Over the Rainbow

By Sue Boland, Historian Gage CenterSue Boland

Remember that scene in the MGM movie “The Wizard of Oz” where Judy Garland as Dorothy walks from her bed, where she had fallen when the tornado lifted her house and spun it around, and opens the front door? She leaves the bland, sepia-colored world of dusty Kansas and walks out into the vibrant colors of Oz.  She soon learns that this marvelous land is full of magic, strange people and fantastic creatures, and sets of on a journey of discovery.  Dorothy is over the rainbow.

That’s how I felt when I came to know Matilda Joslyn Gage.  I had majored in American history in college, but was taught nothing about the suffrage movement or women’s history.  As a child, I had eagerly looked forward to watching “The Wizard of Oz” on TV each year, but knew nothing of the story behind the story.  I was even more ignorant about the Haudenosaunee or the long struggle for religious freedom in this country.

My “rainbow moment” was a performance by Sally Roesch Wagner as Matilda Joslyn Gage in a middle school auditorium near my home.  I saw a woman on stage in 19th century dress with long skirt and sleeves, and typical of my “liberated” generation who “pioneered” the wearing of pants outside the home, I interpreted this 19th century woman’s thoughts to be as timid and modest as the high neck on her dress, or her beliefs to be as restrictive as her corset.

However, Dr. Wagner introduced me and the audience to a woman who spoke and wrote such radical truths that she had to be written out of history in order to be silenced, a vibrant and courageous woman whose ideas were centuries ahead of her era, a woman who had a passion for freedom and was so curious about the world and how women fit into it that she would study anything from ancient civilizations to zig-zag sewing (Woman as Inventor).

Instead of seeing the suffrage movement embodied in the stern face of Susan B. Anthony on the unpopular dollar coin, I learned a complex tale of many “strong-minded” women working in different ways for the vote and equality, and of Gage’s leadership in the National Woman Suffrage Association-her bold tactics, strategy, political philosophy and civil disobedience that aimed to pave the way for everyone, not just property-owning white

As Dr. Wagner’s performance continued, Gage’s story kept getting bigger and bigger:  working against slavery and being on the Underground Railroad, writing about local Native women, becoming a Freethinker and naming the Christian church as the worst agent for evil that the world has ever seen.   What nerve!  And she did this in 1893?  That certainly didn’t fit my mental picture of a gray-haired grandmother in 1893.  And then, another bombshell-Gage was not just the mother-in-law of L. Frank Baum, she was the one who told him to write down his stories–well, if I wasn’t already hooked, then I was leaping into the boat.

More than anything, my sense of historical justice became angry.  Why did people not know about Matilda Joslyn Gage?  Why was women’s history not taught in schools?  Worse yet, why was women’s history not popular?  Where were the best-selling books, the TV shows, the reenactments, the busloads of people coming to see a place so important to the history of our nation?  After all, if women’s history doesn’t matter, then are all those who identify as girls and women and all that society calls “feminine” of any importance?  Do I, as a 50-year-old woman, finished with raising children and out of the husband market, matter?  Even with all of the many advances made for women’s equality, do my daughters and future generations of girls matter in a way that is not sexualized or based on their potential reproductive capability?  In other words, are girls’ and women’s hearts and minds valued as much as their faces and bodies?  Do we value ourselves?

My epiphany is just one of the experiences that the Gage Home hopes to inspire.  The goal is for each one of its visitors to have what Oprah calls an “Aha!” moment, the moment when the light bulb pops on, the moment when a door opens and reveals a new world, bursting with color.  I’ve seen many people have this moment in the Gage Home and it is powerful.  That’s why I continue to be a docent, and that’s why I hope you will consider volunteering at the Gage Home, helping others to go “over the rainbow.”

Sue received an “Individual Achievement” Certificate of Commendation from Museumwise last April for her “outstanding” work with the Gage Foundation.

Matilda Joslyn Gage Footer