Sunday, September 19, 2010

Badass Women of History: Matilda Joslyn Gage

Matidla Josyln Gage, radical feminist
One of the best things about reading the history of obscure topics is discovering historical figures who you had no idea existed, despite the fact that they were probably fairly well known (at least in some circles) in their time. My recent discovery, while reading the aforementioned Making Technology Masculine is Matilda Joslyn Gage. Radical women's rights advocate, abolitionist, Native American rights activist, and early secularist, Gage was also one of the first American women to challenge the male genealogy of inventions and to theorize female inventiveness.

Considered more radical than her suffragette peers, Gage (along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton) was an intellectual force in the women's rights movement. President of the National Women's Sufferage organization, and, later, the Women's National Liberal Union, Gage was a dedicated liberal and critic of the idea that women should get the vote because of their inherent morality, rather than because of their natural right as human beings.

More importantly (at least for the purposes of this blog), she was the author of the seminal 1870 pamphlet "Woman as Inventor". Concerned that women had been written out of the history of the mechanical arts, Gage attempted a history of women inventiveness. Rather than presenting women inventors as extraordinary or unusual, however, Gage placed women at the center of technological development from the beginning of history, particularly in relation to the textile industry:
No assertion in reference to woman is more common than that she possesses no inventive or mechanical genius, even the United States census failing to enumerate her among the inventors of the country. But, while such statements are carelessly or ignorantly made, tradition, history, and experience alike prove her possession of these faculties in the highest degree. Although woman's scientific education has been grossly neglected, yet some of the most important inventions of the world are due to her.
She goes on to cite the major publications of the day on the subject of female inventiveness:
Hon. Samuel Fisher, while Commissioner of Patents, said: "Any sketch of American inventions would be imperfect which failed to do justice to the part taken by woman." The New York "Times," in an editorial upon woman's inventive genius, says: "The feminine mind is, as a rule, quicker than the masculine mind; takes hints and see defects which would escape the average man's attention. Women frequently carry the germs of patents in their heads, and cause some rude machine to be constructed which serves their purpose. If women would fix their minds on inventions, it is entirely probable that they would distinguish themselves in this line far more than they have done hitherto." The "Scientific American" testifies of the inventions of women for which they solicit patents, that "in their practical character and in their adaptation of means to effect a definite purpose, they fully equal the same number of inventions made by men".
Her pamphlet provides a history of women's role in technological innovation, from the persona of Athena as the progenitor of both agriculture and mechanics, as well as war machines and shipbuilding, to the discovery of silk by Si-ling-chi, wife of Emporer Hoang-ti, 4000 years BCE. Rather than characterizing innovations in textiles as domestic and marginal women's work, Gage puts textile innovation at the heart of the development of the Western state:
Under the forms of velvet, crape, gauze, satin, foulard, pongee, plush, and lace, silk, largely contributing to the wealth of the world, has shaped the policy of states...Silk is possessed of the qualities most sought by manufactures: delicacy, luster, strength, and capability for taking any color desired...As a source of wealth, lace, equally with silk, has largely influence state policy. The value of the finest thread lace when wrote in points is enormous, far exceeding that of previous stones. No other art, it is said, is capable of bringing about such an extraordinary increase in value from a material worth as little as flax in the unwrought state.
Cotton Gin patent drawing, 1794
Moving into American history, Gage credits the invention of the straw hat (and the genesis of the straw industry, which twelve years later produced half a million dollars' worth of straw goods, mostly hats and bonnets, in Massachusetts alone) to Betsy Metcalf. Most significantly, she attributes the invention of the cotton gin, widely credited with expanding cotton production in the United States to the point where the US was providing two-thirds of the world's cotton, to Catherine Littlefield Greene. Although the gin was  patented under the name of Eli Whitney, Gage argues that the invention, and the finances for it's production, were the product of Greene's inventiveness, and that the patent is under Whitney's name solely to avoid being the stigma that would have attended an attempt at a widow participating in outside industry. Among other innovations, Woman as Inventor atrributes the invention of the rotary loom, a number of railroad innovations, the deep-sea telescope, and an adapted sewing machine that could sew leather, invented by a woman machinist who ran a harness manufactury in New York City.

Outside of the apparent focus on rescuing women from historical obscurity, Gage had a larger project in mind. "The inventions of a nation," she wrote, "are closely connected with the freedom of its people". Despite women's ongoing and consistent participation in the realm of innovation, Gave observed, women did not possess the same amount of freedom as men. Under legal conditions that denied women the right to hold independent wealth, the right to contract, and social conditions that pushed women into seclusion and dependence, that women have not equalled men in inventiveness should be no surprise. Rather, she says, it is a wonder that women have invented anything at all in the face of such contraints. Depriving women of their political power, and subjecting them to the contempt and scorn of womanhood, hampered not only the expression of women's inventive genius, but also the advancement of society as a whole:
While every invention, however small, develops new industries, provides world for a multitude of people, increased commercial activity, adds to the revenues of the world, and renders life more desirable, great inventions broaden the boundaries of human thought, bring about social, religious, and political changes, hurrying mankind on to a new civilization. Lecky forcibly shows the loss to the world from the celibacy and martyrdom of the best human element in the past. No less is the darkness of the world kept more dense, and its civilization retarded, by all forms of thought, customs of society, or systems of law which prevent the full development and exercise of women's inventive powers.
Outside of her focus on women and technology, Gage was also a staunch advocate of:
  • Abortion rights: "Enforced motherhood is a crime against the body of the mother and the soul of the child...But the crime of abortion is not one in which the guilt lies solely or even chiefly with the woman...I hesitate not to assert that most of this crime of 'child murder', 'abortion', 'infanticide', lies at the door of the male sex. Many a woman has laughed a silent, derisive laugh at the decisions of eminent medical and legal authorities, in cases of crimes committed against her as a woman. never, until she sits as a juror on such trials, will or can just decisions be rendered."
  • Native land rights: "That the Indians have been oppressed -- are now, is true, but the United States has treaties with them, recognising them as distinct political communities, and duty towards them demands not an enforced citizenship but a faithful living up to its obligations on the part of the government".
  • Abolition: Her house was a station on the underground railroad, and she was known to be the only person in her town to state for the record that she would give aid to any slave seeking to gain his liberty, and was thus under constant surveillance by the authorities. 
She was also the mother-in-law of L. Frank Baum and, apocryphally, the inspiration for the Wicked Witch of the West. Badass woman indeed.

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