Susan B. Anthony’s Bargain with the Devil by Carol P. Christ

Matilda Joslyn Gage


[T]he most grievous wrong ever inflicted on woman has been in the Christian teaching that she was not created equal to man, and the consequent denial of her rightful place in Church and State. –Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman, Church, and State, 1893, page 1

I do not approve of their [referring to Gage and Stanton] system of fighting the religious dogmas of people I am trying to convert to my doctrine of equal rights to women. –Susan B. Anthony to Olympia Brown, following the disputed merger of the radical National Women’s Suffrage Association with the conservative American Women’s Suffrage Association in 1889

Most readers of Feminism and Religion know that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were leaders in the nineteenth century struggle for women’s rights. Fewer will know that Matilda Joslyn Gage was widely understood to be Stanton’s equal as a theorist and Anthony’s equal as an organizer. The fact that Gage’s contributions have been lost to history can be attributed to Susan B. Anthony’s bargain with the devil.

If Anthony’s bargain had affected only the reputation of Matilda Joslyn Gage, that would be bad enough. But Anthony’s decision to merge the NWSA with the AWSA signaled that the women’s rights movement would cease and desist from its policy of naming and indicting Christian dogma as the source and cause of women’s subordination in the law in Christian countries. This decision meant that feminists would no longer have a clear understanding of the forces they were reckoning with.

When the AWSA proposed merger with the NWSA, it had recently accepted a large number of new members from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The WCTU’s leaders had come to the conclusion that if women were given the vote they would vote for prohibition. But their agenda did not stop there. They intended to introduce a Constitutional Amendment that would name Jesus Christ as “the author and head” of the United States government, to require Christian prayer in public schools, and to prohibit any public assembly on the Sabbath that was not organized by the church. (Many of today’s opponents of women’s rights would support these ideas.) The radical members of the NWSA were appalled and assumed that the merger would never happen.

But in 1889, Anthony decided that achieving the vote for women would require the support of Christian women. Knowing that Gage would lead the opposition, she arranged for her to be denied travel funding to attend the upcoming NWSA meetings, did not announce that the merger question would be on the agenda, personally selected committee members favorable to the merger, and introduced the question of the merger at 11 pm on the last day of the meetings, when many women, not knowing that anything important remained to be discussed, had already gone home.

Not surprisingly a great number of women protested, but it was too late. Gage went on to organize the Woman’s National Liberal Union, which once again indicted Christianity as “the chief means of enslaving woman’s conscience and reason,” calling for the separation of Church and State and opposing prayer and religious instruction in the schools. In 1893, Gage published her massive Woman, Church, and State. She died in 1898.

The first three volumes of the History of Women’s Suffrage, officially edited by Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, had been written and edited primarily by Gage and Stanton: Anthony was not a writer. After the merger of the AWSA and the NWSA, Anthony asked her biographer Ida Husted Harper to help her write the final volumes. Gage was effectively written out of history.

Anthony’s actions can be considered reprehensible in and of themselves. She used underhanded methods, and she distorted the truth about the radical nature of the nineteenth century women’s rights movement. If it had only been the reputation of Gage that had suffered, this would have been bad enough. But Anthony’s rewriting of history had more egregious consequences: it signaled that the women’s rights movement would henceforth cease and desist from naming Christian dogma as one of the greatest impediments to the achievement of women’s rights.

Today, feminists are often mystified by the strength of the opposition to access to birth control and abortion and to amending the Constitution to affirm equality of rights under the law for women. In fact much of the opposition to women’s rights-including birth control, abortion, equal rights–comes from Christians, especially from Roman Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, and Mormons. These groups affirm the traditional Christian teaching that women were created to serve and obey men.

The members of the NWSA were not afraid to attack religious dogma. Today many feminists are unfamiliar with Christian dogma and find themselves at a loss when confronted with religious opposition to women’s rights. Secular feminists may be swayed by the argument that “everyone is entitled to their own religious beliefs,” while failing to understand that religious beliefs have never been purely private matters. They may hope that religion will simply wither away. They may wish not to offend liberal and progressive Christians who support women’s rights. Gage, on the other hand, understood that traditional Christian beliefs have shaped every aspect of women’s lives from the time of Constantine to the present day, and she insisted that they must be challenged directly.

Anthony’s bargain with the devil may have hastened the passage of the women’s suffrage amendment. But it left us with a weakened understanding of the forces waged against the struggle for women’s rights. It is high time feminists spend as much time studying the history of religion as they do studying, for example, Marx and Freud. Gage’s book Woman, Church, and State would be a good place to start.


The information in this essay is taken mainly from Sally Roesch Wagner’s “Introduction” to Woman, Church, and State, reprinted by Persephone Press, Watertown, MA, 1980. Woman, Church, and State is available as a free ebook (but without Sally Roesch Wagner’s powerful Introduction). Information on Gage can be found on the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation website.

I will be discussing Gage’s book in a future blog.


Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who will soon be moving to Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.

Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.

Categories: Activism, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Women's Spirituality

Tags: , , , , , ,

44 replies

  1. Too true. And, as if that was not bad enough, Anthony and Stanton also made a bargain with a white racist devil named George Francis Train, in return for his funding their newspaper. Of course it was difficult to get funding (the abolitionists weren’t interested, so they turned to Train) but Stanton was known for her own racist comments such as this: “American women of wealth, education, virtue and refinement, if you do not wish the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans and Irish, with their low ideas of womanhood to make laws for you and your daughters … demand that women too shall be represented in government.” Elsewhere she made the same point referring to “Sambo.”

    Anthony, in engineering the merger that you refer to, not only courted conservative Christians but prioritized getting white Southern women on board with suffrage over black feminists like Ida B. Wells. She was willing to ally with Women’s Christian Temperance Union leader Frances Willard who also made racist statements about the threat posed by “great, dark-faced mobs,” and said that “the colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt.” (interview with the New York Voice, 1890). Anthony’s obsession with getting the vote at all costs led her to make such alliances, while cutting off women like Gage, who were allies to women of color.

    Thanks for the column. Roesch Wagner has done such great work in bringing Gage’s contributions to light.

    Liked by 7 people

  2. Thank you for writing this Carol. I have long loved Matilda Joslyn Gage, and been aware of what happened. It is great that you have written it up here. And thanks Max for embellishing further.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Carol, thank you for this important elucidation of feminist history in the US. I see how excluding a woman like Matilda Joslyn Gage, who embraced other cultures, played an important part in Anthony’s conflict of interest. The flaws in Anthony’s decisions, make me wonder how we tackle similar issues today in terms of reaching common goals for greater justice and protections for women, in spite of our blind spots. Even while we are deep into globalized politics, in this writing you leave us with a deeper and expansive urge for interepistemic, intercultural scope feminism.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. errata: Should read, “important elucidation of the events that shaped US feminist history at that time.”


  5. While her goal was unfortunate, Anthony’s tactics were brilliant. Manipulating the agenda and calling the crucial vote late at night after most people had gone home, at a women’s conference in 1981 is what got women included in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. See The Taking of 28 by Penney Kome.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks, Carol, for this informative post. This: “It is high time feminists spend as much time studying the history of religion as they do studying, for example, Marx and Freud.” Not only feminists, I would say. There seems to be in many circles (including academic) that this idea of studying religion in the academy is “nice,” but not vital. Riffat Hassan, an Islamic Studies scholar from Pakistan, ran into this issue in the 1980s when Pakistan was particularly intent on creating and passing “anti-women” legislation. Riffat’s women friends, working in the legislature at the time in Pakistan, pleaded with her to come back (she was teaching and researching in the U.S. at the time) and go point-by-point over the proposed laws and refute them. Riffat assured them that would not be effective, noting that she realized after immersing herself in the then-current political scene that “…Muslims, in general, consider it a self-evident truth that women are not equal to men.” Riffat realized she needed to uncover the theology (dogma) that permeated Pakistani thought. In this country, I think it’s all too easy to say, “But we have separation of church and state,” thinking that’s enough to understand the issues of contraception, abortion, and the more general idea of women’s subservience to men that permeates our own society.

    You nail so much is this paragraph: “Today, feminists are often mystified by the strength of the opposition to access to birth control and abortion and to amending the Constitution to affirm equality of rights under the law for women. In fact much of the opposition to women’s rights-including birth control, abortion, equal rights–comes from Christians, especially from Roman Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, and Mormons. These groups affirm the traditional Christian teaching that women were created to serve and obey men.”

    Liked by 7 people

    • Esther Nelson, addressing the “then-current political scene that “…Muslims, in general, consider it a self-evident truth that women are not equal to men,” in contrast to the notions of “separation of church and state” in the US: what we seem to miss in such simplistic notion about this “separation” is that it is placed only in terms of words, but when it comes to economic interests, all churches and nation-states are deeply entwined in corrupted profit schemes. How did we ever become indoctrinated on the construct of “separation of church-state” when the very opposite is true when it comes to profit, control over women’s bodies, the decisions on whose lives matter or not, so called religious institutions free use of land and other resources for profit, along with the indoctrination of male supremacy in a males only Vatican church empire?
      The so-called “separation” has been one of the least discussed smoke courtains thrown before our eyes, lives, pockets and fallacious freedoms in the last century. It is time we dismantle its fallacies. I hope that Carol and other scholars, better versed in the intricacies of the subject expound further on it.
      I pray we do not keep dwelling in the apparently cozy plot of such “separation”… when in reality the bonds between Church and Nation-states are close and stronger than ever.

      Liked by 4 people

  7. Fascinating, thank you. I knew about the racist divisions but not about how religions played such a key role. It is important and so interesting how the choices made at that time still reverberate today and how we can see such a direct line. I would like to learn more about Gage.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Dismantling patriarchy requires dismantling patriarchal religion. The question is how to do this without criticizing the patriarchal god? Can we achieve women’s equality while accepting patriarchal religion? If not, how do we proceed?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Do you mean how to we dismantle patriarchal religion (women’s secondary creation, women’s as the source of sin, divinely ordered obedience of women to their husbands) without criticizing the God in whom many people fervently believe? Or is this possible? The God in whom many people fervently believe is himself a male and stands atop a male hierarachy. And in many cases he is believed in blindly (by faith alone) on the basis of texts or traditions claimed to be divinely ordained and therefore not to be questioned. So can this God stay and women achieve our rights? I don’t think so.

      The only route that I see for saving patriarchal traditions is to reject authoritative teachings and to acknowledge that the traditions have been patriarchal and done harm. But if we do that the whole edifice could fall in on itself.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Truth! Maybe the unfortunate truth, as I can’t imagine how it could happen, although the rise of the “nones” (those who eschew all religions) might help.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Carol, this why I believe that an interepistemic study of Goddess Indian traditions–minus the colonial patriarchal influences and propagandizing–could contribute immensely to expanding the discourse. When it comes to the absence and silenced tradition of women Gurus and enlightened women in India… over eight centuries of colonialism were a blow to the diversity of Goddess spiritualities, and even to the a long-standing line of powerful enlightened women, even in the male god spirituality, where a feeling or approach to God can be as lover-beloved, mother-child, friend to friend, teacher-student (as in the Gita), and in such a broad spectrum of feelings that have been deliberately excluded by scholars of the abrahamic religions. And, of course, the dissemination of such ample spectrum of relationships with the divine does not serve their authoritative-political methods and objectives!
        I agree with you that the authoritarian ways must go. Not sure it is necessary for the male God to crumble, though. A male concept of God can co-exist in equal terms with Goddess. I have seen how that works… Though, there are important updates and corrections pending to be made in the Indic/Vedic cosmology with respect to the “birth” of Goddess… that is waiting for a feminist Goddess Bhakta to rewrite in the Devi Mahatmya (Markandaya Purana). Perhaps, an updated feminist scripture of the Indian Goddesses, embedded in Indian oral traditions, emerge from conversations such as this.

        Liked by 1 person

        • In answer to Bressler I was speaking about the Christian God. Gage herself was interested in Hinduism via Theosophy which was her mode of entrance to “the East” which she believed had wisdom to teach. PS Let’s not get into a discussion of how accurate Theosophy’s view of so-called eastern wisdom was; obviously Theosophy’s was a western view of eastern religions.

          Liked by 2 people

  9. Has Susan B. Anthony reincarnated as Donald J. Trump?

    Thanks for telling this story. it’s one we need to hear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe as Nancy Pelosi? Lots of good organizing, many good ideas, combined with some not so progressive ideas?

      Liked by 3 people

      • Scholars and politicians play different roles in our societies and have different sets of highly developed skills. Perhaps there should be more overlap in the roles, but the roles are now, and have been for millennia, highly differentiated. There is no way to get from where we are now to some better place without skilled politicians. It would be better to appreciate their skills (in Nancy Pelosi’s case incredible skill and courage coupled with deeply held ethical views), with which scholars are largely unfamiliar, than to criticize politicians for being lesser-skilled scholars.


        • The issue under question in the blog is not scholars vs activists but activists vs activists and a dispute about the best way to achieve goals. I admire Pelosi for her organizing skill and stamina but as a Democrat, I stand with Warren and AOC on policy, including on issues such as who should be funding the party–not big business I would say; and I believe the party must become more progressive, Nancy worries about that.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for this very enlightening post, Carol. Learned so much that I was not aware of before. Deeply depressing to see how we subvert those with whom we should stand in solidarity, but we cannot deny that progress–albeit mixed–was made by these deeply flawed trailblazers.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. I hardly know what to say – I had no idea – thank you so much for this women’s history lesson.

    I have so often asked myself why is it that such opposition to women’s rights comes out of the Christian sect.

    “Gage… understood that traditional Christian beliefs have shaped every aspect of women’s lives from the time of Constantine to the present day, and she insisted that they must be challenged directly.”

    It’s almost as if we simply HAVE to do away with the Christian tradition instead of trying to work within it.

    I know I will be criticized for the above statement – but I just don’t see a way through.

    I made that choice in my own life and have never regretted it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sara, I speak to you as one raised in Cath. tradition, pre-Vat II (which informed me on mystical experiences, embodied devotions and Mary as Mother Birthing God, a God in Herself). And it is as such that I hope to respond to your expression that “It’s almost as if we simply HAVE to do away with the Christian tradition instead of trying to work within it.”

      In the past decade, I’ve been searching for links and validations to recover and rescue what was good in those formative years. Naturally, I was excluding the Vatican’s history of crimes against humanity by entering this study moved by a personal and emotional need to find value on this foundational church of my past. And three books, plus several documentaries, helped me separate a spiritual foundation, deserving to be saved from the ongoing corrupt politics that must be condemned out of existence.

      “A World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science” by David F. Noble (1992). “Illuminations”a biographical novel of Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharratt (2012).
      “Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine,” by Barbara Newman (1987).

      These books, and a few others, from women embedded and against Catholic/Vatican evil powers, like feminist MD and Catalan nun Teresa Forcades i Vila, “La Teologia Feminista en la Historia” (2007) of many other of her publications against the WHO and other harmful medical practices, as well as Sister Simone Campbell adn the “Nuns on the Bus” presently defying the female exclusion from Catholic liturgy and ritual service.

      Sincee spirituality is intimately related to Love, as a force that moves us, as well as to loving as a verb (or trigger to move theory into praxis), preserving what inspires the best in us, while correcting or rehabilitating the male-inflicted historic harm and miseries inherited to this day, could be a noble challenge for women like us today.


      • I do appreciate your response. I am familiar with Hildegard’s works – but there is so much about Christianity that troubles me too deeply to embrace it as “workable” – for me anyway. Perhaps others like you can separate the positive from the negative more effectively than I have been able to do.


  12. Sara Wright, I also believe that as we correct/rehabilitate the catholic church’s crimes against humanity–which historically have been the worst (Crusades, Inquisition, Witch hunts in modern medicine and psychology) we will, directly and indirectly, inform hundreds of christian / protestant branches beginning with the church of England and extending to USian mores. People tend to be sensitive to pressures of positive changes, especially when changes translate to greater opportunities for their own descendants and generations to come,


  13. errata: we don’t correct/rehabiiltate… we “address correcting/rehabilitating…”

    Which is precisely what Hildegard von Bingen started to do in the fourteenth century, Teresa Forcades i Vila and Sister Simone Campbell are doing today by rebelling against Vatican, albeit in different ways.


  14. Amazing posts here now at FAR, wonderful and truly fascinating…WOW

    Liked by 1 person

  15. On the question of whether Christianity can be reformed or should be rejected, Gage foresaw “the rebellion of one half of the church against those theological dogmas upon which the very existence of the church is based.” WCS last paragraph

    She believed that the subordination of women was fundamental to the church. She also rejected all forms of authoritative teaching, arguing that “the intuitions of women’s soul” must become the basis of a new religious vision based on love, not force. 2nd last paragraph of WCS

    Liked by 3 people

  16. The brilliant Mary Daly spoke of patriarchal religions are being a reversal of reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Wow, what a fascinating post! I definitely need to learn more about Joslyn Gage. I’m going to be teaching a course on Women in the Bible to my church’s Bible study group, and I am going to do it from a feminist perspective. I will probably get pushback from some of the women in the group, but that’s just too bad. Among the resources I’m going to use are Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. It is definitely going to be an interesting class! :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love re-framing the stories of Biblical women. Have you seen Listen to Her Voice: Women of the Hebrew Bible by Miki Raver? Jezebel, not as sexually promiscuous, but as religiously promiscuous – she didn’t sleep with the wrong man, she worshipped the wrong God. Delilah as an independent woman who assured her own financial resources. And there’s also Sarah the Priestess by Savina Teubal.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. The more I learn the more I wonder what I can do with what I learn.

    Liked by 1 person

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: