For 20 years I had immersed myself in the writings of early United States women’s rights activists — Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) — yet I could not fathom how they dared to dream their revolutionary dream. Living under the ideological hegemony of nineteenth-century United States, they had no say in government, religion, economics, or social life (“the four-fold oppression” of their lives, Gage and Stanton called it.) Whatever made them think that human harmony — based on the perfect equality of all people, with women absolute sovereigns of their lives — was an achievable goal?
Surely these white women, living under conditions of virtual slavery, did not get their vision in a vacuum. Somehow they were able to see from point A, where they stood — corseted, ornamental, legally nonpersons — to point C, the “regenerated” world Gage predicted, in which all repressive institutions would be destroyed. What was point B in their lives, the earthly alternative that drove their feminist spirit — not a utopian pipe dream but a sensible, do-able paradigm?
Then I realized I had been skimming over the source of their inspiration without noticing it. My own unconscious white supremacy had kept me from recognizing what these prototypical feminists kept insisting in their writings: They caught a glimpse of the possibility of freedom because they knew women who lived liberated lives, women who had always possessed rights beyond their wildest imagination — Iroquois women.
The more evidence I uncovered of this indelible Native American influence on the vision of early United States feminists, the more certain I became that this story must be told.
A Vision of Everyday Decency
It is difficult for white Americans today to picture the extended period in history when — before the United States government’s Indian-reservation system, like apartheid, concretized a separation of the races in the last half of the nineteenth century — regular trade, cultural sharing, even friendship between Native Americans and Euro-Americans was common. Perhaps nowhere was this now-lost social ease more evident than in the towns and villages in upstate New York where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage lived, and Lucretia Mott visited. All three suffragists personally knew Iroquois women, citizens of the six-nation confederacy (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and later Tuscarora) that had established peace among themselves before Columbus came to this “old” world.
Stanton, for instance, sat across the dinner table from Oneida women during her frequent visits to her cousin, the radical social activist Gerrit Smith, in Peterboro. Smith’s daughter, also named Elizabeth, was first to shed the 20 pounds of clothing that, fashion dictated, should hang from a white woman’s waist, dangerously deformed from corseting. The reform costume Elizabeth Smith adopted (named the “Bloomer” after the newspaper editor who popularized it) bore an uncanny resemblance to the loose-fitting tunic and leggings worn by the two Elizabeth’s’ Native American friends.
Gage, appointed by a women’s rights convention in the 1850’s, worked on a committee with New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley to document the woefully few jobs open to white women. Meanwhile she knew hardy, nearby Onondaga women who farmed corn, beans, and squash — nutritionally balanced and ecologically near-perfect crops called the Three Sisters by the Haudenosaunee (traditional Iroquois).
Lucretia Mott and her husband, James, were members of the Indian committee of the Philadelphia yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends. For years this committee of Quakers befriended the Seneca, setting up a school and model farm at Cattaraugus and helping them save some of their territory from unscrupulous land speculators. In the summer of 1848 Mott spent a month a Cattaraugus witnessing women share in discussion and decision-making as the Seneca nation reorganized their governmental structure. Her feminist vision fired by that experience, Mott traveled that July from the Seneca nation to nearby Seneca Falls, where she and Stanton held the world’s first women’s rights convention.
Stanton, Gage, and Mott regularly read newspaper accounts of everyday Iroquois activities — a recent condolence ceremony (to mourn a chief’s death and to set in place a new one); the latest sports scores (a lacrosse match between the Mohawk and the Onondaga); a Quaker council called to ask Seneca women to leave their fields and work in the home (as the Friends said God commanded but as Mott opposed). Stanton, Gage, and Mott could also read that according to interviews with white teachers at various Indian nations, Indian men did not rape women. Front page stories admonished big-city dandies to learn a thing or two from Indian men’s example, so that white women too could walk around any time of the day or night without fear.
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 tranquility 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 mad 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 after life:
[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 continually burning him. Thus would it be done to all who beat their wives.
To Stanton, Gage, Mott, and their feminist contemporaries, the Native American conception of everyday decency, nonviolence, and gender justice must have seemed the promised land.
A Vision of Power and Security
As a feminist historian, I did not at first pay attention to such references to American Indian life because I believed what I had been taught: that Native American women were poor, downtrodden “beasts of burden” (as they were often called in the nineteenth century). I did not know what I was looking for, so of course I could not see it.
I remembered that in the early 1970’s some feminist historians flirted with the idea of prehistoric matriarchies on which to pin women’s egalitarian hopes. Anthropologists soon set us straight about such nonsense. the evidence just wasn’t there, they said. But Paula Gunn Allen, a Laguna Pueblo/Sioux author and scholar, believed otherwise. “Before we decide,” she wrote in 1981,
that belief in ancient matriarchal civilization is an irrational concept born of conjecture and wish, let us adjust our perspective to match that of our foresisters. Then, when we search the memories and lore of tribal peoples, we might be able to see what eons and all kinds of institutions have conspired to hide from our eyes… The evidence is all around us. It remains for us to discover what it means.
Allen’s words opened by eyes, threw into question everything I thought I knew about the nineteenth-century women’s movement, and sent me on a wholly new course of historical discovery. The results shook the foundation of the feminist theory I had been teaching for almost 20 years.
About eight years ago, early in my new phase of research, I sat in the kitchen of Alice Papineau-Dewasenta, an Onondaga clan mother. Over iced tea, Alice described to me the unbroken custom by which traditional Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) clan mothers nominate the male chiefs who go on to represent their clans in the Grand Council. She listed the qualifications: “First, they cannot have committed a theft. Second, they cannot have committed a murder. Third, they cannot have sexually assaulted a woman.”
There goes Congress! I thought to myself. Then a wishful fantasy occurred: What if only women in the United States chose governmental representatives and, like Haudenosaunee women, alone had the right “to knock the horns off the head,” as Stanton marveled — to oust officials if they failed to represent the needs of the people unto the seventh generation?
If I am so inspired by Alice’s words to dream today, imagine how the founding feminists felt as they beheld the Iroquois world. For instance, 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 must it have meant to Gage to know of such real-life political power?
And Elizabeth Cady Stanton — called a heretic and worse for advocating divorce laws that would allow women to leave loveless and dangerous marriages — admired the model of divorce Iroquois style: “No matter how many children or whatever goods he might have in the house,” Stanton informed the National council of women convention in 1891, the “luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless to do his share of the providing” in an Iroquois marriage “might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge; and after such an order it would not be healthful for him to attempt to disobey.” What must it have meant to Stanton to know of such real-life domestic security?
A Vision of Radical Respect
While early women’s rights activists began to be successful in changing some repressive laws, an ensuing backlash in the 1870’s resulted in the criminalization of birth control and family planning; and child custody remained the right of fathers. How then, did Stanton and her daughter Harriot envision “voluntary motherhood” — a revolutionary alternative to the patriarchal family, with women controlling their own bodies and having rights to the children they bore? Well, a short distance from the Stanton home in Seneca Falls, the Seneca women practiced it.
Among the Haudenosaunee, family lineage was reckoned through mothers; no child was born a “bastard” (the concept didn’t exist); every child found a loving and welcome place in a mother’s world, surrounded by a mother’s sisters, her mother, and the men whom they married. Unmarried sons and brothers lived in this large extended family, too, until they left home to marry into another matrilocal clan. Stanton envied how American Indian women “ruled the house” and how “descent of property and children were in the female line.” Gage, while serving as president of the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1875, penned a series of admiring articles about the Iroquois for the New York Evening Post in which she wrote that the “division of power between the sexes in its Indian republic was nearly equal” while the Iroquois family structure “demonstrated woman’s superiority in power.” For these white women living in a world where marital rape was commonplace and forbidden by neither church nor state (although the Comstock Laws of the 1870’s outlawed discussion of it), Indian women’s violence-free and empowered home life must have looked like heaven.
It wasn’t simply that Euro-American women had no rights; once they married they had no legal existence. “The two shall become one and the one is the man,” preached Christianity. This canon (church) law had been turned into common law, according to which married women were legally dead; therefore married women could not have custody of their children or rights to their own property or earnings, sign contracts, sue or be sued, or vote.
Until women’s rights advocates began to change divorce laws in the last half of the nineteenth century, divorce was not allowed by church or state. Women fleeing from a violent husband could be returned to him by the police, as runaway slaves were returned to their master. Husbands could will away an unborn child, and the baby would be taken from its mother and given to its “rightful owner.” and until the Married Women’s Property Acts were slowly enacted state by state throughout the nineteen century, any money a wife earned or inherited belonged outright to her husband.
A married woman was “nameless, purseless and childless,” Stanton summed up, though she be “a woman, heiress and mother.” Calling for an end to this injustice, the early suffragists were labeled hopeless dreamers for imaging a world so clearly against nature, and worse, heretics for daring to question God’s divine plan.
From her firsthand knowledge of the Iroquois, Stanton knew that the patriarchal “women’s sphere” was not universal. When called a “savage,” for instance, for practicing natural childbirth, Stanton rebutted her critics by mocking their use of the word, pointing out that Indian women “do not suffer” giving birth — thus it was absurd to suppose “that only enlightened Christian women are cursed” by painful, difficult childbirth. Stanton, whose major work, The Woman’s Bible, was published in 1895, became convinced that the oppression of women was not divinely inspired at all. “The Bible,” she wrote,
makes woman a mere after thought in creation; the author of evil; cursed in her maternity; a subject in marriage; and claims divine authority for this fourfold bondage, this wholesale desecration of the mothers of the race. I do not believe God ever wrote or inspired such sentiments.
Gage agreed, naming the church the “bulwark” of women’s oppression. “In the name of religion,” Gage wrote in Woman, Church and State, published in 1893, “the worst crimes against humanity have ever been perpetrated.”
In the 1890’s, when the religious right tried to destroy religious freedom by placing God in the Constitution and prayer in public schools, and by pushing a conservative political agenda, Stanton and Gage (Mott had died) determined to challenge the church. Their theory held that women in indigenous cultures had respect and authority in egalitarian and woman-centered societies that worshipped a female deity. This matriarchal system was overthrown, Stanton contended, when “Christianity putting the religious weapon into man’s hand made his conquest complete.”
A common mythology held that Christianity and civilization meant progress for women, but Stanton and Gage saw through it. At the 1888 International Council of Women, they listened as Alice Fletcher, a noted white ethnographer, spoke about the greater rights of American Indian women. Fletcher made clear that these Indian women were well aware that when they became United States citizens, they would lose their rights. Fletcher quoted one woman who told her:
As an Indian woman I was free. I owned by home, my person, the work of my own hands, and my children should never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law.
Fletcher also quoted an Indian man who reproached white men: “Your laws show how little your men care for their women. The wife is nothing of herself.” He was not alone in chastising white men for their domination of women. A Tuscarora chief, Elia Johnson, wiring 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.” Today, try as I might, I cannot begin to imagine how such Iroquois men’s radical respect for women’s lives must have sounded to early feminists’ ears.
A Vision of Responsibilities
A few years ago I was invited to lecture at the annual Elizabeth Cady Stanton birthday tea in Seneca Falls with Audrey Shenandoah, the Onondaga nation Deer clan mother. A crowd of my feminist contemporaries packed the elegant, century-old hotel, and I spoke of my deep gratitude for the profound influence of the Iroquois on early feminists’ vision of women’s rights.
Than Audrey talked matter-of-factly about the responsibilities of Haudenosaunee women in their system of gender balance. Iroquois women continue to have the responsibility of nominating, counseling, and keeping in office the male chief who represents the clan in the grand council. In the six nations of the Iroquois confederacy, she explained, Haudenosaunee women have worked with the men to successfully guard their sovereign political status against persistent attempts to turn them into United Stated citizens. In Audrey’s direct and simple telling, the social power of the Haudenosaunee women seemed almost unremarkable — “We have always had these responsibilities,” she said. I caught my breath again, remembering that radical suffragists also knew such women who lived their vision.
My feminist terminology, I realized, had revealed my cultural bias. Out of habit I had referred to women’s empowerment as women’s “rights.” But for Iroquois women who have maintained many of their traditional ways despite two centuries of white America’s attempts to “civilize and Christianize” them, the concept of women’s “rights” actually has little meaning. to the Haudenosaunee, it is simply their way of life. Their egalitarian relationships and their political authority are a reality that — like my foresisters — I still but dream.
Mother Earth Does Not Revolve Around the Son: An Afterward
I arrive, hurried, at the home of Ethel, a friend with whom I work. We have exactly an hour to meet, squeezed into a tight travel schedule. After pleasantries we get down to business, moving along at a smooth clip, and it looks as if we will finish on time when suddenly her son enters. A strapping 17-year-old, he fills the room with his presence. Ethel beams at him and hangs on his every word as he describes his teachers’ deadlines, clean uniform needs, other mundane details of his day. Virginia Woolf got it right: His mother’s admiring gaze reflects him twice life size. He never acknowledges my presence, she doesn’t introduce us, and our work is forgotten. When finally he walks out, Ethel and I scramble to tie up loose ends, some of which still dangle as I dash out the door.
Ethel is Euro-American; her son stands poised to inherit the world.
A week later I sit in my friend Jeanne’s living room, enjoyably chatting. I hear her 17-year-old son in the kitchen rattling pans, perhaps cooking or washing dishes. Minutes later he appears and places cups of tea in front of us, his gift offered unobtrusively, his demeanor without display. I look up to thank him but he is gone, his back already turned as he repairs to the kitchen. Jeanne seems not even to notice, and our conversation continues.
Jeanne is Onondaga, a Haudenosaunee, descended from the traditional, “pagan” Iroquois –those who refused to be “Christianized” and “civilized.” Her son recognized his mother, and all women, as the center of the culture.
Such sons of such mothers belonged to our foresisters’ vision, too. They are sons who learned from their fathers to respect the sovereignty of women. They are sons of a tradition in which rape and battering of women was virtually unknown until white contact.
~ This post was re-blogged from Feminist.com and brought to our attention by Jennifer Reft (@refpt). The post was written by Sally Roesch Wagner and was originally published in the On the Issues, Winter 1996.