Ohio History Journal

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16
  • 17



The Two Lives of Frances Dana Gage




In the year before her death, Frances Dana Gage (1808-1884) wrote an auto-

biographical sketch for Woman's Journal, the organ of the American Woman

Suffrage Association.1 It seems appropriate that the infirm and isolated vet-

eran of so many antebellum woman's rights campaigns would want to create

a link to the younger generation of reformers, and to mark her place in the

history of nineteenth-century reform movements. Gage might have character-

ized herself as an important messenger of woman's rights ideology in the

West, a woman who delivered "reformatory" lectures in remote areas where

the only platform was a schoolhouse. She might have characterized herself as

an abolitionist who not only spoke for but worked with slaves on the Sea

Islands plantations that were part of the Port Royal experiment. She might

have characterized herself as a writer whose poetry and newspaper correspon-

dence reached out to the working class so often overlooked by reformers. But

Gage, in one of her last public communications, had another aspect of her life

in mind. She wanted to assure readers that she was not the daughter of a


The provocation for this seemingly petty concern was the publication, fif-

teen years earlier, of a tribute to Gage by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  In this

tribute Stanton identified Gage's father, Joseph Barker, as "a farmer and a

cooper," and went on to explain that Frances had "assisted her father in mak-

ing barrels and I have heard her often tell that, as she would roll out a well-

made barrel, her father would pat her on the head and say, 'Ah, Fanny, you

should have been a boy!'"2 The story may have appealed to Stanton because

of its similarity to her own childhood experience.3 For Frances Dana Gage,

however, the story as Stanton told it was a distortion of history in general and

of a personal history that she had repeatedly made part of her public corre-

spondence and lectures.  In the  strident rebuttal  written for Woman's

Journal, Gage declared, "As far as my knowledge goes, my honored sire never

put a hoop even upon a water-bucket." She went on to review his accom-




Carol Steinhagen is a Professor of English at Marietta College.


1. "The Autobiography of Frances Dana Gage," Woman's Journal, March 31, 1883.

2. "Frances D. Gage," in James Parton et al., eds., Eminent Women of the Age (Hartford,

Conn., 1868), 383.

3. Stanton's efforts to please her father by acting as would a son are recounted in Elisabeth

Griffith. In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (New York, 1984), 7-13.