In reading about my favorite author, L. Frank Baum, I’ve also come across a fair amount on another interesting figure, his mother-in-law Matilda Electra Joslyn Gage. Along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she was an important leader in the women’s suffrage movement. History hasn’t been as kind to her as to these two others, however, presumably because she wasn’t as successful at political maneuvering. She was totally devoted to her principles, seeing women’s suffrage as just one of many related progressive causes. Her criticism of the Church and its role in the oppression of women was a major reason why she was branded as a radical by her fellow suffragists. Anthony, seeing gaining the vote as the main priority, merged the National Woman Suffrage Organization with the conservative American Woman Suffrage Organization, and groups like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. While I feel that Gage’s criticism of the Church was right on the mark, religion is just too much of a sacred cow in American society. The thing is, Gage actually WAS religious, just not in a mainstream way. She was a member of the Theosophical Society, a popular occult group of the time. I’m not really sure why people who champion progressive causes tend to be so attracted to fringe religions, as I see the best argument for civil rights to be humanistic. Tying your cause to a particular religious or spiritual school essentially means that anyone who DOESN’T share those beliefs can ignore the issue as well. Despite her own occult leanings, however, Gage’s arguments for women’s rights were more from a humanistic perspective.
One idea that Gage held was that of the ancient matriarchy, in which primitive societies were governed by women before the men took over and ruined everything. I’m not sure how much evidence there is for this, though. From what I’ve learned, it is true that a lot of the earliest deities (in terms of when they were worshipped, that is) were female, and not at all shy about showing it.
To an early society, fertility would have been paramount, and it’s obvious that women are the fertile ones. Classical mythology often preserves the tradition of primordial earth goddesses. In Greek myth, Gaea (the earth) and her consort Ouranos (the sky) existed long before Kronos and then Zeus took control of the world. The Babylonian story of Marduk slaying Tiamat, a divine monster who represents chaos in the form of water, might well also have been preserving the memory of a mother goddess who was worshipped prior to Marduk and his compatriots. So I think it’s entirely possible that religion was a female-dominated part of society that was later taken over by men. On the other hand, most of what I’ve read and heard suggests that politics was primarily a men’s game even back before the dawn of civilization. We might never know for sure, though.