Matilda Joslyn Gage

(WOMENSENEWS)–There was more to the 19th century progressive women’s agenda than the right to vote.

When Matilda Joslyn Gage saw conservative religious women like Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union playing an increasingly larger role in that movement, coupled with broader pressures to dissolve the boundaries between church and state, Gage took action and spoke out. In 1890, Gage, the long-time political ally of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, organized a group of her own–the Women’s National Liberal Union, based in upstate New York. At its opening meeting on February 24th, her speech called “The Dangers of the Hour,” took on religious fundamentalism as a threat to human–and especially women’s–freedom.

There were, at the time, several bills and amendments before Congress whose “pretext,” Gage said, was “protection of the people” against an encroaching tide of immigrants. Determined to make the United States a Christian nation, these proposals would have imposed Biblical dogmas and clerical authority on secular society. A proposed “day of rest” on Sundays, along with compulsory church attendance, was, she said, “not for the benefit of man, but in order to commemorate the work of creation.”

A potential amendment to the preamble of the U.S. Constitution that would insert explicit evidence of the “Christian character and purpose” of the nation provoked her wrath. That amendment called for the Bible as “the standard to decide all moral issues in political life . . . ” Scriptural authority, Gage reminded her listeners, taught contempt for women, “through whom sin and death came into the world” as well as that “the wife (is) not an independent being possessing independent rights, but a veritable slave of the husband.”

Were religious authority to move beyond the realm of both Catholic and Protestant institutions into civil life, it would un-do the work of the movement that had secured women’s growing legal independence in divorce, property laws and education, Gage believed. She resisted. Seeing the church as “that ever most unscrupulous enemy of freedom,” Gage fired the first salvo of a campaign that would result in her book, “Woman Church and State,” three years later. From then on, she was under government surveillance.

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.” She can be reached at [email protected]

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