Telling a Different Story on the Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage

By Special Contributor posted 09-28-2017 13:41


by Sally Wagner

The Forum Blog is publishing a series about women's history and historic preservation. This post is the second case study in the series. Interested in discussing this post with other readers? Sign up for Forum Connect.

The Matilda Joslyn Gage Center for Social Justice Dialogue opened in 2010 after a 10-year, $1 million capital campaign to purchase and rehabilitate the home of Matilda Joslyn Gage in Fayetteville, New York. Gage was the third member of the National Woman Suffrage Association leadership triumvirate, alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. She offered her home as a station on the Underground Railroad, supported Native American sovereignty and treaty rights, and received an honorary adoption into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation. Gage was also the mother-in-law and mentor of L. Frank Baum. She encouraged him to publish the stories he told his sons, which resulted in the Wizard of Oz books, a series marked by strong women characters and social justice themes. Gage lost her place in history when she opposed including religious fundamentalists—who wanted to use the vote to create a Christian nation, destroying the separation between church and state—in the suffrage movement.

Matilda Joslyn Gage | Credit: Sally Roesch Wagner Collection

Dialogues at the Gage Center

Given the radical nature of Gage’s work and our desire to cultivate the Gage Center as a space in which to discuss her ideas, we worked with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience to build dialogue into the fabric of the center. Not only do Sites of Conscience provide safe spaces to remember and preserve even the most traumatic memories but they also enable visitors to make connections between past and contemporary human rights issues. We began with themed rooms that highlight the social justice issues about which Gage was passionate: women’s rights, abolition of slavery, separation of church and state, and Native nation sovereignty and treaty rights.

Our first formal dialogue was about reproductive justice, asking participants to address the question “Who chooses whether a woman births?” We received two grants totaling $50,000 and spent nine months creating the arc of this four-week dialogue series. We were excited to be the first museum (that we’re aware of) to tackle this controversial issue, bringing together people with diametrically opposed views with surprisingly positive results. As one woman who entered the dialogue asking how anyone can “hate so much [that] they want to murder babies” said at the conclusion of the series, “Once you hear a woman’s personal story, you can no longer judge.”

Dialogue training | Credit: Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation

Women’s Suffrage and Indigenous Sovereignty

Our current challenge is to present a more complicated, deeper narrative of woman suffrage. Gage’s thinking is instructive here: she wrote about the superior position of Haudenosaunee (meaning “people of the Longhouse, also known as Iroquois) women who predated Columbus. She recognized their citizenship in their own sovereign nations and chided the U.S. government for trying to force citizenship on Indian men—“the better to steal their lands”—while denying citizenship rights of half the population.

We decided to use the centennial of women’s suffrage in New York State—2017—and the nation—2020—to emphasize the fact that not all women on this continent gained a political voice only in 1920. Many Native women had more economic, social, spiritual, and political authority on this land before Columbus arrived than they do in the United States today.

We are crafting this narrative through an ongoing friendship and working relationship with Haudenosaunee women, paying careful attention to language. Haudenosaunee  is the correct name of the five-, and later six-, nation peace confederacy, whereas the name Iroquois was imposed by the French. Haudenosaunee clan mothers—who have been nominating; holding in office; and, if necessary, removing the chiefs representing their clans since the confederacy was founded in 909—talk about their responsibilities, not their rights. To bridge the cultural difference, we refer to their “voice” and “authority,” rather than their “power”—a word that implies a hierarchy, rather than an egalitarian balance.

Like Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton also wrote about the superior political and social positions of Indigenous women. In partnership with the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, which oversees the Stanton House, we decided to use the centennial to tell the story of the Haudenosaunee influence on the women’s suffrage movement. The Gage Foundation applied for and received funding from the Coalition of Sites of Conscience to create complementary exhibits and a dialogue program at both sites.

Choosing the dialogue topic took a great deal of thought and discussion, but the concept of sovereignty ultimately seemed like the best way to get at the heart of Native’s women’s agency and authority. Native women talk consider themselves “sovereign women in sovereign nations”—that is, their sovereignty over their own lives depends on the sovereignty of their nations. Gage wrote in 1878 that “Indians over the whole country … are not part and parcel of us, but live upon their own lands, under their own laws… Our Indians are in reality foreign powers, though living among us… Compelling them to become citizens would be like the forcible annexation of Cuba, Mexico, or Canada to our government, and as unjust.”

We decided to open the exhibits on Columbus Day weekend, October 7, and the following weekend, October 14, which itself invites a new dialogue. With Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and South Dakota no longer celebrating Columbus Day—and Denver, Los Angeles, a host of other cities, and the state of Vermont replacing it with Indigenous People’s Day—we hit upon a new question as a vehicle for getting at the issue of sovereignty: Should we celebrate Indigenous People’s Day or Columbus Day?

As part of refining our dialogue process, we are experimenting with dialogue stations to accompany our exhibits. These will allow visitors to agree to the rules of dialogue, follow instructions for engaging about the questions posed, and take part in dialogue without relying on facilitators to create formal structure. We are eager to read visitor feedback and see how we can continue to refine the process as part of our commitment to strengthening dialogue at the Gage Center.

Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner is an adjunct faculty member in The Renée Crown University Honors Program at Syracuse University. She is the founder and executive director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center for Social Justice Dialogue in Fayetteville, New York.


Get Connected

Discuss this blog post and more on Forum’s new online community. Sign up now.