mott welcomed her and invited her to speak.
In a shaky voice, Matilda began:
This Convention has assembled to discuss the subject of Woman’s Rights, and form some settled plan of action for the future. While so much is said of the inferior intellect of woman, it is by a strange absurdity conceded that very many eminent men owe their station in life to their mothers. Women are now in the situation of the mass of mankind a few years since, when science and learning were in the hands of the priests. … The Pope and the priests claimed to be not only the teachers, but the guides of the people; the laity were not permitted to examine for themselves; education was held to be unfit for the masses while the tenure of their feudal property was such as kept them in a continual state of dependence on their feudal lords.
Previous speakers had focused on what women might accomplish if given the chance. Talking softly at first, Matilda celebrated “shining examples” of what women throughout history had already achieved. She praised Semiramis, an Assyrian queen; Sappho, a Greek poet; scientist Helena Lucretio Cornano; astronomers Mary Cunitz and Caroline Herschel; and the seventeenth-century artist Anna Maria van Schurman. She described contemporary leaders, too: Queen Victoria of England, singer Jenny Lind, and author Harriet Beecher Stowe. As she spoke, her confidence grew.
Matilda’s research, and her passion for her subject, amazed the audience. On several occasions they interrupted her with applause, surprising her in turn.
“Self-reliance,” Matilda said, “is one of the first lessons to be taught our daughters; they should be educated with our sons, and equally with them, taught to look forward to some independent means of support.”
“… ONWARD!” she cried, at the end of her speech, “Let the Truth prevail!” As the crowd applauded, Lucretia Mott again took the podium, obviously delighted with Matilda.
“The paper is so fine,” she said, “I fear the young lady was not heard distinctly by the audience, and I move that it be published.”
The audience cheered approval.
“I was so sweetly welcomed by the sainted Lucretia Mott,” Matilda wrote later, “who gave me a place, and when I had finished speaking, referred so pleasantly to what I had said, to her my heart turned always with truest affection.”
Matilda’s speech established her as a scholar and challenged the commonly held idea that women needed to evolve and improve gradually in order to assume full roles in society. Why, her listeners wondered, had they not heard of the women she described? Her ideas made them question how they were taught history. Her message left them wanting to hear more of her ideas. Their response convinced her that she should get more involved in the movement.
As the convention proceeded, Susan B. Anthony, who the Syracuse Journal later noted had “a capital voice,” moved that no woman should be allowed to speak whose voice could not fill the house.
But the next speaker, Paulina Wright Davis, defeated Anthony’s motion, telling the audience that many of her sisters (like Matilda) had come to the convention “with full hearts, but with weak untrained voices.”
The three-day convention made news across the country. The Syracuse Daily Journal said: “The galaxy of bold women — for they really were bold, indeed they are daring women — presented a spectacle the like of which we never before witnessed. A glance at the ‘good old lady’ [Lucretia Mott] who presided with so much dignity and propriety, and through the list to the youngest engaged in the cause [Matilda], was enough to impress the unprejudiced beholder with the idea that there must be something in the movement.”
But most papers condemned the event. Some called it “satanic.” The Syracuse Daily Star said, “Perhaps we owe an apology for having given publicity to the mass of corruption, heresies, ridiculous nonsense, and reeking vulgarities which these bad women have vomited forth for the past three days.”
By 1880, Matilda was a nationally recognized leader in the women’s movement, and the editor and owner of the official newspaper of the National Woman Suffrage Association.
“When men begin to fear the power of women,” Matilda said in the National Citizen and Ballot Box, “their voice and their influence, then we shall secure justice, but not before. When we demonstrate our ability to kill off, or seriously injure a candidate, or hurt a party, then we shall receive ‘respectful consideration.’ … We must be recognized as aggressive.”
In the same way that she swapped offices with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the National Woman Suffrage Association, Matilda traded roles in the New York State Woman Suffrage Association with her friend Lillie Devereux Blake. Each served as association president during a four-year campaign to unseat the incumbent governor of New York.
In 1876 the New York State Legislature had passed a bill allowing women to run for school boards. When Governor Lucius Robinson refused to sign it, believing that “the God of Nature did not intend women for public life,” Matilda and Blake vowed to retire him from public life.
“Thousands and tens of thousands of the Woman’s Protests were circulated,” Matilda wrote, “sent to every newspaper in the state … widely distributed at political meetings … handed to passengers over the ferries most traversed, placed in manufactories and workshops where many hands were employed, in woman’s clubs, in religious and temperance meetings, while privately the work was unceasing.”
Their effort paid off. The newly elected governor, Alonzo B. Cornell, asked the legislature to pass a bill allowing women to serve on school boards and also permitting women property owners to vote in school board elections. He signed the bill on February 12, 1880.
Matilda sent articles about the new law to newspapers throughout New York. She gave sample answers for women to use if questioned by voting inspectors, and she organized meetings to educate women voters. To honor her, Matilda’s friends and neighbors asked her to be Fayetteville’s first woman voter.
On election day, nine carriages assigned to different parts of the village took women to the polls. “The Inspectors were at first disposed to be very curt and cranky,” Matilda wrote later, “challenging frequently, and refusing woman a place at their table.” Matilda insisted on sitting with the inspectors, and three other ladies stood by to help if needed. Their strategy worked; of the 102 women who came to the polls, none was turned away. For four school board positions, three women candidates prevailed, including Matilda’s oldest daughter, Helen.
“To myself,” Matilda wrote later, “it was in many respects the most gratifying day of my life.”
Photos, from above: Born Criminal cover; Matilda in 1852, courtesy Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation; Gage home in 2008.