Frances Dana Barker Gage
Margo Dudley Smith
Originally published in Special Edition 2016 in the Surgeon’s Call
Frances Dana Barker Gage is a woman of note in her own right as an abolitionist, women’s rights activist, temperance advocate, writer, lecturer, poet, advice columnist, and teacher to freed slaves. She was a working mother with a long list of accomplishments more than 150 years before the most recent feminist movement brought the term to use. She should also be remembered for her influence, friendship, and mentoring of Clara Barton. Barton and Gage remained lifelong friends from the time they met during the Civil War to Gage’s death in 1884. This article covers some of Frances Gage’s many accomplishments and the influence she had on Clara Barton’s works.
Frances Gage was born Frances Dana Barker in 1808 in Marietta, OH, to farmers Elizabeth Dana and Colonel Joseph Barker. She married James Gage, a lawyer and abolitionist, in 1829 when she was 21 years of age. They had eight children who lived to maturity. Four sons fought in the Civil War while Frances Gage and her daughter, Mary, both participated in humanitarian efforts during the war. Her husband died in 1863.
Frances Gage, or ‘Fanny’ as she was known, was a leader in the women’s rights movement believing that women needed ALL the rights of men. She was one of the first to advocate universal suffrage. She presided over the 1851 women’s rights convention in Akron, OH, where she introduced Sojourner Truth, a move that was not supported by all attendees. Gage wrote a recollection of Sojourner Truth’s speech 12 years later. Her version is the one now remembered. Gage added “Ain’t I a woman” into the speech more often so that it took up the cadence of a poem that helped it become universally remembered. She travelled the lecture circuit before and after the Civil War in the Midwest and Northeast to advocate for voting rights. She worked with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton promoting votes for all. However, she diverged from her fellow suffragettes Anthony and Stanton when they did not support the 15th amendment, giving African-American men the right to vote while not giving women of either race the same right. Her belief was abolition first, women’s right, second, and temperance third.
While most today do not agree with the total ban on alcohol that some temperance leaders recommended, Frances Gage did not separate temperance from the women’s rights movement. The law of the land gave husbands complete control over the family and finances. Women had little recourse if a man’s drinking left the family destitute; and, if a wife sued for divorce, the children would likely go to the husband. Her book, Elsie Magoon or The Old Still-House in the Hollow covers just this situation, where the woman and children suffer because of the bad decisions of the husband and the wife’s lack of recourse to change her situation. Gage believed universal suffrage and temperance would go together. If women of all races were given the right to vote, voting against alcohol was sure to follow. Gage believed in the civilizing value of women on the whole society. “…but the strength, the power, the energy, the force, the intellect and the nerve, which the womanhood of the country will bring to bear (through the right to vote), and which will infuse itself through all the ranks of society, must make all its men and women wiser and better.”1
Gage traveled to Cuba, St. Thomas, and Santo Domingo in 1857-8 and on her return wrote and lectured on her travels. She wrote and edited for regional agricultural journals and wrote for The Ohio Cultivator. She wrote an advice column for isolated farm women calling herself “Aunt Fanny.” “Aunt Fanny” also penned novels and children’s books, including Fanny at School, Fanny’s Birthday, and Fanny’s Journey. She traveled the lecture circuit on her trio causes until 1867 when a debilitating paralytic stroke forced her to retire from lecturing. She continued to write, however.
During the early period of the Civil War, Gage was employed by the Western Sanitary Commission and nursed the wounded in Vicksburg, Natchez, and Memphis. When she learned of the Port Royal experiment–teaching former slaves to read–she left the lecture circuit, her journalism, and her sick husband to help Sea Island African-Americans adjust to freedom. The Union military governor was so impressed with her abilities, he made her superintendent (without pay) of the refuge of over 500 freed slaves. It was there where she and Clara Barton met and became fast friends. Gage, who was 13 years older than Barton, became the mother that Barton never had. Her own mother was distant while Frances Gage was warm, strong, intellectual, and artistic. Barton wrote in her diary that Gage was a “powerful woman and wins very much my affection.”2 They shared beliefs and values in Universalism, literature, and leading a useful life.
Gage met Barton when they were both hurting, Gage because of the death of her husband and Barton because of the slights and pettiness of the Morris Island military leaders. They had admiration for each other; but it was Gage, with her greater experience, who influenced Barton’s thinking about slavery and women’s right to vote. She told her that “women must stand for the right,” “must be bold, be firm, and be strong in demanding the same rights that men enjoyed.”3 Barton’s efforts during the war showed that she believed woman should play an equally important role as men, but she had not considered the right to vote as being an important avenue to that goal.
Both Gage and Barton were abolitionists, but when they met, Gage had the experience and knowledge to help Clara understand the damage that slavery had done to African-Americans and the need for education to develop the capacity for self-supporting. Barton’s friendship with Gage and her experience in Port Royal and Andersonville made her understand the plight of former slaves and that influenced her support, along with Gage, of the 15th Amendment which gave African-American men the right to vote–but not women of either race. The stance Barton and Gage shared was not because they did not fiercely believe in women’s right to vote, but because they both believed if the amendment were likely to fail by adding the same rights for women. To them, it was important not to delay the right to African-American men to vote as their race suffered the greater wrong.
With her pen, Gage gave Barton support for her work as well. Barton depleted her personal funds during her efforts to find word of missing Union soldiers, using her own money until she was forced to suspend the work. Gage wrote an article for the New York Independent, which was reprinted in other newspapers praising Barton’s work with the hope of soliciting donations.
Again, in 1866, Gage wrote an open letter to Congress explaining Barton’s Missing Soldier’s Office in an effort to have funds appropriated to complete the work. Barton was given enough to pay her to complete the work but did not pay her back for the use of her own funds already expended. So, surely Frances Gage had one more important influence on Clara Barton. When Barton had spent her income and her legacy on locating word of missing soldiers, she emulated Gage by going on the lecture circuit, retelling her Civil War experiences. When Barton did that, she found, at last, a lucrative profession that led to her ability to recoup her lost income, travel to Europe for her “rest cure,” and, ultimately, bring the Red Cross to America.
1. Gage, Frances Dana, “Address of Frances D. Gage,” Proceedings of the first anniversary of the American equal rights association held at the Church of the Puritans New York, May 9 & 10, 1867. http://memory.loc.gov.cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/naw:@field(DOCID+@lit(rbnawsan3542div13)) Retrieved March 7, 2016.
- Oates, Stephen B., A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War. The Free Press, 1994, p. 147.
- Oates, Stephen B., A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War. The Free Press, 1994, p. 192.
Oates, Stephen B., A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War. The Free Press, 1994.
Clara Barton Papers: Diaries & Journals: 1863, Apr. 2-July 23. https://www/loc.gov/resources/mss//1973.001_0381_0444/?sp=24, Retrieved March 7, 2016.
Clara Barton Papers: General Correspondence, 1838-1912; Gage, Frances D., 1863-1883, https://www.loc.gov/item/mss119730261 , Retrieved March 8, 2016.
Gage, Frances Dana, Elsie Magoon or The Old Still-House in the Hollow, www.ohiomemory.org
Gage, Frances Dana, “Address of Frances D. Gage,” Proceedings of the first anniversary of the American equal rights association held at the Church of the Puritans New York, May 9 & 10, 1867. http://memory.loc.gov.cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/naw:@field(DOCID+@lit(rbnawsan3542div13)) Retrieved March 7, 2016.
Larkin, Jack, Chief Historian, OSV, “Historical Note on Temperance Reform in the Early 19th Century”, www.teachushistory.org/second-great-awakening-age-reform/articles/historical- note-temperance-reform-early-19th-century, Retrieved March 8, 2016.
About the Author
Margo Smith graduated with a B.S. in Human Ecology from Kansas State University in 1972. She then worked in public health for 27 years, first as a health educator in the Kansas City/Wyandotte County Health Department, then the Charles County (MD) Health Department, and the last 19 years as the Public Health Administrator for Charles and Frederick County. She served as the Health Officer or Deputy Health Officer during times of turnover or absences in both Charles and Frederick County. An interest in history and the public health successes and failures during the Civil War lead her to become a volunteer at the NMCWM where she has served as a docent, data entry person for the research center, and has been given the opportunity to work on a few other interesting assignments like writing this article. She is on the board of Community Living, Inc. a provider of housing and job support for the adult developmentally disabled. With her husband, she travels, eats out in downtown Frederick every Friday and likes to run half marathons.