Service: “Love, Power and Fear” May 13, 2018 with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
In 1908, when the U.S. Congress first voted on the proposal to establish Mother’s Day as an official holiday, one member of the opposition joked that if it indeed passed, they would find themselves also obligated to create a Mother in Law’s Day. The bill failed that year, but by 1914 President Woodrow Wilson had signed a proclamation recognizing the second Sunday in May across the nation as Mother’s Day.
L. Frank Baum could have told them a thing or two about Mother in Law’s Day. By then celebrated as the author of the Wizard of Oz tales, Baum had had a profoundly close and influential relationship with his own mother in law, who had died in 1898. Matilda Joslyn Gage had initially opposed her daughter’s marriage to Baum. She hoped that Maud, a 20 year old sophomore at Cornell, would follow in her mother’s feminist footsteps, and become either a lawyer or a doctor, despite the challenges of a woman seeking a professional career in 19th century America. Baum, an aspiring actor and playwright, did not appear to be a reliable prospect as a son in law. Nevertheless, having raised her daughters to think for themselves, Matilda soon recognized that she had only herself to thank for Maud’s determination to abandon school and profession in order to marry Frank. From the time of her husband Henry’s death two years after Maud and Frank’s wedding, Matilda spent approximately six months of each year living with her daughter and son in law, either in their home, or in hers. This was partly to help with what quickly became four lively sons, and partly to save household expenses for both parties. Maud needed grandmotherly assistance, because Frank traveled frequently, but he still had plenty of time to get to know his wife’s distinguished and controversial mother.
Matilda Joslyn Gage was a national figure in the heyday of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. She was the co-author, together with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, of The History of Woman Suffrage; she was the youngest speaker at the woman’s rights convention at Syracuse, New York, in 1852, and a staunch advocate for women, indigenous people, freedom of the press, and separation of church and state. When Stanton and Anthony made common cause with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to advocate votes for women as more likely to support prohibition, as well as the declaration of America as a Christian nation, and the amendment of the Constitution to mention God, Matilda Gage denounced them, and left the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She established the Women’s National Liberal Union as a radical alternative, over which she presided until her death eight years later. She named its newsletter The Liberal Thinker.
In 1893, Gage published her magnum opus, Woman, Church and State, a book which outlined the variety of ways in which Christianity had oppressed women and reinforced patriarchal systems. Extensively researched, with an abundance of both historical and contemporary examples, it spelled out the many ways in which legal systems, particularly in Britain and America, erased women as people, and subjected them to the control of husbands, fathers, brothers, and even sons. Without the right to vote, to own property, to enter into legal contracts or to sue, to hold custody of their minor children, or even to habeas corpus if their father or husband chose to confine them, women led a conditional life, always at the will of male power. So ingrained were these structures in the culture that many people, men and women both, thought of female subordination as the natural order of things. But Matilda Gage looked at it differently.
Growing up in Cicero, New York, just north of Syracuse, young Matilda knew that her family’s home was a station on the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves to make their way to freedom in Canada. She also had neighbors and later friends who were part of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, Confederacy tribes, struggling to preserve their sovereignty and ways of life against the constant religious, cultural, political and military pressure of the U.S. federal government. The historian Sally Roesch Wagner has noted that all the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement – Gage, Anthony, Stanton, and Lucretia Mott – had roots in upstate New York, and were exposed to the same Haudenosaunee influences. In 1875, while serving as president of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, Gage wrote a series of articles for the New York Evening Post about the politics and culture of the Iroquois tribes, noting the leadership roles of women, and their fundamental equality of rights in the society and power within the family. In 1893 she was adopted into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation as Ka-ron-ien-ha-wi, or ‘she who carries the sky.’ This deep grounding in the perspective of a non-Christian, non-European government and customs allowed Gage, and other early feminists, to see alternatives beyond their own historical acculturation.
Raised as a free-thinker by her radical father – a doctor, who tried and failed to get her admitted to medical school – Matilda had no admiration for Christianity, and no belief in its supposedly ‘civilizing’ influences. Rather, she saw an intimate link between the theology that held women to be sinful, derivative, and flawed beings, and their legal status as non-persons in predominantly Christian societies. This connection is the thesis of Woman, Church, and State, with chapters devoted to Celibacy, Polygamy, Canon Law, and The Church of Today, among others – and, of course, Witchcraft. Gage was one of the very first thinkers to connect the image of the Witch in western literature and popular culture with the concepts of wisdom, healing, power, and self-determination in women. She observed that it was women of independence, who either lived alone or controlled their own households, who had any kind of property or financial means, particularly if they were past the age of fertility, who were most often targeted for persecution as witches. Especially women who continued to practice and teach wisdom from pre-Christian cultures, like those of indigenous pagan Europeans, or even the Native Americans, whose traditional healers, both male and female, were referred to as ‘witch doctors’. The cruelties inflicted upon those accused of witchcraft – of which burning alive was merely a final stage – indicated a patriarchal social structure’s deep distrust and insecurity around women having power or knowledge not controlled by men. Such a thought was so terrifying, it had to represent something profoundly evil, and malevolent. Yet Gage was convinced that there were cultures, like the Haudenosaunee, where women were expected to have powerful knowledge, and occupied positions of authority because of it. From those positions, they exercised leadership for the common good, just like men. In a true democracy, she proclaimed, women would again take such governing and decision-making roles; power would not make them dangerous hags, but respected leaders, responsible for the well-being of their communities.
Matilda Gage was developing these ideas and arguments in the years leading up to the publication of Woman, Church, and State; years when she was living half the time with Maud and Frank and her grandsons. Meanwhile, Frank had given up acting in favor of supporting his growing family. He tried operating a store, but a too-generous credit policy during a cycle of economic downturn soon doomed that experiment. He went into business with his brother, selling a specialized axel grease, but his constant traveling was hard on the family. They moved to Chicago, where he became a reporter, editor, and newspaper owner. When he was home, the children enjoyed his imaginative adventure stories and fairy tales, which both Maud and Matilda encouraged him to write down and publish. He would have his first significant success with this in the year just after Matilda’s death, with the publication of a collection of children’s verse title “Father Goose; His Book,” which although it did not become a classic, sold well enough to restore the family finances. But it was with his tale of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz that Baum touched an enduring nerve of childhood fantasy and Americana, and created a tribute to his mother in law’s feminist anthropology. Both by making his adventurous protagonist a girl rather than a boy, and by bringing to life contrasting archetypes of the Good Witch and the Bad Witch, Baum created a realm where the equality that Matilda had envisioned could be played out and explored.
In case you are thinking that this connection may be a bit far-fetched, you should be aware that in 1986, seven Fundamentalist Christian families in Tennessee opposed the novel’s inclusion in the public school syllabus, and filed a lawsuit, based on the depiction of benevolent witches, and the teaching that females are equal to males. Said one parent, “I do not want my children seduced into godless supernaturalism”. (The judge ruled that when the book was being discussed in class, the parents were allowed to have their children leave the classroom.)
There has been speculation over the years that Frank Baum was writing more than American fairy tales for children; some have seen in the originally Silver Slippers that Dorothy acquires, the Yellow (or gold) Brick Road, and the Emerald City, a political fable about competing currency strategies that were at play in the economics of America’s gilded age. Various interpreters have claimed to recognize particular business and government figures in the characters of Oz. Baum never admitted anything one way or the other before his death in 1919, and when consulted for the production of the MGM film in 1939, Maud insisted that it was purely a tale to amuse the little ones. But whatever other meanings may or may not have been intended, we know for certain that Glinda the good witch, and her nemesis the wicked witch of the west, come straight from the feminist imagination of Matilda Joslyn Gage. Upon the monument erected by her children over Matilda’s grave in Fayetteville, New York, is carved her claim: There is a sweeter word than Mother, Home, or Heaven. It is Freedom.
So here’s the thing. Matilda Gage knew it then, and we know it now; women have a choice. We can either be dangerous, or we can be powerless. And Mother’s Day is a reminder of that dichotomy, for it must be either the saccharine pieties of Hallmark and FTD, or, as it was first intended, a fierce exhortation to women to claim their power and wield it for the good of humanity’s children. At which point, we become troublesome, uppity, dangerous, nasty women – the archetype of what the powers of domination always fear; the evil witch. But the truth is that real love is a powerful force – mother love is about the fiercest impulse in all of nature, and when women are in rightful possession of their own minds and souls and bodies, mother love is about far more than just our individual biological children. It is about leadership for the common good, and protection of the most vulnerable. It is about being seen in our uniqueness, and being honored rather than rejected for what makes us each special. Mother love reaches out to other mothers, to make sure that they have what they need to sustain their children and themselves; it demands that society do what needs to be done to assure the continuity of the next generation, before those currently in charge indulge themselves. Mother love heals, and holds the old wisdom, and passes on the teaching, just as witches have always done. Mother love honors the real bodies that know the real touch of the earth and the connection to fellow flesh; it soothes pain and celebrates pleasure and honors the cycle of birth and death. If Mother’s Day is holy at all, it is because mother love is a force of holy and creative power, and a danger to anything that stands in its way.
Mother love grew between the free-thought, abolitionist, suffragist organizer and scholar, and the once unwelcome daughter’s suitor who became her literary collaborator and executor. It is not only the children of our wombs who may owe a debt on Mother’s Day. Matilda Gage’s society thought that motherhood should turn her inward, to the domestic, with its self-subordinating duties. But she knew better; having children to teach only made her crave more intensely the building of a world that would manifest for them her sweetest word of all: freedom. She documented the realities and the sordid histories of the oppression and exploitation of women; she insisted, from her own observation and reason, that there were other possibilities. But it was the story-teller who came to love and admire her, who painted the enduring picture of a realm where girls are curious and brave and know what they want; where women of magical knowledge and power are honored for their goodness and their leadership. These images still have power, and we continue to need them, on this Mother’s Day, and every day. Will you rise, and in our closing hymn, give voice to that image once again?