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Matilda Joslyn Gage On The Freethought Trail

It’s summer, the season when many families travel, not just to have a good time, but to learn about the world and its history in a manner that is difficult to achieve in a classroom. If you’re planning to take a trip to the northeastern corner of the USA, and want to give your kids a sample of history that they will almost certainly never hear about, take a ride on the Freethought Trail, located in central and western New York.

Freethought is the idea that people ought to be free to question doctrines skeptically, rather than being forced to submit to dominant ideologies such as those that come from traditional religion. The Freethought Trail has been established by the Council for Secular Humanism, and you might find pamphlets advertising the trail at rest stops along the New York State Thruway, but don’t expect there to be a museum at every stop, or even a significant minority of them. There isn’t enough general respect for skepticism of religion to provide sufficient funds for that. At most of the stops, independent research or audio commentary provided by the Trail via cell phone will have to do.

matilda joslyn gageOne of the stops on the Freedom Trail that does have a physical presence is found in Fayetteville, New York, at the Matilda Joslyn Gage house, operated by the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation.

Matilda Joslyn was born in 1826 into an abolitionist family, and continued as an activist against slavery well into her own adulthood. Thinking more locally, she was an advocate for the rights of the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois), the Native people of what had become upstate New York.

As an adult, Matilda Joslyn Gage was known primarily as a leader in the Women’s Rights Movement. She was President of the National Woman Suffrage Association, and was the principal co-author of A History of Woman Suffrage with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was Editor of The National Citizen and Ballot Box, a Suffragist newspaper, as well as the later publication The Liberal Thinker. Gage was the founder of the Women’s National Liberation Union. Gage took part at a protest of the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in 1878, taking note of the contradiction in the depiction of liberty as a woman in a nation where women could not live in liberty themselves.

Gage was also a prominent freethinker, however. She was a speaker at a Freethought convention in Watkins Glen, where attendees were arrested on the criminal charge of distributing birth control manuals. She was the sole author of Woman, Church and State, which argued that women’s oppression in the United States and elsewhere was largely due to the patriarchal power of Christianity.

Among her statements in that book:

“The most grievous wrong ever inflicted upon woman has been in the Christian teaching that she was not created equal with man.”

“The inferior and secondary position of woman early became an integral portion of Christianity.”

“When Rome became a Christian State, and the phallic cross triumphed over the gods and goddesses of old, the condition of woman under the civil law became more degraded. The change from ancient civilization to that renewed barbarism at an early age of the Christian era, which so many writers note without perceiving its cause, is to be found in the low conception of womanhood inculcated by the Church.”

“Reverence for the ancient in customs, habits of life, law, religion, is the strongest and most pernicious obstacle to advancing civilization.”

“Christendom is percolated with immorality.”

“The Superstitions of the church, the miseries of woman, her woes, tortures, burnings, rackings and all the brutalities she has endured in the church, the state, the family, under the sanction of Christianity, would be incredible had we not the most undeniable evidence of their existence, not alone in the past but as shown by the teachings, laws and customs of the present time.”

The Gage Center is located at 210 E Genesee Street in Fayetteville, NY.

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