The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 19th-century reformer’s vision could help advance women’s rights in 2022

The prescription to augment the push for equality

A protester holds a sign depicting the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during a march advocating for women’s rights on Oct. 17, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
6 min

As women across America continue their long struggle for equality in every facet of life, the vision set forth by a successful but forgotten champion of women’s rights in the 19th century offers a road map based on fairness and justice.

Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898), from Fayetteville, N.Y., was an abolitionist and a leading female suffragist, but she also understood that full equality depended on more than the right to vote. Gage focused her efforts on assigning women the credit they deserved for their strategic vision, inventions and business innovations. Doing so, she said, would best demonstrate women’s past accomplishments, as well as their potential to contribute more effectively to the economy and society.

Gage began by attempting to secure credit for a female strategist who contributed to the Union victory in a key Civil War battle. Ulysses S. Grant got most of the credit for a successful campaign on the Tennessee River in 1862 that produced the first major defeat of Confederate forces. Gage explained, however, that it was actually Anna Ella Carroll, an informal behind-the-scenes adviser to the administration of President Abraham Lincoln, who had suggested the invasion plan that Grant used.

After the war, Congress denied Carroll’s application for compensation for her wartime services, including the Tennessee plan. Gage championed Carroll’s cause, emphasizing the crucial nature of that plan. In 1880, she wrote a persuasive article in support of Carroll’s claim for the National Citizen and then published it as a pamphlet with the provocative title “Who Planned the Tennessee Campaign of 1862? or, Anna Ella Carroll vs. Ulysses S. Grant.”

Carroll was “a transcendent military genius,” Gage wrote, and Grant was “merely following her directions.” Moreover, “it is not to the man who fights that the results are mainly due but to the one who plans.” Gage included several letters from political leaders attesting to Carroll’s contributions. She charged that the government did not want to acknowledge that a civilian had planned the campaign — especially a woman.

Gage brushed aside evidence that other Lincoln advisers suggested a similar plan or that Carroll may have exaggerated her role. Those, she felt, were simply excuses for denying women like Carroll the credit they rightly deserved.

Gage’s campaign failed to secure government compensation for Carroll. Yet she was just beginning her larger crusade.

She turned next to promoting female inventors because they got inadequate recognition for their work, while men often got the credit — and the lucrative patents — for ideas women originated. Gage tackled that issue in a persuasive journal article, “Woman as An Inventor,” that she wrote in the popular North American Review in 1883.

“No assertion in reference to woman is more common than that she possesses no inventive or mechanical genius,” the article began. “But … tradition, history, and experience alike prove her possession of these faculties in the highest degree.”

Women had been lead inventors since medieval times, Gage said. She listed dozens of inventions over the previous century by women, including a clothes mangle to wring water from wet laundry, chain elevator, street sweeper, screw-crank for steamships, signal rocket used by the navy, deep-sea telescope, a fire escape and a “device for correct pen-holding, invaluable in schools.” Women’s inventions also sped up the power looms and sewing machines essential to textile production, one of the nation’s leading industries in the later 19th century.

Many of these inventions involved women addressing issues that male inventors had failed to solve. Thomas Edison and other men tried for many years to find a way to reduce the noise of elevated railroads in cities, to no avail. But Mary E. Walton’s “remarkable invention,” a device that cradled railroad tracks in wooden boxes lined with cotton and filled with sand, solved the problem.

Walton got a patent for that system and for other inventions. But her success at the patent office was an exception. Gage noted that “patents taken out in some man’s name are, in many instances, due to women.”

For instance, Catharine Littlefield Greene, a widow from Georgia, “conceived the idea” of the cotton gin, which revolutionized the production of cotton by greatly speeding up the process of removing seeds from cotton fiber.

But she did not apply for a patent because that “would have exposed her” to “ridicule” from “friends and a loss of position in society, which frowned upon any attempt at outside industry for woman.” Instead, she “entrusted” the construction of her invention to Eli Whitney. Whitney built a working model and Greene helped improve it. Whitney applied for and received a patent in 1794 and got the credit and most of the profits.

Greene’s story wasn’t unusual. Ann Harned Manning perfected a system for mechanical hay and crop cutters in 1818. But her husband, William, patented it. Ann Manning made improvements to the machine over the years, but “not having been patented, she was robbed after her husband’s death by a neighbor whose name appears in the list of patentees [of] this machine.”

These and other inventions helped lay the foundation for American industries. In Gage’s words, each woman’s invention provides “work for a multitude of people, increases commercial activity, adds to the revenues of the world, and renders life more desirable.”

Encouraging and supporting female inventors promised to have far-reaching consequences. Yet women faced educational restrictions, limited industrial opportunities and circumscribed political power that curbed their potential for innovation. Only erasing these deficits, Gage said, would allow for the full realization of their potential — and, in turn, for the full blossoming of the American economy.

Gage called for legal changes because women did not possess “full right to the use and control of her own powers.” Nowhere did married women have a right to their earnings within the family, and less than half of the states gave women a right to control a business outside the home.

Gage’s argument that women were equal to men as inventors began to take hold in the late 19th century. Her broader contention — that more good inventive minds would mean more inventions and progress that benefited everyone — was even more persuasive. Educational opportunities gradually broadened. Legal changes began to level the playing field for women entering business.

Gage’s essay led historians to search the past and credit more female scientists whose work had been neglected. In a 1993 essay acknowledging Gage’s influence, science historian Margaret Rossiter coined the phrase “The Matilda Effect” to describe the pattern of male scientists receiving credit for work done by female peers.

Gage’s work suggests several strategies that advocates today would be wise to adapt and use. Her example reveals the need to uncover and publicize women’s unheralded or underreported historical accomplishments. Gage also demonstrated the effectiveness of arguing for women’s equality not just as a potential benefit for women, but for society in general. Gage’s example provides an action plan for women to achieve greater equality in all areas of life, especially the sciences, innovation and business.