By Charlotte Waldman
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, it’s only fitting to honor Matilda Gage, a 19th-century suffragist who advocated for the separation of church and state.
In Gage’s time, women’s suffrage faced opposition from religious lobby groups, churches and politicians who used religion to justify their resistance. But unlike many of her contemporaries, Gage also recognized that the fate of women’s suffrage – in fact, the full realization of America’s democracy for all genders, races and religions – was inextricably bound to the fates of other marginalized groups, whose oppression was similarly rooted in traditional religious dictates entrenched in civil codes.
Gage integrated this belief into her advocacy by founding the Woman’s National Liberal Union in 1890 to champion women’s rights, true religious pluralism and equal rights for all through the unequivocal separation of church and state.
The National Women’s Liberal Union
Gage had co-founded the National Woman Suffrage Association with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1869, and she was considered equally as important as those women’s rights pioneers during her lifetime. She grew up in the anti-slavery tradition in upstate New York and became a prominent suffragist, abolitionist, indigenous rights activist, freethinker and author.
When Gage split from Stanton and Anthony to form her own organization, it was because she believed that the mainstream suffrage movement had abandoned its religious critiques and earlier commitments to holistically challenge women’s church-assigned roles and legal status, leaving it both ineffective and morally bankrupt.
The Woman’s National Liberal Union, though short-lived, was Gage’s antidote. It united various groups that converged on the question of the overreach of American churches, with a scope that included “the political and social problems at hand – capital and labor, with their outcropping socialistic and anarchistic tendencies, together with the ballot, temperance, and the laws of marriage and divorce,” as Gage wrote in a newspaper.
This tense historical moment that Gage lived through at the end of the 19th century was pivotal in the development of laws governing church and state. Debates about the intersection of religion and civil rights dominated public discussions and legislative decisions, ultimately shaping the role of religion in civic life for generations to come. We have reached another such inflection point, as the Supreme Court, along with state courts and legislatures, has dismantled decades of precedent to erode church-state separation, facilitating alarming restrictions of autonomy for LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities and others.
Opposing A ‘Christian Nation’ Amendment
As religious groups lobbied for a “Christian Amendment” to the Constitution in the late 19th century to make the United States an explicitly Christian nation, Gage feared that all government legislation could become subject to a church doctrine litmus test. Some of the issues that concerned Gage differ from the ones that concern us today – during Gage’s time, for example, conservative Christian groups hoped to prohibit divorce entirely, using state legislatures to weaponize religious views on marriage across the country. Although we now take this right for granted, some of the present-day attacks on marriage equality and church-state separation bear disturbing similarities to Gage’s time, generating Islamophobia and antisemitism, censorship in education and of gender expression, and violent threats of Christian Nationalists to obstruct full and peaceful access to our democracy.
Gage’s response is particularly important to study now that the wall between church and state is facing intensified assaults. Gage rallied marginalized groups to unite against a common foe. A similar emphasis is necessary today to avoid the pitfalls of modern progressive movements, which tend to cower or fall to divisive in-fighting while religious extremists consolidate a chokehold over a false rhetoric of religious liberty.
Those who support church-state separation today are the most recent successors and participants in a long and continuous history. Looking at those who have fought this battle before us, as Gage did, allows us the insight to better face this onslaught head on.
Charlotte Waldman is a former member of Americans United’s Youth Organizing Fellowship.