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Gage, Frances Dana (Barker)

GAGE, Frances Dana (Barker)

Born 12 October 1808, Marietta, Ohio; died 10 November 1880, Greenwich, Connecticut

Wrote under: Aunt Fanny, F. D. Gage, Frances Gage, Mrs.Frances Dana Gage

Daughter of Joseph and Elizabeth Dana Barker; married James L.Gage, 1829; children: eight

Frances Dana Gage, whose parents emigrated from New Hampshire to Ohio in 1788, was born on a farm, the fifth daughter and the ninth of 10 children. Although her education was limited to that of most rural children in a large, hard-working family, she gained the habit of independence of thought and an interest in reform. Her mother, daughter of an educated New England family, encouraged her to learn as much as she could under the difficult circumstances of frontier life in Ohio; the parents' aid to fugitive slaves underscored their concern with social issues. Gage drew from her background a toughness that served her well in life. After her marriage to a lawyer and businessman, she managed to rear eight healthy children while educating herself further, gaining respect as a prolific journalist and writer, and becoming increasingly active in reform.

Gage's concern over slavery extended to the problems of slaves freed during the Civil War. She spent some time during 1862 in a part of South Carolina controlled by the Union; here she worked with freed slaves who needed help in starting new lives. After the war, when she became better known as a journalist, she continued to urge northerners to give aid to the freedmen. Here, as in all her speaking and writing, she drew on her vigorous homely style to make telling points and to make the unfamiliar acceptable. Her impact on audiences was especially dramatic in her appeals for temperance, in which she used case histories to move women to tears and men to new resolutions. Her spontaneous, conversational manner helped her to win her audiences.

These gifts served her well in the women's rights movement. So eloquent was Gage at the important Akron Convention (1851), she unanimously won the election as president of the convention. Gage's reminiscences (in the National Anti-Slavery Standard, May 1866) provide the tone and feeling of the dramatic episode in which Sojourner Truth (a former slave, unable to read or write, but a moving speaker) rose to speak at the Akron convention, against the advice of some of the participants. Gage's own language does not lack color as she describes the importance of woman suffrage: she speaks of "war cries," the "advance-guarde," the "rebellion," and in a somewhat less militant tone, "most unwearied actors."

Gage also wrote to support her large family. Under the pseudonym of Aunt Fanny (whose real identity was no secret) she wrote letters of advice to women in Amelia Bloomer's Lily, Jane Grey Swisshelm's Saturday Visiter, and other papers, especially feminist ones. Aunt Fanny's words about practical household matters often contained shrewd wit, especially in her reflections on the roles of men and women in daily life. As she counsels her readers on the making of soap, the use of practical clothing, the churning of butter, the efficient use of time, Aunt Fanny amuses herself and them with (often satiric) replies to antisuffrage male correspondents about female frailty.

For a time Gage also served as associate editor of both the Ohio Cultivator and Field Notes, farmers' weekly papers that disappeared after the Civil War.

With eight children and an ailing husband, Gage's need for money grew. She wrote a novel, Elsie Magoon (1867), in which the heroine suffers as victim of an intemperate husband who, though he has the best of intentions, is weak and unable to sustain a job. He succumbs easily to the drinking habits of his friends who take him to bars (Gage, like her sisters, sees the bar as an evil place), and tragedy, really melodrama, results in his death and the suffering of his family. The moral seems to be that a woman must be careful not to marry a "drunkard," but if she inadvertently does, then she should have no children. She also wrote a volume of poems in 1867—sentimental verse to be sure, but they were accurate descriptions of farm life especially as it reflects the position of women.

Gage stands as one of those active, resourceful 19th-century women, who—without the formal education of some of her contemporaries, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony—succeeded in becoming an influential writer and a force in the women's rights movement. She exerted her influence through work in antislavery, temperance, and women's organizations, but even more through the homely, pithy writing with which she spread her ideas. Her work had perhaps its greatest impact on rural women, with whom she could easily establish rapport because of her similar background.

Other Works:

Christmas Stories (1849). The Man in the Well: A Temperance Tale (1850). Fanny's Journey (1866). Fanny at School (circa 1866). Poems (1867). Gertie's Sacrifice; or, Glimpses at Two Lives (1869). Steps Upward (1870).

Bibliography:

Brockett, L. P., and M. C. Vaughn, Woman's Work in the Civil War (1867). Hanson, E. R., Our Woman Workers (1882). Yellin, J. F., and J. C. Van Horne, eds., An Untrodden Path: Antislavery and Women's Political Culture (1993).

Reference works:

AA. AW. DAB. Eminent Women of the Age (1869). HWS. NAW (1971). NCAB. Ohio Authors and Their Books (1962). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

New York Tribune (13 Nov. 1884).

—LOIS FOWLER

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