Get to know Matilda Joslyn Gage and Dorothy Height

As Women’s History Month winds down, I learned about two women who share a birthday today: Matilda Joslyn Gage and Dorothy Height. Matilda was a fiery abolitionist and suffragist who left the National Women’s Suffrage Association when they merged with the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association and bifurcated their efforts to support both Jim Crow laws and white women’s suffrage. Dorothy was a Black woman who played a big role in the civil rights movement and served as president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years. Happy birthday to both of these remarkable leaders. 

  

Matilda GageMatilda Joslyn Gage – Matilda Joslyn was born March 24, 1826 to Hezekiah and Helen Joslyn. She received an advanced education from her father and completed her formal schooling at the Clinton Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York. In 1845 she married Henry H. Gage, with whom she settled in Fayetteville, New York. The couple had five children and their home was a station on the Underground Railroad. She attended the National Woman’s Rights Convention in Syracuse, New York, in September 1852 and made her first public address. Gage was a cofounder (with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony) in 1869 of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and a contributor to its newspaper, The Revolution. In 1869 she also helped found and became vice president and secretary of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association.

In 1890, in response to the NWSA’s merger with the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), Gage left the former organization to found the Woman’s National Liberal Union (WNLU), of which she was thereafter president. One of the foremost theorists of the women’s rights movement in the mid-1800s, she criticized organized Christianity for its role in the oppression of women. Gage also advocated for Native Americans’ rights. She criticized the U.S. government for failing to respect treaties and for the brutal oppression of Native people. She also wrote admiringly about matriarchal forms of power, highlighting women’s political power within the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederacy. She spent time with the Haudenosaunee, and in 1893, the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation offered her an honorary adoption.

Matilda Joslyn Gage’s ideas also entered American culture in an unexpected way. In 1882, her daughter Maud married a struggling artist named L. Frank Baum. He would go on to achieve fame as the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its many sequels. Baum was most likely influenced by Gage’s ideas about female power and matriarchy when creating a world ruled by women. His ideas about witches nod to Gage’s research on the history of the stereotype from her 1893 book Woman, Church and State.

Gage died in 1898 at the age of 71. Her gravestone in Fayetteville Cemetery carries one of her lifelong mottos: “There is a word sweeter than mother, home, or heaven—that word is liberty.” (National Park Service, The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, National Women’s Hall of Fame, Britannica)

 

Dorothy HeightDorothy Height – Dorothy was born on this day in 1912.  In 1929, she was admitted to Barnard College but was not allowed to attend because the school did not admit African Americans. Instead, Height went on to graduate from New York University where she received a bachelor’s in education and master’s in psychology. Her first job was as a social worker in Harlem, New York. She later joined the staff of the Harlem Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). In no time, Height became a leader in the local organization. She created diverse programs and pushed the organization to integrate YWCA facilities nationwide.

During a chance encounter with African American leader Mary McLeod Bethune, Height was inspired to begin working with the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), an organization she joined at age 25. Through the NCNW, Height focused on ending the lynching of African Americans and restructuring the criminal justice system. In 1957, she became the fourth president of the NCNW, a position she held for 40 years.As head of the Council during the most critical years of the civil rights movement, she instituted a variety of social programs aimed at improving the quality of life of African Americans in the South. Height is also credited with being the first person in the movement to view the problems of equality for women and equality for African Americans as a whole, merging issues that had been historically separate. Height’s prominence in the Civil Rights Movement and unmatched knowledge in organizing, meant she was regularly called to give advice on political issues. Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson often sought her counsel. She was the only woman to serve regularly alongside the “Big Six” on major civil rights projects and although she was not featured as a speaker during the March on Washington in 1963, Height was one of the event’s chief organizers and represented the only women’s organization recognized in the March.

In 1989, she received the Citizens Medal Award from President Ronald Reagan, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004, the same year, Height was inducted into the Democracy Hall of Fame International. She also received an estimated 24 honorary degrees. On April 20th, 2010, Height passed away at the age of 98. Her funeral was held at Washington National Cathedral. (National Women’s History Museum, National Park Service)

 

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