A Tribute to Matilda Joslyn Gage: Women, Church & State - Addressing Our Patriarchal Violence-A


Domestic violence is a complex problem with roots in an oppressively hierarchical, patriarchal violence-accepting society. I believe that domestic violence is a crime. Yet, fundamental evangelical Christian movements (cults) that thrive today refuse to speak out against domestic violence, rape, incest and abuse because their doctrines are the foundation for conditioning women and children to accept abuse.

In America domestic violence is still acceptable. People are living in ignorance about this subject in churches and courtrooms.

Judith Herman, M.D. maintains that the function of domestic violence is to preserve male supremacy. “Perpetrators understand intuitively that the purpose of their behavior is to put women in their place and that their behavior will be condoned by other men [women] as long as the victim is a legitimate target. Thus, women live with a fear of men which pervades all of life and which convinces women that their weakness is innate and unchangeable. The legal system is designed to protect men from the superior power of the state but not to protect women or children from the superior power of men. It therefore provides strong guarantees for the rights of the accused but essentially no guarantees for the rights of the victim. If one set out by design to devise a system for provoking intrusive post-traumatic symptoms, one could not do better than a court of law."

I agree with Matilda Joslyn Gage, a progressive visionary of women’s rights and human liberation in the late 1800’s, that the Euro-American patriarchal Christian/Catholic religions are the root cause of violence in our society today. The greatest obstacle to woman’s freedom and equality lies in the teachings of the church: that woman was created inferior to man, brought sin into the world and is therefore under an especial “curse.” I know these teachings to be false and support my statement with my life testimony and documentation.

One cannot read the Bible story of Hagar and not think of those who live among us who are oppressed and voiceless. Hagar fled her abusers, but God sent her back to a brutal and oppressive environment. From the perspective of Hagar, God is not a liberator of the oppressed. If we do not speak on behalf of the oppressed and abused or give a voice to the voiceless, we are not neutral.

I have asked numerous people throughout the years if they ever heard an in-depth sermon from the pulpit -Christian/Catholic/Jewish - on Domestic violence, rape and childhood abuse and molestation. So far, 100% respond "no." I never heard any sermons or teachings on these topics in all my forty years of "church going" - but these events were occurring in my life. When I sought help from abuse, pastors and priests told me, “You need to learn how to submit and obey your husband.” As a child I was taught to “obey my parents, teachers and elders.

Some Christian theologians, such as the Rev. Marie Fortune and Mary Pellauer, have raised the question of the close connection between patriarchal Christianity and domestic violence and abuse. Steven Tracy, author of Patriarchy and Domestic Violence writes: "While patriarchy may not be the overarching cause of all abuse, it is an enormously significant factor, because in traditional patriarchy males have a disproportionate share of power. So while patriarchy is not the sole explanation for violence against women, we would expect that male headship would be distorted by insecure, unhealthy men to justify their domination and abuse of women."

Monica Sjoo & Barbara Mor posed a searing question near the end of The Great Cosmic Mother:

"The burning question remains: Why do women continue to give our gifts—of spiritual devotion, of impassioned energy, of mental brightness, of profound social concern—to male-dominated and male-defined religious institutions which are based, structurally and ideologically, on a searing contempt and hatred for women? Why do women continue to give our physical endurance and biological endowment to patriarchal churches which exist, ontologically and practically, by attempting to dominate and control human female reproduction like a bunch of cattle breeders controlling the fertility of their cattle? What would happen, today, if all the millions of religiously active women on earth just walked out of their patriarchal churches, just left them flat?”

Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote in 1893, "Woman is told that her present position in society is entirely due to Christianity, that it is superior to that of her sex at any prior age of the world, church and state both maintaining that she has ever been inferior and dependent, man superior and ruler. These assertions are made the basis of opposition to her demands for exact equality with man in all the relations of life although they are not true either of the family, the church or the state. Such assertions are due to non-acquaintance with the existing phase of historical knowledge; whose records the majority of mankind (has) neither time nor opportunity of investigating.

“The wife under Canon Law (in the Catholic Church) belonged to her husband, and as a sequence to not owning herself she could not own property, and in her condition of servitude could possess no control over either her present or her future actions.” Regarding her life under the Protestant Reformation, “The home under the reformation was governed by the laws in force before that period. She (the woman) was to be under obedience to the masculine head of the household. She was to be constantly employed for his benefit. Her society was strictly chosen for her by her master and responsible head. This masculine family head was regarded as a general father–confessor to whom she was held as responsible in word and deed. Neither genius nor talent could free woman from such control without his consent.”

Gage writes, "The denial to women of the right of private judgment, the control of her own actions (and) the constant teaching of her greater sinfulness and natural impurity had a very depressing effect upon the majority of women, whose lowly station in life was such as to deprive them of the independence of thought and action possible to women of rank and wealth. Then, as now, the church catered to the possessors of money and power; then as now, seeking to unite their great forces with its own purpose of aggrandizement. And thus the church has ever obstructed the progress of humanity, delaying civilization and condemning the world to a moral barbarism from which there is no escape except through repudiation of its teaching."

Matilda Gage wrote, “One of the most revered ancient Scriptures, “The Gospel according to the Hebrews,” which was in use as late as the second century of the Christian era, taught the quality of the feminine in the Godhead; also that daughters should inherit with sons...The fact remains undeniable that at the advent of Christ, a recognition of the feminine element in the divinity had not entirely died out from general belief...It was however but a short period before the church through Cannons and Decrees, as well as apostolic and private teachings, denied the femininity of the Divine equally with the divinity of the feminine.”

I agree with Matilda Joslyn Gage’s conclusions in her book, Woman, Church and State.

I believe that woman’s degradation is attributed to the Christian/patriarchal position that God is strictly male. The earliest religions worshipped a mother Goddess. All early religions had a female component of the divine. The loss of the female component of divinity enabled the church to lose the divine component of the female. Death by torture was the method of the Church for the repression of woman’s intellect, knowledge being held as evil and dangerous in her hands.

Gage writes, “As long as the Church maintains the doctrine that woman was created inferior to man and brought sin into the world, rendering the sacrifice of the Son of God necessary, just so long will the foundation of vice and crime of every character remain.

Not until the exact and permanent equality of woman with man is recognized by the church–aye, even more, together with the accountability of man to woman in everything relating to the birth of a new being, is fully accepted as a law of nature–will vice and crime disappear form the world. Until that time has fully come, prostitution, in its varied forms will continue to exist, together with alms-houses, reformatories, jails, prisons, hospitals and asylums for the punishment, reformation or care of the wretched beings who have come into existence with an inheritance of disease and crime because of church theory and church teaching. (Emphasis mine)

“The most stupendous system of organized robbery known has been that of the church towards woman, a robbery that has not only taken her self-respect but all rights of person; the fruits of her own industry; her opportunities of education; the exercise of her own judgment, her own conscience, her own will.

“Under the Christian system, woman as the most rebellious against God in having eaten a forbidden fruit has found herself condemned through the centuries to untold oppression in order that the rights of God might be maintained.

Yet, while constantly teaching that woman brought sin into the world, the church forgets its own corollary; that if she brought sin she also brought a God into the world, thus throwing ineffable splendor over mankind. The whole theory regarding woman, under Christianity, has been based upon the conception that she had no right to live for herself alone. Her duty to others has continuously been placed before her and her training has ever been that of self-sacrifice. Taught from the pulpit and legislative halls that she was created for another, that her position must always be secondary even to her children, her right to life has been admitted only in so far as its reacting effect upon another could be predicated. That she was first created for herself, as an independent being to whom all the opportunities of the world should be open because of herself, has not entered the thought of the church; has not yet become one of the conceptions of law, is not yet the foundation of the family.

“Looking forward, I see evidence of a conflict more severe than any yet fought by reformation or science; a conflict that will shake the foundations of religious belief, tear into fragments and scatter to the winds the old dogmas upon which all forms of Christianity are based. It will not be the conflict of man with man upon rites and systems; it will not be the conflict of science upon church theories regarding creation and eternity; it will not be the light of biology illuminating the hypothesis of the resurrection of the body; but it will be the rebellion of one half of the church against those theological dogmas upon which the very existence of the church is based. In no other country has the conflict between natural and revealed rights been as pronounced as in the United States; and in this country where the conflict first began, we shall see its full and final development. During the ages, no rebellion has been of like importance with that of Woman against the tyranny of Church and State; none has had its far reaching effects. We note its beginning, its progress will overthrow every existing form of these institutions; its end will be a regenerated world. The End.”

*Note from author, Coral Anika Theill: My published memoir, BONSHEA Making Light of the Dark is on display in the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation's "Religious Freedom Room."

Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation

One of the most radical, far-sighted and articulate early feminists, Matilda Joslyn Gage was deliberately written out of history after her death in 1898 by an increasingly conservative suffrage movement. Equal in importance to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gage is all but unknown today. Efforts are under way to correct that.


The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation took root in 2000 when Sally Roesch Wagner, the leading authority on Gage, brought together a nationwide network of diverse people with a common goal: to bring this vitally important suffragist back to her rightful place in history.

The Foundation is dedicated not only to educating current and future generations about the lifelong work of this major woman’s rights thinker, author and activist, but also its power to drive contemporary social change.


While restoring knowledge of Gage’s contributions, which continue to be of great relevance today, the Gage Foundation (soon to be called the Gage Center) is also an educational resource for discussion and dialogue about the human rights issues to which she dedicated her life.

“We know we are right; we know we shall be successful, we know the day is not far distant, when this government and the world will acknowledge the exact and permanent political equality of man and woman …”– Matilda Joslyn Gage

Women, Church & State by Matilda Joslyn Gage (originally published in 1893) - Free Copy

During the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 70s a popular slogan was "not the church, not the state, women shall decide their fate". Matilda Joslyn Gage would have approved. Vehemently anti-clerical, Women, Church and State was one of the first books to draw the conclusion that Christianity is a primary impediment to the progress of women, as well as civilization. Then, as now, religious doctrine was used as a justification for the dehumanization of women, depriving them of civil, human, economic and political rights, even denying them the right to worship alongside men. Gage reviews extensive evidence of this complex. From a 21st Century perspective it is both astounding how far we have progressed, and dismaying how little has changed.


Gage was one of the first writers to emphasize the ancient Matriarchy and the witch trials as key episodes of women's history. Her statement that nine million people were killed during the witch trials has been widely quoted; more recent estimates range from 50 to 100 thousand, which does not lessen the horror.

Women, Church & State by Matilda Joslyn Gage - Order Soft Cover Copy

This classic history of woman's oppression is one of the first attempts to document the sad legacy of injustice and discrimination against women, which is unfortunately inseparable from the history of both Christianity and the evolution of the Western state. Beginning in the pre-Christian era, where she finds more evidence of freedom for women than in subsequent eras, pioneering women's rights advocate Matilda Joslyn Gage traces the patterns of male domination in both church and state that kept women in virtual bondage. Among the topics of her research is the medieval exaltation of celibacy as an expression of the male belief that women were unclean and the cause of original sin, the gross discrimination against women in canon law, abuse of women in the feudal system, the persecution of women as witches, the virtual slave status of wives and their almost total legal subjugation to their husbands, toleration of polygamy, the debilitating drudgery of woman's daily work, and the widespread opposition to women's education by both church and state.


Perhaps the most farseeing and radical of the early feminists, Gage had the vision to realize that society's fundamental institutions had to be drastically reformed before women would begin to enjoy equal rights. Many of her concerns sound very modern: she deplored the unequal treatment of the prostitute vs. her client, the practice of non-conviction or of pardoning in rape trials, unequal pay, wife battering, the sexual abuse of female children, and many other abuses that only today are being seriously addressed. Originally published in 1893, this work was the fruit of twenty years of research and should be read by everyone who supports equality between men and women.This new edition is complemented by an introduction by renowned author, lecturer, and historical performer Sally Roesch Wagner, who helped found one of the country's first programs in women's studies. She is former executive director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation.

Complimentary Copy of Coral Anika Theill's 2013 pubished memoir, BONSHEA Making Light of the Dark

A startling memoir of one woman escaping an abusive marriage and oppressive religious cults and trying to find "justice" in a failed system. Anyone concerned with issues of abuse and injustice in America should read this book.

When God Triggers by Kimberly Burke Bowers

Patriarchal Religion is Alive & Well in Family Courts by Coral Anika Theill

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