Changing Herstory

Gage Foundation reorganizes, as founder Sally Roesch Wagner moves to a part-time post

(Editor’s note: This version includes changes in the characterization of the job change for Sally Roesch Wagner.)


The board of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation has eliminated three positions, including that of its founder and longtime director, Sally Roesch Wagner. Wagner has been named part-time part-time founding director of the Fayetteville house museum dedicated to the ideals of 19th-century women’s rights advocate.

Sally Roesch Wagner

Sally Roesch Wagner

A full-time operations director and part-time support staffer were laid off. The layoffs reflect both financial problems and a long-term restructuring, said Loretta Zolkowski, board president.

Wagner, 71, had guided the founding of the non-profit organization in 2000 and the purchase of Gage’s house at 210 E. Genesee St., Fayetteville, in 2002. She said she had accomplished her goals and requested the board create a succession plan.

“It feels kind of sudden to the community,” Zolkowski says. “But I really want to stress we are committed to keeping the doors open. We are not closing.”

She said the layoffs and restructuring do not involve any impropriety or misconduct. The board will launch a search for a director, but the board has not yet decided the size of the staff or its compensation levels.

“Our resources are limited,” Zolkowski says. “We would hope we do a better job in the future leveraging our volunteer structure.”

Wagner earned $62,400 annually in 2010 and 2011, according to the organization’s IRS forms. In 2011, the Gage Foundation reported assets of $1.56 million. Total revenue in 2011 was $311,669, down significantly from $619,137 in 2010, according to IRS forms.

The foundation bought the Gage house for $130,000 in 2002. It is assessed at $183,300. The foundation also owns a rental property at 109 Walnut St. It was purchased for $99,900 in 2003 and is assessed at $131,300. Both properties are tax exempt.

Zolkowski would not discuss the organization’s finances or what Wagner will earn in her part-time position.

Wagner says it makes sense for the organization to slow down and refocus.

“It was getting too hard to do both national and local things,” she says. “We didn’t have time to do the fundraising. Now I am eager to take Matilda out of the house and into the world.”

Wagner edited the 1993 edition of Gage’s 1893 Women, Church and State, which criticized Christianity for oppressing women. Wagner wrote several other books, including She Who Holds the Sky and The Wonderful Mother of Oz. She has taught women’s studies and performed re-enactments of Gage. She won the 2012 Katherine Coffey Award from the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums.

The Gage house is designated as a state and national Underground Railroad site by New York State Underground Railroad Heritage Trail and National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. It is also part of the National Park Service Votes for Women Trail.

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience awarded the organization a grant to develop the museum world’s first dialogue on reproductive choice. The coalition later invited the foundation to be the U.S. partner with museums in Chile and Sri Lanka in creating a Girl Ambassador for Human Rights program.

Zolkowski says the board will focus on events at the house and the Girl Ambassador program. The Gage Foundation received a Gifford Foundation grant in 2011 as part of a Gifford initiative to help the organization build capacity.

Zolkowski leads a board of 10; Gloria Steinem is a national adviser.

The board remains committed to educating people about Gage’s message of equality and empowerment, Zolkowski says. “We will find a way,” she says. “We cannot let her down. We have inherited her legacy, and now we’re entrusted to carry that out.”

Matilda Joslyn Gage

Matilda Joslyn Gage

  • Born March 24, 1826, in Cicero; died March 18, 1898, in Fayetteville, where she had lived since 1854.
  • She was a suffragist, a Native American activist, an abolitionist, a freethinker and a writer.
  • Contemporary and sometimes-collaborator with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
  • Spoke at the 1852 National Women’s Rights Convention in Syracuse.
  • In her 1893 work Woman, Church and State, she wrote about the matriarchal society of the Haudenosaunee. Gage spent time among the Haudenosaunee and was named Karonienhawi–“she who holds the sky”–upon her initiation into the Mohawk Wolf Clan.
  • One of her daughters, Maud, married L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
  • A memorial stone for Gage at Fayetteville Cemetery reads, “There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home or Heaven. That word is Liberty.”

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