Do you know who Matilda Joselyn Gage is?

May 8, 2007 at 6:33 pm 3 comments

Syracuse is absolutely lovely, although relatively unfriendly to bicycles, unfortunately. I’m staying at the Bread and Roses collective, which is a beautiful old home near Syracuse University full of delightful creative people who have created one of the most welcoming spaces I’ve been in for a while. Right now I’m sitting in a rocking chair on their screen porch, watching their rainbow “Pace” flag waving in the wind. Yesterday I had the pleasure to meet with three formidable women – Betty Defazio, who is the Director of Community Affairs and Public Policy at Planned Parenthood Rochester Syracuse, Rachel, the PPR/S Medical Director, and Sally Wagner, founder and Executive Director of the Mattilda Joselyn Gage Foundation.

The Planned Parenthood clinic in Syracuse was the first in the nation to offer abortions after the New York state legislature legalized abortion in 1970. Women came from all over the country to the clinic, and there is a real sense of the history there, of the struggle that women and men undertook in order to legalize abortion. I asked Betty why she worked at Planned Parenthood, and she told me her story.

In the 90’s when she was trying to decide whether or not she should become chair of the local NOW chapter, she called her mother for advice. Her mother had been adopted, which she knew, but she had never told Betty why. Betty’s maternal grandmother had six children, and in 1940 she became pregnant again. Unwilling or unable to have another child, she sought out an abortion, which was of course illegal. She died as a result of that abortion, leaving behind her husband and six children. She died because our government did not think it permissible for women to make their own decisions about how many children to have. She died because birth control was illegal and she was unable to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. She died needlessly, and her death reminded me that as much as the fight for women’s autonomy is an idealistic, theoretical crusade, it is a battle grounded in the reality that women have died in the fighting of it, and that women continue to die.

Betty’s mother and the two other youngest siblings were put up for adoption by their father, who didn’t feel equipped to care for six young children. This history has made Betty a tireless crusader for reproductive health care and access to services. Planned Parentood Rochester/ Syracuse is doing an impressive job of breaking down the barriers between education, advocacy, and health care. Their advocacy and education work is designed, as Betty put it “to give voice to people who don’t have one.” They have a teen group for young Latinas that uses theater and dance to do sexuality education, and a teen outreach program called Medical Students for Choice about how providers approach issues of positive sexuality in their work. She related that there is such a huge need to deal with the negative consequences of sex – sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancy – that talking to clients about positive sexuality and enjoying sex felt like “a luxury they couldn’t afford.”

Most medical schools provide very little training in contraception and abortion, much less how to talk about sexuality with clients. Yet studies show that increased communication about sex and sexuality between providers and patients has been linked to increased condom use and decreased risk of unplanned pregnancy and STD’s. Yet patients cite “fear of embarrassing providers” as one reason they don’t bring up sexuality issues that aren’t strictly clinical. The stigma around talking about sexuality is being perpetuated by our medical system, and it seems to me that this is one of the clearest points to begin looking at how to counter negative images and attitudes about sex. Imagine what it would be like it your OB/GYN asked you not just about what kinds of sex you’re having but whether or not you’re enjoying it and whether or not you’re having orgasms. Why is pleasure not just as important as preventing disease and unplanned pregnancy?

Rachel and the folks at MS4C, including medical students around the country are doing great work to improve training at medical schools around reproductive health issues, but clearly there is a long way to go.

While I was at Planned Parenthood, I asked Betty who else I should talk to in the Syracuse region, and she directed me to the Matilda Joselyn Gage foundation. I had never heard of Gage, but I was in for an education. I rode out to Fayetteville (which turned out to be much farther from Syracuse than I anticipated, and there wasn’t a single ice cream store along the way, which was pretty much all I wanted at that point) for the monthly potluck at the Gage Foundation. Gage was one of the founders, along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, of the National Woman Suffrage Association. Yet I had never heard of her. Wonder why?

Well, according to Sally Wagner, Executive Director of the Gage Foundation, Gage parted ways with Anthony and Stanton over the wisdom of joining forces with the American Woman Suffrage Association, a more conservative group of women who wanted the vote in order to write God into the Constitution. Gage perceived their motives as anathema to what the suffragists were working for, so fiercely opposed the merger. Anthony and Stanton were of the opinion that it would behoove them to join forces with the conservative women and work out their political differences after they’d won the vote. After Stanton and Anthony successfully engineered the merger, Gage left what was then the National American Woman Suffrage Association and formed the Women’s National Liberal Union, which fought attempts to unite church and state.

This got me thinking about something that has been on my mind a lot lately, which is who writes history and how they do it. I feel like I’ve been working within the women’s rights/ reproductive justice/ sexuality education movement, but I haven’t ever really studied the history of the movement except in bits and pieces. All these meetings and discoveries make me very excited to go to grad school in the fall and spend time reading and thinking about the questions that are being raised.

Sally Wagner also told me about the recent co-opting of all three of the early feminist leaders by “Feminists for Life”, an anti-choice organization that uses selective quotes from Anthony, Stanton, and Gage to claim that they opposed the rights of women to terminate their pregnancies. There is even a “Susan B. Anthony List” in the spirit of EMILY’s List that gives money to anti-choice candidates. There’s a good article about the issue on womensenews. I wished I had lots more time to talk to Sally and the rest of the people in Syracuse, but luckily I’ll be in New York City in the fall, so I plan to talk lots of weekend bike rides upstate.

Tomorrow I am off to Ithaca, heading south over the hills.

Entry filed under: On the Road. Tags: .

Riding along the Erie Canal Ithaca really IS gorges!

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mom  |  May 10, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    Can you tell us something about what the Gage Foundation does? Its background sounds interesting but I want to hear more.

    This is an excellent post – very well written.


  • 2. Lindsay  |  May 10, 2007 at 10:55 pm

    Hey! Heard you had fun at Don’s and Ari’s folks have given you a place to crash tonight. Hope the storms today weren’t too bad.

    It’s funny, growing up in Syracuse and going to PP I never knew the history of it here. And the Gage House… it’s practically next to the church my family went to and I never knew about it either! I’d heard of it in recent years but have yet to visit.

    Their website is:

  • 3. King Benny  |  May 11, 2007 at 5:56 pm

    Hi Nora,
    Nice post. You are looking a little pink in your pictures. Remember to put on sunscreen.
    PS Don’t forget to stretch!!!


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