Forget About Jack, You Don’t Know Matilda (but you should)

Matilda Joslyn Gage, who wrote about how cumulative advantage (a principle not named until a century later) erased women and their achievements from history, was herself erased from history because of cumulative advantage. The reason why You Don’t Know Jack Matilda involves the Bible and science.

By Victoria Martínez

Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898), Activist and Writer. (public domain image)

You undoubtedly know of Susan B. Anthony. You probably know of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But chances are good that you know nothing of Matilda Joslyn Gage[1], who – by all rights – should be just as well-known as her two contemporaries. In fact, as the most radical of the three nineteenth century American women’s rights activists, Matilda should perhaps be even more recognizable.

Instead, a handful of dedicated scholars and writers labor to bring her important history[2] to an audience that is not only nearsighted, but also has poor peripheral vision. To fully understand why, despite these efforts, you don’t know Matilda, we must turn to strange bedfellows: the Bible and science.

“For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” –Matthew 25:29

This verse, part of The Parable of the Talents in the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament of the Bible, describes the principle of cumulative advantage – the basis of the adage, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” But the principle extends far beyond money to a broad range of applications, all essentially boiling down to whoever already has more will continue to get more, usually at the expense of those who have less.

In fact, cumulative advantage extends to the Bible verse itself, since recent scholarship points to evidence that it wasn’t Matthew the Apostle who wrote the Gospel of Matthew, but a later, anonymous Jewish author or authors. In this case, the principal of cumulative advantage has meant that Matthew received the credit because he was important and the actual writer was not. It is also the reason why traditionalists will probably always insist that no one other than Matthew wrote the Gospel. And this is where science comes in…

In 1968, American sociologist Robert K. Merton pioneered the use of the term cumulative advantage in relation to what he called “the Matthew Effect” in science, with the verse from the Gospel of Matthew in mind. The Matthew Effect described, among other things, how scientific accomplishments are disproportionately or mistakenly attributed to eminent scientists at the expense of other scientists who deserve the credit. He effectively rewrote the verse to this context:

“…the Matthew effect consists in the accruing of greater increments of recognition for particular scientific contributions to scientists of considerable repute and the withholding of such recognition from scientists who have not yet made their mark.”[3]

Just as the poor may work as hard if not harder than the rich, but continue in poverty while the rich prosper at their expense, Merton theorized that even if unknown scientists achieve scientific accomplishments equal or greater to those of eminent scientists, they will not necessarily get equal or greater respect. The reason for this, he wrote, is due in part to disproportionate allocation of resources and credit based on social stratification and selection that favors an already elite group at the expense of most others (the principle of cumulative advantage).

Even worse, though their contributions to science may be great, the unknown scientists would likely never rise in standing because of cumulative advantage, and their work might even be attributed to better-known scientists. Merton explained, “The Matthew Effect may serve to heighten the visibility of contributions to science by scientists of acknowledged standing to reduce the visibility of contributions by authors who are less well known.”[4]

Reprinted edition of “Woman as an Inventor,” published by The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation.

Almost a century earlier, Matilda Joslyn Gage knew this all too well. In 1883, she published the essay, “Woman as an Inventor,” in the North American Review[5]. In this important work, she documented women’s vital discoveries and inventions from ancient times to her own, noting that: “Ancient tradition accords to woman the invention of those arts most necessary to comfort, most conducive to wealth, most promotive of civilization.”[6] She emphasized that women’s important contributions had been woefully overlooked, ignored, and minimized in the chronicles of history. Credit for their inventions also had the tendency to go to men.

Matilda celebrated these women and their accomplishments, reminding the reader that everything they achieved took place from a position of social and legal disadvantage. Although she far from asserted that men have marched through history boldly taking credit for these and all other women’s inventions, she did give examples of this occurring. Overall, however, her approach was more nuanced and analytical than she is sometimes given credit for.

“No ASSERTION in reference to women is more common than that she possesses no inventive or mechanical genius…,” she began her essay:

“But, while such statements are carelessly or ignorantly made, tradition, history, and experience alike prove her possession of these faculties in the highest degree. Although women’s scientific education has been grossly neglected, yet some of the most important inventions of the world are due to her.”[7]

Long before Merton conceptualized cumulative advantage in science as the Matthew Effect, Matilda Joslyn Gage was effectively describing a broader sociological application of the principle, much as Merton’s successors have done in recent years:

“Although originally developed by R.K. Merton to explain advancement in scientific careers, cumulative advantage is a general mechanism for inequality across any temporal process (e.g., life course, family generations) in which a favorable relative position becomes a resource that produces further relative gains.”[8]

In “Woman as an Inventor,” Matilda highlighted that men’s superior access to education, rights and legal protections had put them in a favorable position that in itself became a resource to gain even more opportunity and advancement. Furthermore, no matter how profound and significant women’s inventions, men received more recognition through this (cumulative) advantage.

But she was not merely stomping her feet in disgust. Rather, she was pointing out, as the following passage demonstrates, that this situation was harmful to the advance of civilization:

“While, as has been shown, many of the world’s most important inventions are due to woman, the proportion of feminine inventors is much less than of masculine, which arises from the fact that woman does not possess the same amount of freedom as man. Restricted in education, industrial opportunities, and political power, this is one of many instances where her degradation reacts injuriously upon the race.”[9] (my emphasis)

Merton made no mention of Matilda Joslyn Gage’s writing on the subject in his paper on the Matthew Effect, even though it could have been considered a relevant precursor of his own work. He had probably never even heard of her. Thanks to the effects of cumulative advantage, Matilda had long since become almost invisible. She was as forgotten as her associates Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were recognized. Until science – and a woman – recognized just how relevant she and her writing still were.

In 1993, American scientific historian Margaret Rossiter published a paper examining the “systematic undervaluing of women’s contributions to science.”[10] Rossiter noted that the Matthew Effect had particular relevance to women in scientific history. She tidily summed up the sad state of affairs when she wrote:

“Not only have those [women scientists] unrecognized in their own time generally remained so, but others that were well-known in their day have since been obliterated from history, either by laziness or inertia, or by historians with definite axes to grind.”[11]

Recognizing that the Matthew Effect had been developed with male scientists in mind, and remarking that sociologists had long denied that women’s accomplishments in scientific history were systematically under-recognized, Rossiter thought it only right that a new “effect” should be named to inspire “current and future scholars to write a more equitable and comprehensive history and sociology of science.”[12] Fittingly, she called it “the Matilda Effect” after Matilda Joslyn Gage and, specifically, her essay which had sought to do the same over 100 years earlier.

The title of one of the few major works on Matilda Joslyn Gage speaks volumes about how she has fared in historical memory. “Searching for Matilda: Portrait of a Forgotten Feminist” (2012) by Charlotte M. Shapiro.

Despite this acknowledgment, Matilda herself remains frustratingly little-known. In the limited scope through which women’s history is still written and consumed, she has been sidelined while attention is focused on a handful of women who were less controversial than she.

“Woman as an Inventor” was one of Matilda’s mildest written works. Even within the first wave feminist movement of the nineteenth century, she was radical. So much so that “…her concerns and her contributions were pushed to the margins of movement activity and were omitted from or downplayed by those who wrote its history.”[13]

Although at least two good books about Gage have been published in recent years, her position in history is light years behind Anthony and Stanton, who (you guessed it) have had cumulative advantage on their side. From the Biblical verse to the Matilda Effect, Matilda Joslyn Gage has been on the wrong side of them all.

Her unfair fate might be summed up in a more complete extract from The Parable of the Talents in “Matthew”:

“So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags (28). For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them (29). And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness… (30)” (my emphasis)


Main image: “The Parable of the Talents” (17th century) by Willem de Poorter. (Courtesy The Athenaeum)

[1] Born in 1826 in Cicero, New York, as Matilda Electa Joslyn; married Henry Hill Gage in 1845; died in Chicago, Illinois in 1898. More than “just” an abolitionist and suffragist, she believed in the full liberation of women, including complete control over their bodies and reproduction. The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation is an excellent and comprehensive online source of information on her.

[2] For instance, “Searching for Matilda: Portrait of a Forgotten Feminist” (2012) by Charlotte M. Shapiro, and “Excluded from Suffrage History: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Nineteenth-Century American Feminist” (2000) by Leila R. Brammer.

[3] Merton, Robert K. “The Matthew Effect in Science,” Science, 1968, 159:3810, 58.

[4] ibid 62

[5] A scan of the original article can be found at the following link (PDF):

[6] Gage, Matilda Joslyn. “Woman as an Inventor.” The North American Review,  1883, 136:318, 478.

[7] ibid

[8] DiPrete, Thomas A. and Gregory M. Eirich. “Cumulative Advantage as a Mechanism for Inequality: A Review of Theoretical and Empirical Developments.” Annual Review of Sociology, 2006 32:1, 271.

[9] Gage 488

[10] Rossiter, Margaret. “The Matthew Matilda Effect in Science,” Social Studies of Science, 1993, 23:2, 334.

[11] ibid 328

[12] ibid 337

[13] Brammer, Leila R. Excluded from Suffrage History: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Nineteenth Century American Feminist. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000, 94.



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