The Untold Story of the Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists
Sally Roesch Wagner
Sky Carrier Press, 1996

“I had been haunted by a question to the past, a mystery of feminist history: How did the radical suffragists come to their vision, a vision not of a Band-Aid reform but of a reconstituted world completely transformed?” p. 1

“In the United States, until women’s rights advocates began the painstaking task of changing state laws, a husband had the legal right to batter his wife (to interfere would “upset the domestic tranquillity of the home,” one state supreme court held). But suffragists lived as neighbors to men of other nations whose religious, legal, social, and economic concept of women made such behavior unthinkable. Haudenosaunee spiritual practices were spelled out in an oral tradition called the Code of Handsome Lake, which told this cautionary tale (as reported by a white woman who was a contemporary of Stanton and Gage) of what would befall batterers in the afterlife:
[A man] who was in the habit of beating his wife, was led to the red-hot statue of a female, and requested to treat it as he had done his wife. He commenced beating it, and the sparks flew out and were continual burning him. thus would it be done to all who beat their wives.” page 3

Bold added by me.

“. . . . shortly after Matilda Joslyn Gage was arrested in 1893 at her home in New York for the “crime” of trying to vote in a school board election, she was adopted into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk nation and given the name Karonienhawi (Sky Carrier). In the Mohawk nation, women alone had the authority to nominate the chief, after counseling with all the people of the clan. What it must have meant to Gage to know of such real-life political power?” page 5

“A Tuscarora chief, Elias Johnson, writing about the absence of rape among Iroquois men in his popular 1881 book, Legends, Traditions and Laws, of the Iroquois, or Six Nations. . . , commented wryly that European men had held the same respect for women “until they became civilized. A Cayuga chief, Dr. Peter Wilson, addressing the New York Historical Society in 1866, encouraged white men to use the occasion of Southern reconstruction to establish universal suffrage, “even of the women, as in his nation.” ” page 8

“In her important work, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine In American Indian Traditions, Paula Gunn Allen writes:
Beliefs, attitudes, and laws such as these [the Iroquois Confederation] became part of the vision of American feminists and of other human liberation movements around the world. Yet feminists too often believe that no one has ever experienced the kind of society that empowered women and made that empowerment the basis of its rules and civilization. The price the feminist community must pay because it is not aware of the recent presence of gynarchical societies on this continent is necessary confusion, division, and much lost time.” page 12

“It was not simply the absence of rights that was the problem, they came to believe. It was the fact that, as Stanton said:
Society is based on this four-fold bondage of woman- Church, State, Capital, and Society – making liberty and equality for her antagonistic to every organized institution.” page 17

From pages 22-38: Among rights which women held among the Native American tribes:

  1. Children belonged to the mother’s tribe, not the father’s tribe.
  2. If a marriage proves to be an unhappy one, each is at liberty to marry again. What each person brought into the marriage, each take out of the marriage. Women get custody of children.
  3. When a man brought the products of the hunt home and gave it to his wife, it was hers to dispose of as she saw fit. Her decisions were absolute, even to the sale of skins.
  4. A woman retains control of her possessions at all time, even after marriage. They are hers to sell, give away, or bequeath as she sees fit.
  5. Women ruled the house, stores were held in common.
  6. Rape and wife-battering were almost unknown.
  7. Women had the right to vote.
  8. Treaties had to be ratified by 3/4 of all voters and 3/4 of all mothers.
  9. Women had the power to impeach a chief (they “removed his horns,” the deer’s antlers he wore which signified his position.)
  10. Women spoke in council meetings.
  11. Women could forbid braves from going to war.

Again, the situation was very different for Indian women, as Alice Fletcher explained:
. . . the wife never becomes entirely under the control of her husband. Her kindred have a prior right, and can use that right to separate her from him or to protect her from him, should he maltreat her. The brother who would not rally to the help of his sister would become a by-word among his clan. Not only will he protect her at the risk of his life from insult and injury, but he will seek help for her when she is sick and suffering. . . ” page 30

“Fletcher was concerned about what would happen to the Indian women when they became citizens and lost their rights, and were treated with the same legal disrespect as white women, she told the International Council of Women in 1888:
Not only does the woman under our [US] laws lose her independent hold on her property and herself, but there are offenses and injuries which can befall a woman which would be avenged and punished by the relatives under tribal law, but which have no penalty or recognition under our laws. If the Indian brother should, as of old, defend his sister, he would himself become liable to the law and suffer for his championship.

She was referring, of course, to sexual and physical violence against women. Indian men’s intolerance of rape was commented upon by many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Indian and non-Indian reporters alike, many of whom contended that rape didn’t exist among Indian nations pervious to white contact.” page 31

“Minnie Myrtle wrote in 1855 about the Seneca:
The legislative powers of the nation are vested in a Council of eighteen, chosen by the universal suffrages of the nation; but no treaty is to be binding, until it is ratified by three-fourths of all the voters, and three-fourths of all the mothers of the nation! So there was peace instead of war, as there would often be if the voice could be heard! And though the Senecas, in revising their laws and customs, have in a measure acceded to the civilized barbarism of treating the opinions of women with contempt, where their interest is equal, they still cannot sign a treaty without the consent of two-thirds of the mothers!” pages 33- 34

“The India women with whom [ethnologist Alice] Fletcher had contact were well aware of their superior rights:
As I have tried to explain our statutes to Indian women, I have met with but one response. They have said: “As an Indian woman I was free. I owned my home, my person, the work of my own hands, and my children could never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law.” pages 37-38

A nineteenth-century contemporary of Stanton and Gage, Arthur Parker, a Seneca, supported women’s rights in part by writing newspaper stories which can be found in the Harriet Maxwell Converse collection, State Museum, Albany, NY.

Haudenosaunee society, on the other hand, was organized to maintain a balance of equality between women and men. Shown here are the contrasting differences between the two worlds of women who lived side-by-side in this region of upstate New York in 1848.
Children are members of the mother’s clan.
Violence against women not part of culture, and dealt with seriously when occurs.
Clothing fosters health, freedom of movement and independence.
Women’s responsibilities have a spiritual basis.
Work satisfying, done communally
Responsible for agriculture as well as home life
Work done under the direction of the women, working together.
Each woman controls her own personal property.
“Sky Woman” the spiritual being, catalyst for the world we see.
Mother Earth and women spiritually interrelated.
Women have responsibilities in ceremony.
Responsibilities in balance with those of men.
Women choose their chief.
Women hold key political offices (e.g., clan mothers)
Confederacy laws ensures woman’s political authority.
Decision making by consensus, everyone has a voice.

Children are the sole property of fathers.
Husbands have legal right and religious responsibility to physically discipline wives.
Clothing is restrictive, unhealthy and dangerous.
Woman’s subordination has a religious foundation.
Work drudgery, isolated
Responsible for home, but subordinate to husband.
Work done under the authority of the husband.
No rights to her own property, body, or children.
No female in the godhead.
Spirituality not connected to the earth.
Women forbidden to speak in churches.
Responsibilities subordinate to men’s authority.
Illegal for women to vote.
Women excluded from political office
Common law defines married as “dead in the law.”
Decision making by men, majority rules

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