Susanna Sturgis's Reviews > Born Criminal: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Radical Suffragist

Born Criminal by Angelica Shirley Carpenter
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bookshelves: biography, feminism, history, justice, nonfiction, women

I first learned about Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826–1898) from Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology: The Meta-ethics of Radical Feminism, which I read soon after it was published in 1978. A year or so later, Gage's Woman, Church & State was reprinted by Persephone Press, edited and with an introduction by Sally Roesch Wagner, then as now the #1 scholar of and advocate for Gage's work. I was both blown away and angry: blown away by Gage's perceptiveness and powerful writing; angry that neither I nor my feminist friends had heard of her. She had been erased from history, in spite of her determined efforts to prevent it.

I discovered this 2018 biography while compiling a reading list about the U.S. women's suffrage movement. Why, I wondered, was the first non-academic biography of Gage published by the South Dakota Historical Society? I didn't realize that several of Gage's children had lived and raised families in South Dakota, that Gage had spent a fair amount of time there, and that it was Sally Roesch Wagner's home state. In fact, it was partly through one-on-one contact with one of Gage's granddaughters that Wagner learned about Gage.

Born Criminal seems to have been published as a YA (young adult) title: there's a section in the back suggesting projects and discussion questions for high school use. But it's solidly researched and well documented, and it doesn't assume extensive prior knowledge of either the suffrage movement or 19th-century U.S. history. I heartily recommend it to everyone interested in the movement and the period, and especially to those who want to know more about feminism's more radical, intersectional roots.

Matilda Joslyn Gage really was, as Gloria Steinem has said, "ahead of the women who were ahead of their time." Unfortunately this helps explain her erasure not only from U.S. history but specifically the history of the suffrage movement. Susan B. Anthony and her authorized biographer, Ida Husted Harper, deserve a large share of the blame for this. Why?

As the 19th century turned into the 20th, the suffrage movement became more and more laser-focused on the vote, more "conservative," if you will. Women's rights in general, and especially the rights of women of color, became not just peripheral but seen as liabilities. Gage's detailed and unsparing critique of religion's role in the oppression of women was especially dangerous. (Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Woman's Bible was used by anti-suffragists in their campaign to prevent ratification of the 19th Amendment, leading suffragists to distance themselves from it, even though Stanton had been dead for almost two decades.)

Angelica Shirley Carpenter has done us a huge service by documenting Gage's life and political activism so thoroughly. I hope that other biographers and writers will build on her work, perhaps by exploring her historical context and her legacy. Part of that legacy is what caught Carpenter's attention. She was an avid -- more than avid! -- fan of L. Frank Baum, a household name for generations, and this led her to Baum's remarkable mother-in-law: none other than Matilda Joslyn Gage. She speculates that this might have had something to do with the feminism and remarkable female characters of the later Oz books.

For more about Gage, check out the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, established in 2000 by Sally Roesch Wagner and "dedicated to educating current and future generations about Gage’s work and its power to drive contemporary social change."
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Reading Progress

November 28, 2019 – Shelved
November 28, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
November 28, 2019 – Shelved as: biography
November 28, 2019 – Shelved as: feminism
November 28, 2019 – Shelved as: history
November 28, 2019 – Shelved as: justice
November 28, 2019 – Shelved as: nonfiction
November 28, 2019 – Shelved as: women
December 18, 2019 – Started Reading
January 3, 2020 – Finished Reading

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