SU professor has impersonated women’s movement leaders for 38 years
Drew Osumi | Staff Photographer
Sally Roesch Wagner first tried out answering women’s history questions as someone else while she was teaching a class and pretended to be Matilda Joslyn Gage.
Editor’s note: In light of Women’s History Month, this four-part series looks into how Syracuse women have contributed to the fight for equality.
Sally Roesch Wagner has been arrested twice for civil disobedience while dressed up as suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage.
Once, demonstrating at the Seneca Army Depot to protest the sending of missiles to Europe, as a “birthing gift” to her grandson. The next time, at the Nevada Test Site because they were testing nuclear weapons on Native American land. Both charges were dropped, ultimately.
Wagner, a Syracuse University adjunct professor at the Reneé Crown Honors Program, has been impersonating women’s movement leaders for 38 years. She started with Gage — Wagner’s historical hero and a suffragist from Fayetteville, New York, who was largely written out of history — and 10 years later, she took on Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She has performed for a variety of audiences including kindergartners, the Nebraska and Missouri legislatures and Stanton’s great-granddaughter. Wagner has been involved in feminism and activism since her college days.
Wagner’s first time pretending to be Gage was when she was working on her doctoral dissertation — as a holder of a bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology, she wanted to be able to walk around in Gage’s skin and better understand what made her tick.
“Sometimes what people are doing looks nuts from the outside, but it may make a lot of internal sense,” Wagner said.
She walked into a class she was teaching and asked her students what they would ask Gage if they had the chance. Their hands shot up, and instead of answering the questions by listing off facts, she responded to them in character.
The act was an instant hit and took off from there, with Wagner eventually performing at college campuses all over the country. She said the appeal of the impersonation for students is the ability to engage firsthand with the material. Instead of listening to a teacher repeat a script, by asking an actor questions, students get to participate in retrieving a piece of history and own what they learn, Wagner said.
As an activist, my interest is in telling the story and in inspiring through the story to change the world.
Sally Roesch Wagner
There’s no way to know for sure what a feminist icon like Stanton would think about women’s issues today, such as the possibility of a woman being elected president, but Wagner allows the opportunity to ask her when she goes into character.
“Could a woman be president by 2016?” she repeated incredulously after being asked. “My dear, I can imagine there have been a dozen women presidents by 2016 … I myself announced my candidacy for Congress. And then Belva Lockwood actually ran in 1884. So,” she said with a chuckle, “I think your vision is very limited my dear. I think by 2016, we will have seen a string of women presidents, and it will be so commonplace that no one will even mention it.”
Wagner’s contributions to modern feminism include much more than her performances. She was one of the first women to be awarded a doctorate in women’s studies, which she received at the University of California Santa Cruz, and she founded one of the first women’s studies programs in the United States at California State University Sacramento.
It was her fascination with Gage that pushed her to transition from the field of psychology to women’s studies. Wagner first learned about Gage through her mother, whose good friend was Gage’s granddaughter.
Wagner said she connected with Gage — who she described as “this woman I’ve been stalking for the majority of my adult life” — most strongly because she was ahead of her time and her ideas have had staying power. She cited Gage’s stance on abortion, which was extremely radical for the 19th century: “For a woman to birth an unwanted child is a crime against the mother and a sin against the soul of the child.”
When Wagner first arrived at SU as the Jeanette K. Watson Distinguished Visiting Professor in women’s studies in 1997, she quickly became involved in Gage’s local history. Gage lived in Onondaga County her entire life and in her home in Fayetteville from 1854 to 1898.
It was Gage’s geographical ties that motivated Wagner to permanently relocate to Syracuse in 1999 and found the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation. In 2010, the foundation finished restoring Gage’s home into a historical landmark. Since, Wagner has stepped down as the director of the Gage Foundation, and is now working on a project to digitize Gage’s writing, making it accessible.
The roots of Wagner’s passion for feminism and activism go back to when she was a college student in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Wagner said many of the women’s issues she and her peers struggled with as a student in college are still present as ever on campuses today, particularly sexual assault.
She said one of the ways her and her female friends coped with it was by having intimate discussions about their experiences being sexually violated. These conversations empowered them, helping them find solidarity and understand that victims were not to blame.
We realized that we weren’t messed up — we were messed over.
Sally Roesch Wagner
She recounted a time in college when her and her female peers from a political club chose to confront one of their fellow club members for battering his girlfriend, who ended up hospitalized. They publicly surrounded him, told him that they knew what he did, and said they would no longer be working with him.
In 2003, Gena Gompert met Wagner when she was at CSU Sacramento writing her thesis on activism in Sacramento in the 1960s. She interviewed Wagner for her thesis and collected even more stories showing Wagner’s boldness in confrontation.
Wagner told Gompert about when she and some fellow feminists protested professors who were approaching female students with “A for a lay” deals by parading through campus swearing, with some of them taping giant dildos to their heads. Gompert said she loves that Wagner fights serious issues with playful humor.
Throughout the years, Gompert and Wagner have maintained a close mentorship, and the two are planning to create a class on 1960s activism that could be taught at both CSU Sacramento and SU. The class would entail students collecting accounts and stories of activism from the ‘60s at their own schools.
Wagner has noticed a parallel in her own generation and millennials in terms of social activism.
“We pushed some of the barriers out of the way for you, and now you’ll have to push some of the barriers out of the way for your daughters and granddaughters,” Wagner said. “But you know how to kick butt just like we knew how to kick butt.”