Meet Matilda

Matilda Electa Josyln Gage (1826-1898)
Matilda Electa Josyln Gage (1826-1898)

As I head into to the final rounds of edits of The Witches of New York, I’ve been thinking of the bits and pieces that will, for lack of a better word, “bookend” the novel. I’ve had the dedication chosen for a little while as well as a list of people I want to thank in the acknowledgements, but I’ve just now settled on two quotes for the epigraph, and started writing my Author’s Note. Not surprisingly, there’s one woman’s name that will appear in both—Matilda Josyln Gage.


Born in Cicero, New York in 1826, Matilda grew up in a home that was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Her father, Hezekiah Josyln was an early abolitionist, and Matilda would later say that she was “born with a hatred of oppression.” She would go on to become an abolitionist herself as well as a suffragist and a Native American rights activist.

A colleague of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she was considered more radical than most of her sister suffragists in the US. She was president of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association and would later found the WNLU (Women’s National Liberal Union.) After years of writing suffragist commentary for various newspapers across America, she became editor and owner of The National Citizen and Ballot Box, a paper that included columns on women’s suffrage, women’ history and female scientists and inventors. Every issue bore the motto, “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword.”

As well as running a paper and raising her family, Matilda was a prolific writer of tracts, essays and books. Her largest work, Women, Church and State, tackled such issues as Native American rights, matriarchy in indigenous cultures, and the history of witchcraft (as related to the oppression of women’s rights.) She was initiated into the Iroquois Wolf Clan and given the name, Karonienhawi, “she who holds the sky.” She was also admitted to the Iroquois council of matrons.

Fun fact: 

In 1993, scientific historian Margaret W. Rossiter coined the term “Matilda Effect” to identify the social situation where women scientists inaccurately receive less credit for their scientific work than an objective examination of their actual efforts would reveal. —from Wikipedia


Glinda searches the great Book of Records

Matilda of Oz

I wish I could say that I learned about Matilda Gage as a child in school, but sadly she was never mentioned. I first stumbled across this great woman while researching the ties between spiritualism and the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. The chapter in her book, Woman, Church and State that’s devoted to the history of witchcraft is an amazing, enlightening call to arms that among her other writings and achievements led Gloria Steinem to call Matilda “the woman who was ahead of the women who were ahead of their time.”

In her own time, she was a mother as well as an activist, and as such, raised her daughter Maud to be an independent-minded young woman. When Maud wished to marry L. Frank Baum, (who was then a travelling actor) Matilda was less than enthusiastic. At the time, Maud was one of a few young women attending Cornell University and had her sights set on becoming a lawyer or a doctor. When Maud insisted she’d marry Baum with or without her mother’s approval, Matilda finally relented and accepted Baum into the family. Over time they got to know one another quite well and her activist leanings (especially when it came to the women’s suffrage movement) became a great influence in L. Frank Baum’s life and work. When he began infusing tales he told to his young sons with strong female characters, Matilda encouraged him to publish the stories. A few years later, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Baum’s many subsequent Oz books were born.

As a child I loved the film version of The Wizard of Oz, but I loved the book and the many other books in the Oz series, more. The Dorothy Gale of the page was more plucky and tomboyish than the Dorothy of the silver screen. Glinda the Good Witch of the South was less glittery and far more wise and regal…she wasn’t there to save Dorothy but to help her see her own true inner strength. (She always reminded me a lot of my mom.) Best of all there was Ozma, a kick-ass girl who would become the rightful ruler of Oz.


In Oz there were wicked witches, but there were good witches too, and Ozma and Dorothy lived in a world where young girls were encouraged to act confidently, embrace their intelligence and engage with the magic that surrounded them. After reading many of Matilda Joslyn Gage’s works I can see her influence on the world of Oz at every turn. Far more inclined to shun conformity and celebrate the true meaning of the word witch, she was a force we’d do well not to forget.

A rebel! How glorious the name sounds when applied to a woman. Oh, rebellious woman, to you the world looks in hope. Upon you has fallen the glorious task of bringing liberty to the earth and all the inhabitants thereof. —Matilda Joslyn Gage


Further reading

The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation

Witches, seances and suffragists, oh my!

Researchers find Disney princesses speak far less than male characters.

An Open Letter to Fanboys who object to Rogue One’s female leads




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