Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Unknown Suffragist, Part 2

Sally Roesch Wagner, the executive director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation ( said in her lecture at the Esoteric Quest for Inner America conference that Gage, the 19th Century feminist and radical thinker, developed an intimate relationship with the Native peoples in Upstate New York. Gage was even adopted into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) nation.

Gage saw that it was the Haudenosaunee women who chose the chiefs. A man was automatically disqualified if he had committed murder or theft, or if he had abused a woman. The women made sure that the tribal chief had the best interests of their community at heart, rather than self-aggrandizement and power.

The women of the early feminist movement could see with their own eyes that unlike themselves, who had no status and who were considered property rather than persons, tribal women enjoyed respect and power. Gage believed that the Native people embodied the principles needed to transform society from one that oppressed women to one that was egalitarian, fair, and free.

In fact, many 19th century reforms were inspired by the Iroquois. Dress reform was taken from the Oneida women, who wore leggings. Food reform was inspired by the fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains in the diet of the Iroquois, who lived much longer than their white counterparts. Birthing reform was based on Indian women who had a healthy diet and exercised and who did not labor under the notion that the pain of childbirth was a deserved punishment due to Eve’s transgression.

Sally Wagner commented that even the holistic medical movement reflects Native American values. Conventional Western medicine, she noted, is based on religious principles—surgery and drugs “exorcise” the demon of disease. The Native Americans believe that the body is basically healthy and that effective medicine naturally supports the body and soul to regain health.

Wagner’s inspiring lecture made clear that the intersection of religious doctrine and political power is deadly. It crushes independent thought and democratic principles, while sanctifying the oppression of women and other “minorities.” The esoteric philosophies so popular during the mid-1800s attempted to transcend religious dogmas. In the end, the egalitarian principles of the Iroquois Nations were critical to the radical thinkers, feminists, and spiritual nonconformists of what came to be known as the American Renaissance.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Unknown Feminist, Part 1

Three women were at the heart of the women’s suffrage movement in the mid-1800s: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. Who the heck is M. J. Gage? Well, without her The Wizard of Oz might never have been published. But more on that later.

At the conference Nancy & I attended last week in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York (An Esoteric Quest for Inner America: Exploring the History and Renewal of the American Soul (, we heard a powerful lecture by Sally Roesch Wagner, Ph.D., on the early feminist movement, and Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898) in particular.

Both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage believed that religious doctrine is the basis of women’s subjugation. The Sin of Woman is the foundation of Christianity: If Eve had not laid lips on that apple there wouldn’t have been a need for a savior. America’s Founding Fathers adopted the Blackstone doctrine based on the Church of England canon law, which stated that a woman who marries loses her personhood and becomes property of the husband, giving divine sanction to men’s oppression of women.

Gage’s anti-religious radicalism, and that of the early suffragist movement, has been white-washed by historians who focus only on the work for voting rights. Later Gage broke with the mainstream women’s rights movement over the issue of religion. Her call for the dismantling of the Christian church is still radical—you do not hear many contemporary American academic or public figures talking about the need to do away with religion.

Gage’s more popular contribution to our culture was through her son-in-law L. Frank Baum. She encouraged him to publish his Oz chronicle. A slice of that story has become famous, but in the 14-book series, his vision of a matriarchal society based on social justice came directly from his mother-in-law.

Gage’s own book, Women, Church, and State (1893), was banned by the U.S. government. An analysis of the rise of patriarchy (including sexual abuse by priests), it is a clarion call for freedom from religious dogma. The opening of her book salutes the Native Indian culture from which we still have much to learn. More about that in the next entry!