Gage, Frances Dana Barker

Frances Dana Barker Gage
Frances Dana Barker Gage

Frances Dana Barker Gage (October 12, 1808-November 10, 1884), a lecturer, political activist, journalist, and novelist, was an outspoken advocate of women’s rights, temperance, and abolition before and immediately after the Civil War.

Frances was born near Marietta, Ohio to frontier farmers Elizabeth Dana and Col. Joseph Barker. Coming from New Hampshire, in 1788 the Barkers had crossed the Alleghenies with Rufus Putnam and wrested land from the Native Americans. Elizabeth, from a liberal Massachusetts family, taught her children to admire individual liberty. Elizabeth’s mother, Mary Bancroft Dana, had also moved to the West and lived 14 miles south of her daughter, on the Ohio River which bordered the slave states of Virginia and Kentucky. All three generations of the Dana women assisted escaping slaves. Frances often paddled a canoe to her grandmother’s house where she helped provide the refugees with food and comfort. Shortly before she died, Frances remembered feeling slaves’ hurts as though they were her own and disgust with other pioneer children who chided her for sympathizing with escaping Negroes.

In her youth Frances was disciplined by her father because she had assisted a visiting barrel maker. Such labors, he said, were not part of a girl’s domestic sphere. “What a pity you were not a boy so that you could be good for something,” he lamented. From that moment she was determined to overcome the limits that had been set for women.

Frances’s parents were more liberal in their religious beliefs than their neighbors. She much later wrote, “I never could accept the belief or doctrine of total depravity or of special providence, or the power of any being by prayer to move the universe, or any having right to do so if he could. Consequently I was led into association with the Universalists, more as a disbeliever in the doctrine of eternal punishment than any fixed faith.”

In 1828 Frances married Universalist James Gage, an abolitionist lawyer and iron founder in the village of McConnelsville, 30 miles to the north. He was a friend of the New York State Universalist evangelist Stephen R. Smith. Traveling Universalist preachers, like George Rogers and Nathaniel Stacy, were often lodged in the Gage household. Through 35 years of married life, James supported Frances’s commitment to help others. They raised eight children, all of whom thrived. She lived in McConnelsville for a quarter of a century, raising her children, educating herself, and gradually gathering influence among her peers.

Professional writing brought Gage regional fame. Writing in The Ohio Cultivator and other regional journals as “Aunt Fanny,” 1845-62, she offered a warm, domestic persona who offered advice and support to isolated housewives in Ohio. She wrote letters, essays, poetry, children’s stories, and novels. Among the other publications to which she contributed were the Western Literary Magazine, New York’s Independent, Missouri Democrat, Cincinnati’s Ladies Repository, Field Notes, The National Anti-Slavery Standard, Una, and Jane Grey Swisshelm’s Saturday Visiter. Her books include Aunt Fanny’s Storybook, 1850, Pop-Guns, 1864, and four published in 1866: Fanny at School, Fanny’s Birthday, Fanny’s Journey, and Funny Pop-Guns.* She published Poems in 1867.

She extended her circle of acquaintance beyond Ohio by writing letters to women of like mind, including Englishwoman Harriet Martineau, whose 1837 book, Society in America, included a chapter, “The Political Nonexistence of Women.” Another correspondent, Amelia Bloomer, engaged her to write for the New York State temperance newspaper, The Lily, 1841-54. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose 1848 Seneca Falls Convention launched the women’s rights movement in America, was also on the staff.

Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth

In 1851 at Akron, Ohio, chairing the state’s second women’s rights convention, Gage, overriding audience protests, allowed the ex-slave, Sojourner Truth, to speak. Years later Gage recorded her recollection of Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” This version, superceding that of Harriet Beecher Stowe, has become the standard text and account of the event.

Gage stepped comfortably into the roles of public organizer and orator. She was a talented public speaker for more than 30 years to audiences of both men and women. Her addresses covered her “triune cause”—first, abolition; second, women’s rights; and third, temperance. Eastern women’s rights leaders and friends like Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Bloomer, Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown encouraged Gage to be a women’s rights emissary in America’s Middle West. She also gratefully received support from William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune. Her lecture circuit on rights issues encompassed Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. She worked as Stanton’s agent, canvassing for signatures in New York State and Ohio, supporting Anthony’s program to make legal changes in the states’ law codes.

Between 1853 and 1857 the Gages lived in St. Louis, Missouri. As Missouri was a slave state, Frances’s ideas and her epistolary submissions to local newspapers were not welcome. The family endured threats of violence and attempts to burn them out. They then moved to Carbondale, Illinois and finally, in 1860, settled in Columbus, Ohio. There, in 1861, she took part in the successful political campaign which led to the passage of Ohio’s first Woman’s Rights Bill.

In 1861 when, at the outbreak of the Civil War, four of her sons joined the Union Army, Gage began lecturing on supporting the troops. Unsatisfied with this labor, in 1863 she and her daughter, Mary, went to the Sea Islands in South Carolina to train ex-slaves. As Superintendent of Parris Island, she proved to be a capable organizer. There she met and befriended nurse Clara Barton who was working at nearby Hilton Head. They compared their childhoods, discussed Universalism and literature, and talked of their “burning sense of fairness.” Barton recorded in her diaries how much she learned from Aunt Fanny, who had expanded her notions of injustice to include freedmen’s and women’s rights.

In 1863 Gage’s husband became critically ill and died before she could reach his side in Columbus, Ohio. When she returned to Parris Island, she learned that Barton was moving on. Gage briefly served at another medical facility in Fernandina, Florida, then returned to the North, having worked in the war-torn South for over a year.

Gage threw herself into speaking engagements to support freedmen, Clara Barton’s nursing, and the task of finding missing soldiers. In 1864, employed by the Western Sanitary Commission, she traveled down the Mississippi to help the injured in Memphis, Vicksburg, and Natchez. Later that year, back on the lecture circuit, she was injured when her carriage crashed in Galesburg, Illinois after she spoke at Edward Beecher’s Indiana Church. After recuperating at a daughter’s home for nearly a year, she decided to move to Lambertsville, New Jersey. This put her closer to publishers, national meetings, often held in New York City and Philadelphia, and other activists.

Having read many temperance tracts and novels that warned about alcoholic excesses, Gage observed the effects of excess alcohol first-hand when treating Civil War soldiers. She was convinced that women must vote to escape the tyranny of drunkards. Her postbellum speeches focused upon women’s rights within a framework of temperance. In her “Address to the First Anniversary of the American Equal Rights Association,” 1867, she asked that women should get the vote, “Because it is right, and because there are wrongs in the community that can be righted in no other way.” She also complained about social attitudes that restricted women to the household: “you have attempted to mold seventeen millions of human souls in one shape, and make them all do one thing.”

In 1867 Gage suffered a debilitating stroke. Meanwhile the women’s suffrage organizations were becoming reorganized and redirected. Gage could not participate in the political strategizing, nor could she travel or address audiences, so she focused instead upon novel writing, using this medium to promote temperance and women’s rights. Gage’s life came full circle when she recreated the western frontier in this late fiction. Her frontier is a vital and interesting American setting, the fruit of her experience as country matron Aunt Fanny, a group organizer, and a lecturer. In Elsie Magoon, 1867, drawing upon her frontier memories of Marietta and McConnelsville and tracing the rise and fall of “still-houses” (distilleries), she advocates the need for a “New Woman” to arise and challenge old economic traditions. In Gertie’s Sacrifice, 1867, set against a background of urban poverty in New York City, she tells the story of a rich woman who abandons her family so that she can stay drunk, leading to jail, delirium tremens, and death. The second frontier novel, Steps Upward, 1870, first serialized in the Temperance Patriot magazine, outlines a model for women’s growth and teaches that women can chose literacy and culture and shape their own fates.

Gage did not remain a Universalist throughout her career. “There came a time when [Universalists] refused to go with me as an abolitionist, an advocate for the rights of women, for earnest temperance pleaders,” she wrote late in life. “Then it came to me that Christ’s death as an atonement for sinners was not truth, but he had died for what he believed to be truth. Then came the war, then trouble, then paralysis, and for 14 years I have not listened to a sermon because I am too great a cripple. I have read much, thought much, and feel that life is too precious to be given to doctrines.”

Gage composed the text of a hymn, “A Hundred Years Hence,” first sung in 1875. She hopefully predicted that in the millenium,

Oppression and war will be heard of no more
Nor the blood of a slave leave his print on our shore,
Conventions will then be a useless expense,
For we’ll all go free suffrage, a hundred years hence.

After being an invalid for years, Gage died in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1884.


*January 6, 2014 update: Pop-Guns and Funny Pop-Guns were written by Frances Barrow (who also used the pseudonym Aunt Fanny) while Fanny at School, Fanny’s Birthday, and Fanny’s Journey appeared in Little Fanny’s Library, published by Breed, Lent & Co. of Buffalo, New York and attributed to “Aunt Laura.”

There are papers relating to Frances Gage in the Library Special Collections at Marietta College, in Marietta, Ohio, and in the Lilly (Martin) Spencer Papers, Archives of American Art, at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D. C. A “Memoir of Frances Dana Barker” is in the Janney Family Papers, Ohio Historical Society. Nettie T. Henery, “Aunt Fanny Gage: The Story of a Famous McConnelsville Woman,” a 1937 typescript, is in the Simpson County Library, McConnelsville, Ohio. Gage’s “Autobiography” is in Woman’s Journal (March 31, 1883) and “The Autobiography of Frances D. Gage” is in L. P. Brockett and Mary C. Vaughan, Woman’s Work in the Civil War (1867). Gage’s “Address to Woman’s Rights Convention, Akron, Ohio, May 28, 1851” is in Susan Cummins Miller, ed., A Sweet Separate Intimacy: Woman Writers of the American Frontier, 1800-1922 (2000) and her “Reminiscences by Frances D. Gage: Sojourner Truth” (1866) is reprinted in History, 1. See also Carol Steinhagen, “The Two Lives of Frances Dana Gage,” Ohio History, 107; Clara C. Holtzman, “Frances Gage,” thesis, Ohio State University (1931); and Mary Loeffelholz, “Subversion and Genre: The Postwar Fiction of Frances Dana Gage,” Legacy (Fall 1988).

There are entries or passages on Gage in W. T. Coggeshall, The Poets and Poetry of the West (1860); Eminent Women of the Age (1868); E. R. Hanson, Our Woman Workers (1882); Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Gage, eds., History of Woman Suffrage (1889); Frances E. Willard, and Mary Livermore, eds. Women of the Century (1893); The Cyclopedia of Temperance, Prohibition, & Public Morals (1917); Dictionary of American Biography (1931); Lillian O’Connor, Pioneer Woman Orators (1954); Ohio Authors and Their Books (1962); Notable American Women, 1607-1950 (1971); Women in Ohio History (1976); Dictionary of American Temperance Biography (1984); The Feminist Companion to English Literature (1990); and American National Biography (1999). There is an obituary in the New York Tribune (November 13, 1884).

For information on Gage’s friends and colleagues, see D. C. Bloomer, Life and Writings of Amelia Bloomer (1895); Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth, a Life, a Symbol (1996); Stephen B. Oates, A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War (1994); and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years & More, Reminiscences 1815-1897 (1898). See also Fred Allen Briggs, “Didactic Literature in America 1825-1850,” PhD. dissertation, Indiana University (1954); Nina Baym, Woman’s Fiction, A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870 (1978); Mari Jo and Paul Buhle, The Concise History of Woman Suffrage (1978); Julie Roy Jeffrey, Frontier Women, the Trans-Mississippi West 1840-1880 (1979); Barbara Leslie Epstein, The Politics of Domesticity: Women, Evangelism, and Temperance in Nineteenth-Century America (1981); Janet Zollinger Giele, Two Paths to Women’s Equality, Temperance, Suffrage and the Origins of Modern Feminism (1995); and Susan Cummins Miller, A Sweet Separate Intimacy, Women Writers of the American Frontier, 1800-1922 (2000).

For more on land transactions between European financiers, American investors, and Native Americans see Barbara A. Chernow, “Robert Morris: Genesee Land Speculator,” New York History (April 1977). For an embryonic exploration of Unitarianism, the Doctrine of Discovery, and Native American lands see Tisa Wenger, “Unitarians in an Age of Empire: Settler Colonialism, Liberal Religion, and the World’s Parliament of Religions” Journal of Unitarian Universalist History (2017-18).

Article by Sandra Parker
Posted August 19, 2007