While Gage believed that all freedom struggles were connected, woman’s rights became the core of her life’s work. She entered the movement, as did Susan B. Anthony, at a national woman’s rights convention held in Syracuse in 1852, four years after the first (1848) regional convention in Seneca Falls. Her speech at the 1852 convention was her first in public life.
Gage, along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was a founding member of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and served in various offices of that organization for twenty years (1869-1889), the comparable leadership roles of these three women in the organization often overlapping. Gage helped organize both the Virginia and the New York state suffrage associations, and was an officer in the New York association for twenty years. From 1878 to 1881 she published the National Citizen and Ballot Box, NWSA’s official newspaper, from her home in Fayetteville.
In 1871 Gage was one of the many women nationwide who unsuccessfully tried to test the law by attempting to vote in Fayetteville. When Susan B. Anthony successfully voted in the 1872 presidential election and was arrested for it, Gage was the only suffragist who came to Anthony’s aid, supporting her during her trial, speaking out on her behalf, and writing an analysis of the case for the Albany Law Journal.
In 1880, when Gage’s leadership of the New York Woman Suffrage Association gained for women the right to vote and run for office in school elections, she held meetings in her home to organize the women of Fayetteville to vote. They elected an all-woman slate of officers, with Gage being the first among them to cast her ballot. The test case of the law came thirteen years later, when Gage was slapped with a supreme writ by a marshal who knocked on her door at 210 East Genesee Street one day in 1893. A recognized leader in the movement, Gage became the test case for the constitutionality of the New York law that gave women the franchise in School Commissioner elections. Gage lost her case, as Anthony had over twenty years before. Women in the state of New York could not vote for federal or state officials.
Gage co-edited with Stanton and Anthony the first three volumes of the six-volume The History of Woman Suffrage (1881-1887), much of the work being done in her Fayetteville home. “The three names,” predicted a woman’s rights newspaper, “will ever hold a grateful place in the hearts of posterity.” Susan B. Anthony spent so much time in the Gage house that the family called the guest bedroom “The Susan B. Anthony Room.” Anthony wrote her name with a diamond in the upstairs library window on one of her visits; it is still there.
A prolific writer, Gage served as a correspondent for newspapers from New York to California, primarily writing about woman’s rights issues and activities. With Stanton, she co-authored the major documents of the NWSA.
“She always had a knack of rummaging through old libraries, bringing more startling facts to light than any woman I ever knew,” Stanton once said of Gage. Concerned that women had been written out of history, Gage documented many previously unacknowledged accomplishments of her sex, including Catherine Littlefield Greene’s invention of the cotton gin, wrongly attributed to Eli Whitney, and Anna Ella Carroll’s detailed planning of the crucial Tennessee Campaign of the Civil war, generally credited to General Grant. Gage authored the influential pamphlets Woman as Inventor (1870) (available through our gift shop ), Woman’s Rights Catechism (1871), and Who Planned the Tennessee Campaign of 1862? (1880).
Discouraged with the slow pace of suffrage efforts during the 1880s, and alarmed by the conservative religious movement that had as its goal the establishment of a Christian nation, Gage formed the Women’s National Liberal Union in 1890 to combat efforts to unite church and state. Her masterwork, Woman, Church and State (1893), articulates her views.
Gage died on March 18, 1898, while visiting her daughter’s home in Chicago, Illinois. Gage’s lifelong motto can be seen on her gravestone in the Fayetteville cemetery, a short walk from her home: “There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home or Heaven; that word is Liberty.”