Students EnGAGEd

2011 Annual Matilda Joslyn Gage Essay Contest

Attention high school students in Onondaga and Madison Counties: The Matilda Joslyn Gage Center invites entries to its annual high school Essay Contest. The 2011 essay topic is “Relate Gage’s ideas to a contemporary current issue.” Essays must be received by March 11, 2011. Awards include  gift certificates to Barnes & Noble and the Gage Home gift shop, along with publication of the winning essay in the Neighbors Section of The Post-Standard. All participants will be invited to a tour and reception at the newly renovated  Gage Home. Students and teachers can find essay rules and information via the following link: 2011 Essay Rules & Info. For further questions, please e-mail Diana Green at or call the Gage Office at 637-9511.

Winning Essays from Previous Years

A Student EnGAGEd

A year ago I received a request one of many I receive for information from a student creating a History Day Project on Matilda Joslyn Gage. I sent her information and guided her in some directions. I recently received this, her college entrance essay. She has given us permission to share her essay, anonymously. Matilda continues to speak to young women today!

– Sally Roesch Wagner

To be serenaded by faith is bliss. To know the truth about life, the world, and G*d is euphoric; there is an answer to every question and a clear path to follow. Yet, it seems that often in religion, that which seems unfair must be disregarded. Throughout my life, I have believed with all of my heart the justifications given to the many doctrines of Islam. That is, until I read a book by Matilda Joslyn Gage, a 19th century founder of feminism. Through a National History Day Project for my AP United States History class, I discovered Matilda Joslyn Gage, a female revolutionary.

Gage was the author of many speeches, essays, and books. The book that really challenged me was Woman, Church and State published in 1893. Blasphemous, insolent, unnecessary, and offensive were the words that ran through my mind as I examined the text. Still, my eyes would not look away, and my hesitant yet eager heart pushed me to read further. As a devout, hijab-wearing Muslim, reading and enjoying the book was probably a transgression against the doctrines of my religion. It refuted the story of Adam and Eve, spoke of times when goddesses were worshipped and females were respected, condemned religious law because of its partiality to man, and identified religious establishment as a means of degrading women. Yet, this book caused me to question myself. For days, I slaved over comprehending her words and comparing them to my learned truths. How was it that prior to reading this book, I did not try to find logical reasons for why women were bound to unfair doctrines in Islam? My religious beliefs were all I had ever known, and to question them would break the foundation upon which I was raised.

Just a couple of years ago, I would have never thought about why it was Eve that reached towards the forbidden fruit on the tree of knowledge, going against G*d’s orders and establishing original sin. It had just happened that way, I believed, and is written in the Quran. After reading Gage’s book, my understanding of this story in which three major religions are rooted was altered. Was it simply a coincidence that original sin was created when Eve reached towards the tree of knowledge and that for thousands of years women had been denied education? Or could it be possible that this story was forged in order to destroy “her self-respect” and to teach “her to feel consciousness of guilt in the very fact of her existence” (Woman, Church and State, 226)? Gage’s witty thinking made me smile. She stated that even if the story about original sin and Eve were true, no religion would exist if this woman, Eve, had not committed a sin, as then Jesus would never have had to save humanity!

I once asked my aunt why men were allowed to marry up to four women. Her answer was modest and simple: Men took other wives if they were widowed, had children, and needed support. They also took more wives if their wife needed more help in caring for the household and children. I accepted what she said, and moved on. Now that my received truths have been challenged by Gage’s book, I consult a variety of sources to develop my interpretation. While indeed, many widowed women with children were taken up by other men, Rosalind Miles argues in her book Who Cooked the Last Supper, polygamy was established because women were objects of sexuality and so were taken in to fulfill men’s desires.

While I may have been ignorant when I was younger, I was in bliss. I loved what I believed in and believed it with all of my heart. I was always the one who was knowledgeable about my religion, who could recall stories from the Quran in a snap, who could explain the reasoning behind things that seemed unfair. Maybe I was too naive to think for myself, or maybe I just wasn’t looking for imperfections because I was so bonded to my beliefs. It is possibly one of the most intimidating and uncomfortable feelings to feel that you are rejecting what is supposed to be true. It is heartbreaking, too, to feel that what you have always known as true, have believed in with all of your heart, is somehow fabrication. Even writing about this topic proves extremely difficult for me. It is not my intention to sound subversive or to shed a negative light upon Islam. I am writing about this because my religion is such a huge part of my life. When something that big in one’s life somehow suddenly feels unstable, one’s whole world shakes. If a Muslim family member ever knew of my feelings, they would be extremely disappointed. That is the most unkind, worldly punishment of all. To know that I could possibly be questioning what is true is one of the biggest dilemmas I’ve had to face. The consequences for rejecting the true faith are not soft.

It’s not that I have renounced Islam, for I am still Muslim, and I am thankful that Islam is the religion I choose to follow. But I do take much more care to consider the justifications regarding the many doctrines that I live. And I no longer depend on explanations for doctrines from other people. I feel that moving from a sheltered environment to a more exposed one will introduce me to new people, places, and knowledge that will contribute to my future experiences. I am looking forward to college because, among other things, I firmly believe that it will heighten my curiosity and help me understand myself and my beliefs.

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