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Religious Freedom Room

Challenging the Religious Right

Had not man been trained by his religion into a belief that woman was created for him, had not the church for 1,800 and more years preached woman’s moral debasement, the long course of legislation for them as slaves would never have taken place, nor the obstacles in way of change been so numerous and so persistent. [Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman, Church, and State]

Among the most important contributions Matilda Joslyn Gage made to the women’s rights movement was her bold challenge to the Church. A fearless and brilliant theoretician in this regard, she identified the misogyny of the historical and contemporary Christian Church as one of the great barriers to the cause of women’s freedom. During a time in which a woman’s virtue and worth were often tied to the strength of her (Protestant) Christian faith, Gage spoke and wrote openly of her beliefs in the separation of church and state, and of her support of alternative spiritualities and realities such as those found among the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), the Theosophists, and pre-Christian civilizations. Her writing, particularly that describing the “Matriarchate” in Woman, Church, and State (available through our Gift Shop), prefigured the advent of the women’s spirituality movement nearly a hundred years after her death.

To the theory of “God the Father,” shorn of the divine attribute of motherhood, is the world beholden for its most degrading beliefs, its most infamous practices. Dependent upon, and identified with, lost motherhood is the “Lost Name” of ancient writer and occultists. When the femininity of the divine is once again acknowledged, the “Lost Name” will be discovered and holiness (wholeness) of divinity manifested.

Unlike many of her sisters in the American suffrage movement, Gage was unwilling to compromise her position on the absolute necessity of religious freedom as a prerequisite for authentic women’s liberation. Specifically, Gage was not interested in forming alliances with organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union whose goals included eliminating the separation of church and state. Through her creation of the Woman’s National Liberal Union, her contributions to The Woman’s Bible, and perhaps most significantly, her publication of Woman, Church, and State, Matilda Joslyn Gage left a legacy of radical feminist analysis of the relationship between women’s oppression and organized religion. Her seminal work as a feminist, a freethinker, and proponent of a gyno-centric spirituality is striking not only because it stands so clearly in advance of the dominant thinking of her time, but because it continues to challenge sexist boundaries and assumptions in contemporary America.

While Gage’s opposition to the Church was nurtured over a lifetime, her most nationally recognized acts of defiance in this regard were accomplished in the last decade of her life. Among these was her organization of a society dedicated to the free expression of radical reform and free thought agendas which she organized after the merger of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, of which Gage had long held both intellectual and organizational leadership roles, with the American Woman’s Suffrage Association.

Matilda Joslyn Gage was furious that the new organization, the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was openly courting the support of such conservative Christian groups as the WCTU led by the legendary Frances Willard. Gage, as a champion of the separation of church and state, was intellectually and morally repulsed by Willard’s goal that “…Christ shall be this world’s King. King of its courts, its camps, and its commerce; King of its colleges and cloisters; King of its customs and its constitutions.” When Willard declared that she wanted an amendment to the United States Constitution declaring Christ the author and head of the American government, Gage was disgusted. “This looks like a return to the Middle Ages and proscription for religious opinions, and is the great danger of the hour.” In Gage’s scholarly, feminist opinion, any move toward public reform in the name of religion was a move away from the goals of women’s true freedom. She maintained:

  • That the Christian Church, of whatever name, is based on the theory that woman was created secondary and inferior to man, and brought sin into the world and necessitated the sacrifice of a Savior.
  • That Christianity is false and its foundation a myth, which every discovery of science shows to be as baseless as its former belief that the earth is flat.
  • That every Christian Church is the enemy of liberty and progress and the chief means of enslaving woman’s conscience and reason, and, therefore, as the first and most necessary step toward her emancipation, we should free her from the bondage of the Church.

Gage’s alternative to the NAWSA was the Woman’s National Liberal Union. Susan B. Anthony, appalled that Gage would challenge her strategy of courting powerful Christian support for the NAWSA and the suffrage cause declared that Gage’s organization was “ridiculous, absurd, sectarian, bigoted, and too horrible for anything.” But its first meeting was a success nonetheless, drawing its attendance from 33 states and its support from a broad range of radical and liberal reformers all dedicated to human equality and the separation of church and state. [ Gage's speech at the founding convention of the WNLU, Dangers of the Hour, is available, with an introduction by Sally Roesch Wagner, from our Gift Shop.]

While freethinkers were drawn to the organization as a much-needed forum to discuss the abuses of the Orthodox Church, the organization received negative attention from those who desired less distinction between the power of the churches and the power of the government. WNLU, an organization founded upon the notion that the right to one’s religious sentiments (or lack thereof) was a fundamental liberty protected by the United States Constitution, found that many Americans, including some in the United States government, disagreed. WNLU’s mail was intercepted and read. Sermons were preached against the organization, and Susan B. Anthony forbade her followers from attending the meetings. However, it was neither church nor state, nor Susan B. Anthony that brought the Woman’s National Liberal Union to a close. With insufficient funds, WNLU disbanded after the first publication of its organizational magazine, The Liberal Thinker.

Following the termination of the Woman’s National Liberal Union, Matilda Joslyn Gage dedicated herself more fully to the completion of her major intellectual accomplishment, Woman, Church, and State, published in 1893. While Victorian morality forbade the discussion of human sexuality and its abuses, Woman, Church, and State exposed thriving child pornography and prostitution trade and the history of physical and sexual crimes against women and children in the Western world. Her descriptions of the sexual abuse of children earned her the attention of Anthony Comstock, renowned for his enforcement of obscenity laws. Gage was outraged by the moral hypocrisy of a “Christian” nation that would neglect its responsibility to protect children from sexual violence and then condemn her for bringing it to its attention. She saw this degradation of the bodies of children and women directly related to the Church’s attitudes toward human sexuality and its assertion of the inferiority and sinfulness of the female sex. As an historian, she unflinchingly chronicles the Church’s history of violent abuses of its power.

Slavery and prostitution, persecutions for heresy; the inquisition with its six hundred modes of torture; the destruction of learning; the oppression of science; the systemized betrayal of confiding innocence; the recognized and unrecognized polygamy of man; the denial of woman of a right to herself, her thought, her wages, her children, to a share in the government which rules her, to an equal part in religious institutions– all these and a myriad more, are parts of what is known as a Christian civilization.

As a woman who had achieved much of her greatest and most important work in her post-menopausal life after her children were reared, and as a person who believed in the intrinsic worth of an individual unrelated to their usefulness to patriarchal design, Gage condemned the abuse of elderly women as much as that of young women and children. Her commentaries on the medieval witchcraft persecutions are not only an indictment of the witch trials, but also a commentary on the prevailing attitudes toward aging women in her time, and sadly, of our own. Additionally, her sympathies lie with the women persecuted as witches not just because they were innocent victims, but because many of them may indeed have been persons possessing woman-centered, pre-patriarchal wisdom, a wisdom Gage understood as fundamental to the wholeness of human expression, and a danger to patriarchal religion denying woman’s claim to herself.

We discover a reason for this intense hatred of old women in the fact that woman has chiefly been looked upon from a sensual view by Christian men, the church teaching that she was created solely for man’s sensual use. Thus when, by reason of declining years, she no longer attracted the sensual admiration of man, he regarded her as having forfeited her life.

It was Gage’s dedication to the intellectual defense of the separation of church from state and her involvement in an alternative feminist expression of personal spirituality that led her to espouse a feminist theoretical position far in advance of her day. While many suffragists of the 19th century agitated for the right to vote with the argument that advancing the rights of women would enhance the conditions of society, that women as voters would simply expand their roles as housekeepers and mothers to clean up the ills of society, Gage believed that women deserved the right to vote, to equality, for themselves. While she agreed that women’s leadership would be more compassionate than had that of men, the right to women’s equality was fundamental and irrelevant to the improvements women would make for others. In her words, “The soul must support its own supremacy or die.” The notion that women’s rights belonged to themselves, to be used for themselves, and that women’s development and elevation as it benefited women was the point and goal of the suffrage movement was radical. Her articulation of this concept in Woman, Church and State was an important contribution to post-Christian and feminist discourse.

Although Woman, Church and State stands as her most noteworthy text, it was not her only important contribution to the fight against religious oppression of women. Gage was among the numerous collaborators who created The Woman’s Bible, edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The Woman’s Bible is a collection of exegetical treatments of biblical stories as interpreted from the perspective of 19th century women’s rights advocates and scholars of biblical criticism. In this text, Gage’s interpretations of Revelations and Kings stand out for their unapologetic interpretation. Her resources are historical, esoteric, and markedly non-Christian, leaving her unhindered by religious doctrine. Because she did not feel in the least bit obligated to demonstrate loyalty to the Church or its teachings, Gage was able to approach her pericopes with a forthrightness and intellectual vigor characteristic of her academic analyses of the relationship between women’s subjugation and the abuses of religion.

Matilda Joslyn Gage was a suffragist. She was concerned with securing the political and economic rights of women. But this was not enough. In her mind, there could be no freedom for women, for humanity, until the power of the Church to circumscribe the rights of individual liberty came to an end. To secure true equality, Gage believed that women must face the Church and its assertions of a masculine God, a sinning Eve, and the inferiority of women. Until the State and Church were truly separate, until policies and practices were no longer steeped in the misogynist mythos of the Christian Church, women would remain subject to the religious assumptions of that organization in all its manifestations. It was a task of enormous proportions, and not to be achieved in her lifetime, nor, very likely, in ours. But she was dauntless and brave and willing to sacrifice her reputation in the suffrage movement, her alliances and her friendships, and her very legacy to work toward that goal. As much as she is remembered as a suffragist, she should also be remembered as a defender of freedom of religion and for her critical, historical analysis of the Church and organized religion as a source of women’s oppression. In this pursuit, she was radical, fearless and uncompromising.

During the ages, no rebellion has been of like importance with that of woman against the tyranny of church and state. None has had its far-reaching effects. We note its beginning. Its progress will overthrow every existing form of these institutions. Its end will be a regenerated world.

By Dr. Melinda Grube

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