Frances Dana Barker Gage (1808 – 1884)
By: Alison Traweek: Adjunct Professor of Greek and Roman Classics at Temple University
This biographical sketch was first published on the Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States and appears here by permission. That database is accessible at https://documents.alexanderstreet.com/VOTESforWOMEN
Led Ohio’s second women’s rights convention in 1851, Executive committee member of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association 1867.
Frances Dana Barker Gage was born on a farm in Marietta, Ohio to Colonel Joseph Barker and Elizabeth Dana Barker on October 12, 1808. She was the tenth of eleven children. Her family was among the first settlers in the area, and thus Gage had little opportunity for formal education; nevertheless, she was an avid reader throughout her life, and became a prolific writer. Social activism was instilled in her early on by her mother and maternal grandmother as well as by the ethos of reform and utopianism that characterized Ohio’s founding. The family was active in the Underground Railroad and other efforts to assist escaping enslaved and formerly enslaved Black people. Gage credits her interest in women’s rights to an incident in 1818 when her father praised her excellent barrel craftsmanship by lamenting that she was not a boy; she later wrote of the incident, “Then and there sprang up my hatred to the limitations of sex … I was outspoken forever afterward.”
Gage married James Gage, an abolitionist lawyer from McConnelsville, Ohio, on January 1, 1829, and the couple went on to have eight children. Gage’s writing career and activism began in earnest in the 1840s. By 1848, she was regularly publishing letters about abolition, women’s rights, and temperance in The Ladies Register of Connecticut, and had an advice column under the name “Aunt Fanny” in The Ohio Cultivator. While Gage was not able to attend the first Ohio women’s rights convention in Salem, Ohio in 1850, she did send a letter of support. In May of the same year she sent a petition to the state legislature asking that the words “white” and “male” be excluded from the state constitution then being drafted.
In 1851, Gage was selected to lead Ohio’s second women’s rights convention held in Akron. It was at this convention that Gage ignored the objections of other convention goers and gave formerly enslaved activist Sojourner Truth the opportunity to respond to another speaker’s denunciation of women’s rights; Truth’s historic ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ speech and dignified bearing were later vividly described in Gage’s Reminiscences (1866):
The tumult subsided at once, and every eye was fixed on this almost Amazon form, which stood nearly six feet high, head erect, and eyes piercing the upper air like one in a dream. At her first word there was a profound hush. She spoke in deep tones, which, though not loud, reached every ear in the house, and away through the throng at the doors and windows.
In the early 1850s, Gage continued to hold high positions in Ohio social reform movements, and was a persuasive and sought-after speaker who drew national attention. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in History of Woman Suffrage, describes her as “a natural orator” whose “wit and pathos always delighted her audience.”
The Gage family moved in 1853 to St. Louis, then a pro-slavery community with little patience for women’s rights. Though Gage did have some success with her advocacy of temperance there, she largely gave up on converting the local area and gave her energy to the national women’s suffrage efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. By 1860, anti-abolitionists in St. Louis had harassed the Gages so relentlessly that the family returned to Ohio. They settled in Columbus, where Gage contributed to successful efforts to establish in state law a guarantee for some property rights for married women.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Gage volunteered as a relief worker for the Union, and in 1862 she was sent to oversee the welfare of 500 formerly enslaved people being housed on Parris Island, South Carolina. While there, she met Clara Barton, who wrote admiringly of her in her diary. She spent the remaining years of the war alternately caring for her ailing husband, who died in 1863; doing relief work in various southern cities; and giving a series of lectures raising awareness of and empathy for the struggles of Black Americans. Beyond what was needed to cover expenses, profits from these lecture tours were donated to charitable causes helping veterans and the formerly enslaved.
After the war, in 1865 Gage moved to Lambertville, NJ and became involved with the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), a national movement advocating for full enfranchisement for women and for Black Americans. She addressed the association on its first anniversary with several speeches over the course of the two day conference. Continuing with her suffrage work, she was elected to the executive committee of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association in November 1867. Shortly after, however, she suffered a stroke that left her largely paralyzed, and she was no longer able to travel and lecture; it was in the years following the stroke that she published the majority of her novels and poems, largely on themes of temperance and civil rights.
By the end of the 1860s, Gage had split from the AERA and voiced her support for the 15th Amendment, which offered full enfranchisement to Black men with no concessions for women of any race. She wrote in 1869: “Keeping [Black men] out … would not let me in all the sooner, then in God’s name why stand in their way?” Gage saw the problems of race, gender, and substance abuse as inextricably intertwined, and believed that advances in any one area benefitted the others.
From 1877-1882 she lived in Vineland, NJ on property she had purchased in 1865 near her sister in law Portia Gage who was a well know NJ suffragist. Few details of her final years are preserved, but she died on November 10, 1884 in Greenwich, Connecticut. In 1895, Gage was among those honored at the inaugural memorial day of Sororis, the first professional women’s club in the country.
 Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, edd. History of Woman Suffrage vol.2. Susan B. Anthony, 1881 p. 224.
 Gage’s choice to write Truth’s speech in heavy Southern dialect has been criticized, particularly because Truth never lived in the South. However, Gage’s version became popular after being included in Stanton’s History of Woman Suffrage, and Truth herself included this version, not the 1851 Standard American English transcription by Marius Robinson, in her 1867 edition of her autobiography.
 Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, edd. History of Woman Suffrage vol.1, 2nd ed. Susan B. Anthony, 1889 p. 116.
 ibid. p. 168.
 Gage, Frances Dana. “The Fifteenth Amendment.” The Woman’s Advocate, August 1, 1869, p. 95-96.
 Some sources give the date of death as November 13, but that was the date of the publication of her obituary, which dates her death to the previous Monday.
Johnson, Oliver. “Obituary: Mrs. Frances Dana Gage.” New York Daily Tribune, Thursday, November 13, 1884, p. 5.
Miller, Susan Cummins. “Frances Dana Barker Gage (Aunt Fanny) 1808-1884.” in A Sweet, Separate Intimacy: Women Writers of the American Frontier, 1800-1922. University of Utah Press. 2000: 29-43.
O’Connor, Lillian. “Frances Gage.” Pioneer Woman Orators: Rhetoric in the Ante-bellum Reform Movement. Columbia UP, 1954, p. 91-93.
Parker, Sandra A. Side Saddle on a Comet’s Tail: The Life of Frances Dana Gage. [Independently published?], 2018.
Sigerman, Harriet. “Gage, Frances Dana Barker.” American National Biography. Oxford UP, 2000, n.p.
Dodyk, Delight, Education and Agitation: The Woman Suffrage Movement in New Jersey(Dissertation submitted to the Graduate School of Rutgers University – New Brunswick, 1997), pgs. 564-5.
Smith, Jeffrey E. “Frances Dana Gage: ‘Turning the World Upside Down.’” Feminist Frontiers: Women who Shaped the Midwest, ed. Yvonne Johnson. Truman State UP, 2010: 1-19.