Woman’s historic life
Frances Dana Barker Gage’s impact spread through 19th century
Long before the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement, a young woman born in an unassuming two-story house just north of Marietta was learning that women had rights, too.
Frances Dana Barker Gage was born in the Colonel Joseph Barker House in Muskingum Township, present day Devola. Her childhood home still stands and is on the National Register of Historic Places, along with her brother, Judge Joseph Barker’s, home in Newport.
Linda Showalter, Special Collections associate at Marietta College’s Legacy Library, explained that the library has a multitude of information on Gage, including a daguerreotype portraying her around the age of 50.
“One of her main claims to fame that I find amazing is that she presided over the women’s rights convention in Akron when Sojourner Truth made her famous, ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ speech,” Showalter said. “And now, many scholars believe that Fanny actually helped Sojourner with that speech, working on the syntax.”
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery and her speech became one of the most famous abolitionist and women’s rights speeches in American history. Historians think that Gage may have transcribed the speech from Truth’s dialect to more commonly understood language.
For Gage, who went by the pen name “Aunt Fanny,” her writing as well as her activism began at a young age. An article from a 1963 edition of The Marietta, Ohio Times, provided by Showalter, says that Fanny, as a young girl, “was in the habit of going into the garret or third story of the house by a little square window to write, away from everybody where the thoughts could flow freely.”
Carol Steinhagen, a retired professor of writing and American literature, took an immediate liking to Gage when she began researching subjects for a women’s history course at Marietta College.
“This was back in the ’90s, there was no women’s history class. So I proposed one and it was passed by the curriculum committee,” she said. “In doing research for the class, I discovered Frances and I thought it was very interesting. Here was someone who was local, she was not a known figure in the women’s rights movement but she was a significant one.”
Steinhagen wrote a piece for the Ohio Historical Society’s magazine, Ohio History, in 1998.
“The Two Lives of Frances Dana Gage” focused on how this wife and mother from a rural area raised her family and still had time to communicate with some of the bigger names of the day’s suffragette movement.
“She knew Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott … all of them,” Steinhagen said.
One wonders what those women would think of how women’s rights — equal pay, workplace harassment, reproductive rights — are once again making headlines.
“Fanny was sassy. I think she would be very happy about all the sassy women we have today. She couldn’t stand women who sat and did nothing when they could be out protesting,” Steinhagen said. “I think she’d be very pleased to see all the women taking a stand.”
¯ Born: Oct. 12, 1808 in Washington County (Muskingum Township).
¯ Died: Nov. 10, 1884 in Connecticut.
¯ Family: Parents — Col. Joseph Barker and Elizabeth Dana; spouse — James L. Gage; sibling — Judge Joseph Barker; the Gages had eight children.
¯ Known for writing children’s books, a column in Ohio Cultivator and poetry; Gage was an outspoken women’s rights activist and worked alongside other suffragists of the day.
¯ Women’s History Month is marked across the country each March.
Source: Times research; Marietta College Special Collections.
Farewell to Ohio!
“Farewell to my home!
With its hills so bonny and green,
And its valleys low, where the corn-blades grow,
And the brooks go dancing between.
Farewell to the woods —
To the rock, the bush, and the tree,
Where the wild birds sing in the days of spring,
And the squirrels go bounding free.”
— An excerpt from Farewell to Ohio, a poem by Fanny Gage