A Historian on The Untold Stories of the Women’s Suffrage Movement—And What It Means Today

Women’s Equality Day falls on August 26th, in honor of the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920 that granted some women the right to vote. It reminds us of the importance of how far we’ve come in the fight for equal rights and women’s suffrage, and how far we still have to go. One prominent woman from history you may not have heard of is Matilda Josyln Gage, whose story did not get as much attention in history books as other suffragists, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In this episode of Break the Bias, Sally Roesch Wagner, a major historian of the suffrage movement, author, and founder of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, shares her extraordinary story, and why it matters today.

You can listen to the full episode above.

Below is the transcript of this special episode. Show notes and articles are provided at the end.


Holly Corbett, VP of Content, Consciously Unbiased & Forbes Contributor:

“If you have a brain, you have bias. So let’s just own it. Some biases help us by simplifying our decision making process. Other biases hold us back by impacting who gets hired and promoted, and even who we approach to be our friends. Welcome to Break the Bias, a podcast where we interview impact makers who are breaking the bias when it comes to inclusion and equity, because sharing our stories is how real belonging happens.”

Sally Roesch Wagner, founder of the Matilda Josyln Gage Center for Social Justice Dialogue:

“We take freedom as far forward as we can, but [Matilda] said, those of us who are doing the work will not live to see the results—we’re doing this work for those who come after us.”

Corbett: “I’m Holly Corbett, VP of Content for Consciously Unbiased. It’s Women’s Equality Day, and this episode of Break the Bias unpacks what the stories of the suffragists of yesterday can teach us about effectively organizing for change today.

I spoke to Sally Roesch Wagner, a major historian of the women’s suffrage movement & Founder of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center for Social Justice Dialogue. She is also the author of a number of books, including The Women’s Suffrage Movement and Sisters in Spirit. We cover:

Who Matilda Joslyn Gage was exactly, and what made her so bad ass.

In what ways Matilda’s vision of equality for all was shaped by the local Native American culture, where women had an equal voice in political leadership for more than 1000 years.

Parallels between the issues women were fighting for more than a century ago, and the issues we’re still working on today.

Now on to our conversation.”

Corbett: “We know Women’s Equality Day is on August 26th, which celebrates the passage of the 19th amendment, which granted some women the right to vote. Why do you think Women’s Equality Day is so important today in 2022?”

Wagner: “Because we are so far from equality. I think it, if we look at the direction that we’ve come from and the repression of women in the 19th century, when women were considered dead in the law once they married, they had no legal existence, which meant that husbands could will away children, unborn children. They had the right to beat their wives, as long as they didn’t inflict permanent injury. Women had no control of their bodies. They had no control of any aspect of their life. Once they married all their property, all their possessions became their husbands.

So if we look at the trajectory of 150 years or 200 years, that’s how far we’ve come from that tradition, we have not begun to reach any semblance of equality and equity, and we don’t have the guarantee of equal rights in the constitution, nor do we have the treaty of rights of women that the United nations has produced. We have failed to sign on, to CEDAW [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women]. Of 194 members, 187 countries have signed on, the US is not one. We’re the only industrialized democracy and the only country in the Western hemisphere that has not signed on to C D the treaty of rights of women. So we have a long way to go.”

Corbett: “I’m not familiar with that. What, what is the reasoning? Is there any reasoning behind why we haven’t joined?”

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Wagner: “We never ratified it. Over 20 years in the Senate has not ratified it, and it’s not even on anybody’s radar screen.”

Corbett: “I’ve read a lot about the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and how there’s still some States that we need in order to ratify that. Do you have any hope that that’ll be passed?”

Wagner: “Absolutely. All that’ll take is Congress. A sufficient number of States have ratified. It just simply has to be recognized, and that requires the executive branch and Congress to approve it. And boom, we have it. We absolutely must have it.”

Corbett: “So just to go back to your work, to kind of give us the context, so you’re the founder of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation and Center for Social Justice Dialogue. What is the mission of this?”

Wagner: “It’s really to bring forward the ideas of Matilda Joslyn Gage so that people have that history, which we’ve really been denied. And it’s a history that I think gives us a different sense of who we are and where we come from. And we bring that history forward through dialogue, which is, uh, I think, when you enter the center, you’re given two rules: One is check your dogma at the door. And the other is to think for yourself. We don’t want people to just mindlessly accept the ideas of Matilda Joslny Gage. We really want people to engage in meaningful dialogue. And so, for example, in October, we’re doing a month long reproductive justice dialogue, bringing together people who have all opposed ideas. You think that this might be opening a can of worms as we’ve been accused of doing, but we did this once before, and it was incredibly effective and very successful. People didn’t agree necessarily on things like abortion, but they came to understand each other’s humanities. And as one woman who was, anti-choice said, once you hear a woman’s personal story, you can no longer judge.”

Corbett: “I think stories are really a key to building empathy and understanding, but in these polarizing times, it seems different viewpoints may shut down when they hear a side that they don’t necessarily agree with. Or often I see people who may meet someone of a different political affiliation and just decide that person may not be for them. So do you have any guidance on how to remain open and have an effective dialogue even when you may not agree with someone else?”

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Wagner: “Well, I think the first thing is that you have to agree upon what reality is. You know, if you, if you have two different realities, it’s very difficult to have a conversation. Um, so I think, you know, the first thing we, we hope is that people will just get on the same page in terms of what’s real information. And the other thing is, instead of the ‘us and them,’ the I deny your humanity because I disagree with you. It’s to be open to, ‘How do you come to this idea?’ and to really understand the person’s position and to find where is a place that we can agree? Is there a commonality?

I’ll give you an example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda said they believed in the sacred right of the unborn. Now that’s a starting point, isn’t it? Who would disagree with that? Then they went on to say the most sacred right of all is to be wanted and chosen and welcomed into the world. And the only way you can ensure that is if the woman is the one to decide, she’s the only one who really knows if she’s ready to bring that life into the world. And so I think if we find a common place of beginning, we may be able to find a common ground. And even if we can’t find a common ground, can we at least understand why someone holds the position that they do?”

Corbett: “It’s great advice. To go back to Matilda Joslyn Gage, can you share with people who she is and why she’s so extraordinary for those who may not know her?”

Wagner: “I think <laugh> Gloria Steinem sums it up best. She says, ‘This is the woman who is ahead of the women who are ahead of their time.’ Reproductive justice. She fought for that. She argued for it. She said for a woman to birth an unwanted child is a crime against the mother and a sin against the soul of the child. Every child born deserves to be wanted and chosen. She said that in 1868.

She supported Native rights and treaty rights and Native sovereignty. She understood the issue of sovereignty. She saw a model of the world that she thought we should base the Western tradition on. If we wanna really make change, we can’t just do a cosmetic, um, you know, small issue change. We need to create major structural change. And her model, she said, ‘Never was justice more perfect, never was civilization higher.’ And she’s talking about the Haudenosaunee, the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. They formed a thousand years ago, and women for a thousand years, the clan mothers have been choosing the chiefs, nominating them, holding them in position and removing them if necessary. It’s a balance of authority. The clan mother is the eyes and ears of the people, and the chief is the voice—and the voice has to listen to the eyes and ears.”

Corbett: “The notion of equality for all was pretty radical back then in the late 1800s or early 1900s. So Matilda got this idea of a different way to structure our societies based on the local Native American culture. Right?”

Wagner: “Yes.”

Corbett: “So who was she? How did Matilda even get involved with so many different groups? How did she meet the Iroquois? I believe it was the Mohawk nation that she befriended…”

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Wagner: “She actually lived and the Gage Center is on Onondaga territory, the center of the five-nation Confederacy. She actually was given an honorary adoption into the Wolf clan of the Mohawk nation and given a real name, the clan mother holds the bag of names. And when someone passes, that name goes back into the bag of names that is reused. There’s a woman at Onondaga today, a Mohawk woman from the Wolf clan, who carries the name the Gage was given. During that time period, it was not unusual for Native people to have contact with non-Native people. In early settlement, it was the requirement of non-Native people of settler colonialism to have the support of Native people. They wouldn’t have made it without them.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s nearest neighbor in Seneca Falls was a man who had previously had a trading post at Onondaga. He spoke the language fluently and…was given an honorary adoption and his Onondaga relatives would come through and stay with him. This was her nearest neighbor in Seneca Falls. When she would go to visit her cousin…and her husband Henry wrote about how there were always fugitive slaves and Indians and radical reformers…that were gathered there. So Lucretia Mott before she came to Seneca Falls and they planned that first 1848 convention, she had spent time with the Seneca women in the community there and had watched these women be part of the decision about the governmental system they were thinking about changing and she saw them being a part of it. She saw them plan the spiritual ceremony, the strawberry ceremony.

She lived in that world of women having empowered equality. And that’s the energy that she brought to the planning of the Seneca Falls Convention. So, Gage’s contact with them was not unique, but her seeing that as a superior form was, and Elizabeth, Cady Stanton saw that as well. There were a few women who did, but that was unique.

The fact that [Gage] wrote about sex trafficking in 1893, exposed that it was happening in the United States and exposed that Catholic priests had a 500 year tradition, at least, of sexually violating children and women. She exposed this in 1893. Anthony Comstock, who at the time was appointed the United States Postal Inspector, threatened to bring charges against her for this book. He was arresting and imprisoning people for birth control information and abortion information, and is the reason we didn’t have birth control for a hundred years. It was the religious right in the form of Anthony Comstock. So Comstock also attacked Gage because she was exposing what was going on.”

Corbett: “Why did Matilda’s story not get as much prominence in history books as other suffragists, such as Susan B Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton?”

Wagner: “Well, I think there are different phases in the women’s movement, and at different phases, different forms of the movement are making different decisions. In 1890, Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone engineered a consolidation of the two existing women’s suffrage organizations, the National and the American. They were very, very different. The National was more progressive. They wanted a constitutional amendment. The American were more conservative. They wanted to get state by state the vote for women. But when they came together, it also brought in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which was an organized body of mother love for God home and country. And they wanted not only to destroy the use of alcohol and tobacco in the United States to outlaw that, but they also wanted to put God in the constitution, prayer in the public schools and Jesus Christ as the head of the government. They wanted to destroy the wall of separation of church and state and create a conservative Christian nation.

Gage said that is the biggest danger of the hour. These women wanted to get the vote in order to create a Christian nation. They wanted to get the vote for women thinking women are more conservative. They’d be more likely to do this. Gage said, if we lose religious freedom, it’s not going to matter who votes. So she tried to undo this merger, seeing it as the death of the women’s movement. And she was unsuccessful. She predicted that this would be the destruction of a progressive women’s rights movement.

And what in fact happened was that The National American Woman Suffrage Association, the consolidated, the merged organization practiced racism as policy. They made the argument, give women the vote because white women ‘wink, wink, dog whistle,’ outnumber Negroes, and immigrants, and women’s suffrage is a way to maintain white supremacy and native born supremacy. And once they took that position, here was an embarrassment from their history.

A woman who held up Native Americans as the model of what a civilized society looks like. Also a woman who, during the Civil War said, ‘There will be no permanent peace until there is absolute equality for each group—men and women, Black and white, Native born and immigrant, rich and poor.’ I mean, this is the essence of intersectionality in the Civil War. This is not the vision of The National American Woman Suffrage Association. And so she gets dropped from history.”

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Corbett: “Gage gets dropped from history.”

Wagner: “Yes.”

Corbett: “There are so many threads between issues I saw when I went to visit the center—Gage’s connections with the Underground Railroad, the influence of the Iroquois, the battle for the separation of church and state. And I think a lot of these issues, such as racism and going backwards on equality and voting rights, we’re seeing them today in different forms. But before I go there, Gage got dropped from history. We didn’t learn about her in school to the same extent that we did Anthony and Stanton. And so why is it so important to tell the untold stories of all women from history, and what’s the consequence of those stories remaining untold?”

Wagner: “I think if we don’t know our history, we don’t know who we are and we don’t know our path forward. I think if we assume that it is only white women that have worked for equality, and we don’t understand the brilliance of the accommodation that African American women did when they were excluded from The National American Women’s Suffrage Association that was allowing their state auxiliaries to work for Jim Crow laws, you know…how did these African American women negotiate working with these white women on a common goal of women’s suffrage, knowing it was in their interests? We don’t learn the strength of these women. We don’t learn the brilliance of their strategy.

The other thing is, and this is just a personal example, when I see the leadership of women of color today, and I think about the loss of that for 200 years, I think that’s an irreparable loss. And, if we don’t experience that loss, we don’t experience the necessity of these voices that are coming from an understanding of levels of oppression. And they’re the ones who see the furthest. I mean, rich white guys have monovision, the reality is the true leadership in our country today comes from those who are the most oppressed. Once we understand the history, we understand that they’re the ones who have really learned how to negotiate, what are the true issues, and where we need to go.”

Corbett: “So if Gage wasn’t cut out or vilified in a sense, what could have been different? What could have been different if instead of, I think the term was ‘expediency’ where white women wanted expediency to get the right to vote. And so they chose to push for white women only to push through that right for themselves. But what could have been different if they had in fact accounted for and channeled all of these different groups to bring some unity there and make a united front in this push for equality?”

Wagner: “What they left us with was a divided women’s rights movement. It’s going to take time to build trust with Native women, women of color, African American women with [white] women who threw them under the bus. Historically ‘expediency’ simply is a nice term for throwing a group under the bus. And if you throw a group under the bus, yes, you win the battle [but not the war]. Yes, we won the constitutional amendment, but we didn’t win the war for equality–African American women and men didn’t have the vote until 1965. And with the continuing efforts at voter suppression, that’s the legacy that the women’s suffrage movement played into. They didn’t create it—that was already there—they played into it. What if they instead had made an alliance with Native American men who had the vote, with African American men who had the vote?

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I’ll be honest with you. I am not sure that I would have been a suffragist in 1895, because I’m not sure that I would have trusted the movement that was trying to get God in the constitution and destroy religious freedom. So what if they had made an alliance with the Free Thinkers, with anyone who feared a destruction of the wall of separation of church and state? There was a whole different alliance. Gage tried to create that alliance. When she formed an organization, when she dropped out of the women’s movement, and she formed an organization to fight for maintaining the wall of separation between church and state, she brought together prison reformers, anarchists…all the progressive groups in the country. Had she not lost the ability to fund the organization, that organization might have made a difference. But it wasn’t able to survive financially. But they could have made different choices. I think it might have taken longer, but it would’ve been sustainable. What they created was not sustainable because it was not full equality.”

Corbett: “To fast forward today in 2022, we saw the overturning of Roe V Wade after 50 years of precedent had already been set. We still have the racial and the gender wage gap, the motherhood penalty and lack of representation in top leadership positions in government. And so what overlaps might you see between the issues the suffragists were fighting for about a century ago, and what we’re working on today? What can their stories teach us about how to effectively organize today?”

Wagner: “If we think about where we’ve come from, that gives us our first clue. Matilda Joslyn Gage in the 1850s was calling for equal pay for equal work. She wasn’t the only one the movement was calling for this. Women back then were making about a third to a half of what men made…At this rate that’s 150 years ago. At this rate is it going to be 150 years before we have pay equity? And that’s just the composite. If we look at women of color, the wage gap is even more critical. I think in terms of reproductive justice, you know, Gage and Stanton calling for reproductive justice over a hundred years ago, and today we made some changes, we made some growth and now we’re going backwards.

And I think, you know, one of the lessons that Gage gives us is she says we’re on a continuum in our moment. We take freedom as far forward as we can, but she said, those of us who are doing the work will not live to see the results. We’re doing this work for those who come after us. In 1970, I was involved in my first reproductive justice demonstration on the steps of the capital in Sacramento, California. Going through winning a victory and then losing it… now we have a chance to take it even further. In 1970, we were demanding free abortion on demand, that we should have the absolute choice, the absolute right to our bodies. And with this backlash, it opens up the possibility of us taking our freedom and taking our right to our bodies, our inherent human right to our bodies to a next level.

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I would say the mentorship that I received from Matilda Joslyn Gage, having been involved in bringing her into history, next year it’ll be 50 years that I’ve been doing this work. The thing that she leaves with me is, I think in her very first speech, she said, don’t worry if you face the backlash. That’s the result of your work. Just work on, welcome it in some way, because it demonstrates how far you have come. The degree of the backlash is the resistance to the freedom that we’ve created. So it doesn’t stop me, and it didn’t stop her. It just creates more drive to further the fight.”

Corbett: “What advice can you give on how we can all be activists, and in the face of the backlash, just embrace that?”

Wagner: “This is one of the things that I feel so grateful for is my family is united in terms of our commitment. And so for me, it’s listening to my granddaughter. It’s listening to the younger women in my family who are saying, this is what we need to do. Let’s do this, let’s do this, let’s do this, because they live in a world that they were born into that I have slowly grown into, imperfectly. And it’s a world that has social media opportunities that are not in my easy comfort zone. I think the world of possibility of activism today is greater than I’ve ever known. The possibility of being on social media in a variety of ways and making major changes in the process is extraordinary. “

Corbett: “I also wonder because I’ve done some research and there’s some data out there that shows that a big cause of tension in some families is these conflicting viewpoints. So just thinking for families or neighbors or workplaces where you may have different ideas about the way forward? How do you keep showing up and doing the work when you’re faced with this conflict or this tension?”

Wagner: “I think there are different strategies. One is that you can just try to avoid it. The other is just face it and say, ‘I recognize that we have different ideas here. I really would like to have a conversation with you about that. I care about you and I want to work well with you, and it feels like this is a tension between us. Is there a way that we could just sit down and have a conversation about it? I’d like to hear why you hold the beliefs that you do.’

Corbett: “So it goes back to what we were talking about in the beginning about dialogue. And I guess at the heart of it is curiosity, so being curious and asking in order to really understand.”

Wagner: “Yeah. And also recognize that there are things that if I hold onto my beliefs in a dogmatic form, I may not be open to the possibility of some modification of that. Again, the Indigenous model of making decisions by consensus is a sustainable model. Our ‘winner takes all’ model is not sustainable. Majority rules is not a sustainable governmental system, because you always have the minority that is then unhappy and is going to try to become the majority. And so you have a ping pong, ping pong, which is our reality. So I think the model of, ‘let’s sit with each other until we can find some common ground,’ is a way forward. But again, we have to have a common sense of what’s reality. And that’s the biggest problem today.”

Corbett: “Yeah. And, what you’re saying is, it may not be the quick fix. It may take longer, but the outcome is more sustainable in the end, and better for everybody involved, rather than only some.”

Wagner: “Yeah. You know, Loretta Ross, an African American woman who’s been involved in reproductive justice forever, made a statement that just really struck me. She said, ‘What’s happened with the Dobb’s decision is that now white women are experiencing the world in the way that women of color have always experienced it. And so talking about reproductive justice, we have to talk about the forced sterilization of Native American women, the forced sterilization of African American women in some cases. I thought, well, we did away with that when we exposed that in the 70s. Not so, sterilization without complete consent still happens.

And the other thing is the Hyde Amendment, which has made it illegal since I think 1976, it’s been consistently passed and consistently it says that there can be no federal funds for abortions. Now that includes the Indian Health Service. And so, white women now we’re now facing the situation that women of color have been facing. So if we understand that we’re in partnership here, and we have to ensure not just the right to abortion, but also the right to safe maternal care and to destroy that disparity between African American babies that die and moms that die at a frequency way beyond what white women experience, we have to make sure that forced sterilization ends and can never happen. Again, we have to get rid of the Hyde Amendment. We have to really create reproductive justice. And I think this opportunity to really look carefully at what that means, is in some ways a horrible gift that we’ve been given.”


Matilda Joslyn Gage Center for Social Justice Dialogue
The Women’s Suffrage Movement
Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists
Forbes:How Overturning Roe V. Wade Can Impact The Economy


Holly Corbett

As the Director of Content at Consciously Unbiased, Holly Corbett is fueling inclusion through storytelling to build a passionate community and creating experiences inside organizations to transform workplace culture.
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