A debut biography of a women’s rights activist draws heavily on her writings.
In this work, Savion (Quotes to Start the Day, 2016, etc.) presents a series of short excerpts from the writings of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a suffrage leader, abolitionist, and feminist intellectual of the 19th century, accompanying each quotation with a brief explanation. The quotes are arranged thematically, with labels like “On Tactics,” “On Religion,” “On Freedom,” “On Slavery,” and “On Economics” heading each section. The author offers biographical information when explicating the quotes. For example, a part titled “On Women’s Rights” tells readers: “Matilda credits her father for her life-long desire for justice and equality for all. Matilda was involved in the women’s movement from 1852 until her death in 1898.” The text provides a high-level look at Gage’s major achievements and the enthusiasms that drove her to write a treatise on women’s role in religion and a multivolume history of the suffrage movement in the United States. Savion explores a wide range of events in Gage’s life, including her relationship with her son-in-law L. Frank Baum, her analysis of women’s roles in the politics and society of the Iroquois Confederacy, and her embrace of the sacred feminine in religious tradition. While the author is clearly knowledgeable about her subject, who provides a wealth of material for biographers, the book’s writing and presentation substantially limit its effectiveness. There are internal inconsistencies (“Matilda was affiliated with Unitarianism”; “Though not a Unitarian herself”) and errors of oversimplification (a photo caption describes the Gage house as “one of only two stops on the Underground Railroad,” making it unclear that it was one of two within Gage’s hometown). While many of the quotes are attributed to specific writings, a substantial portion is not, and there are no citations provided for photographs or information provided in the explanatory text. Attempts to engage with Gage’s abolition work are cringe-inducing (“And as far as the Negro was concerned, one of Matilda’s eldest daughter’s memories was that of a black man on his knees before her mother, thanking her for a chance of life and liberty”). And the book’s disjointed structure, with most sections less than two pages, leads to the repetition of minor details and prevents a thorough, coherent, or accurate analysis of the complex topics involved.
An enthusiastic but unpolished examination of a 19th-century radical.