(WOMENSENEWS)–“There is a word sweeter than mother, home or heaven–that word is liberty.” These words adorn the grave of Matilda Joslyn Gage, arguably the most radical and most forgotten 19th century fighter for women’s freedom. Suffragist, abolitionist, supporter of Native American sovereignty and treaty rights, Gage was repudiated by an increasingly conservative suffrage movement when her book, “Woman, Church and State,” published in 1893, indicted the church for its role in women’s oppression. She had the grace to be born (March 24, 1826) and die (March 18, 1898) in what is now Women’s History Month.
The grave sits near Gage’s former home in Fayetteville–in the same region as Seneca Falls in northern New York State. Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote their movement’s first history in Gage’s home there and L. Frank Baum, author of “The Wizard of Oz,” married one of Gage’s daughters in the parlor.
In that same house today, Sally Roesch Wagner is reviving the Gage legacy. A former university professor from South Dakota, Wagner occupies part of the house hoping to restore it, establish an educational center and purchase it. (Stanton’s nearby home belongs to the National Park Service; Anthony’s to a foundation.) Wagner, a Gage acolyte for more than 30 years, was the first scholar to document that the matriarchal society of the local Iroquois strongly influenced the women who launched the U.S. suffrage movement. With a small advisory board, Wagner has produced several national conferences and made progress on plans for a Women’s History Trail in the region. She is now within reach of raising sufficient funds to purchase the Gage house.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand on: Women as Agents of Change.”
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