Suffrage leaders Matilda Joslyn Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were aware that, within the ancient Iroquois confederacy, women had responsibility for the land, selecting the hereditary chiefs, and making final decisions on issues of war and peace. While men hunted, women were the agriculturalists and determined food distribution.
United States women, on the other hand, came from a religious tradition that ordered them to keep silent in the churches, obey their husbands, and stay in the home. The tradition gained legal standing when canon (church) law became the basis for common law. Women—once they married and became one with their husbands—ceased to have a legal existence. They lost their property, wages, and children to their husbands, who could dispose of any of them as they wished, even willing away unborn children. Women could not vote, being under the authority of their fathers or husbands, who represented them in the political arena.
Told by church, government, and society that woman's subordination to man was divinely inspired, natural, and legal, leaders of the nineteenth-century woman's rights movement took courage and vision from Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) women who had political, social, economic, and religious equality with the men of their nations.
How did the suffragists know about the Haudenosaunee? While they lived in very different cultural, economic, spiritual, and political worlds during the early 1800s, Euro-American settlers in central and western New York were, at most, one person away from direct familiarity with people of the six nations: Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Tuscarora. The Haudenosaunee continued their ancient practice of adopting individuals of other nations, and many European-American residents of New York (including Matilda Joslyn Gage) carried adoptive Indian names. Friendships and visiting were common between Natives and non-Natives. Newspapers routinely printed news from Iroquois country. Each local history book began with a lengthy account of the first inhabitants of the land. Three leaders of the woman's rights movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Lucretia Mott, were among those who had a personal connection to the Haudenosaunee.
Lucretia Mott and her husband James were members of the Indian Committee of the New York and Philadelphia Friends (Quaker) Yearly Meetings, which provided schooling and support for the Seneca at Cattaraugus. The Motts visited the Cattaraugus community in June 1848, where they observed the Seneca women plan the strawberry ceremony and take part in the deliberations over a possible change in the Seneca form of governance. The month after their visit, Mott organized the first woman's rights convention with Stanton and three Quaker friends in nearby Seneca Falls.
"I received the name of Ka-ron-ien-ha-wi, or 'Sky Carrier,' or She who holds the sky. It is a clan name of the wolves," wrote Matilda Joslyn Gage (Wagner, 2001, 32). Gage, who was recognized as the third member of the suffrage leadership "triumvirate" with Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, wrote about the superior position of Haudenosaunee women while supporting Native sovereignty and treaty rights.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton's second cousin, Peter Skenandoah Smith, was named for an Oneida friend of the family, Chief Skenandoah. On visits to Peter's brother, Gerrit Smith, Stanton frequently encountered Oneida guests. In addition, her nearest Seneca Falls neighbor, Oren Tyler, came from Onondaga, where he "had friendly dealings" with the people there and was adopted by them. He spoke their language fluently, and parties of Onondagans passing through Seneca Falls to sell their beadwork and baskets "sought out their 'brother,' as they called Capt. Tyler, who always befriended them" (Wagner, 2001, 32).
Gage and Stanton, the major theorists of the woman's suffrage movement radical wing (the National Woman Suffrage Association [NWSA]), became increasingly disenchanted with the inability and unwillingness of Western institutions to change and embrace the liberty of not just women, but all disfranchised groups. They became students of the Haudenosaunee and found a cosmological world-view that they believed to be superior to the patriarchal one of the European-American–dominated nation in which they lived. They read Lewis Henry Morgan, whose League of the Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee is often credited with being the first anthropology text, but he was only one of many sources used by Gage. Describing the matrilineal system, Gage cited "Lafitte and other Jesuit missionary writers" along with "[Henry Rowe] Schoolcraft, [George] Catlin, [Joshua V. H.] Clark, Hubert Bancroft of the Pacific coast, and many students of Indian life and customs" (Wagner, 2001, 35).
Personal and scholarly knowledge of their Haudenosaunee friends and neighbors was reinforced by the daily news. These suffragists regularly read newspaper accounts of everyday Iroquois activities—the sports scores when the Onondaga faced the Mohawks at lacrosse; a Quaker council called to ask Seneca women to leave their fields and work in the home (as the Friends said God commanded); and a condolence ceremony to mourn a chief's death and to set in place a new one. The average nineteenth-century upstate New York newspaper reader was assumed to have the kind of knowledge of Iroquois history and government that today is possessed, among Euro-Americans, only by scholars.
New York newspaper readers, like Stanton and Gage, discovered from printed interviews with white teachers at various Indian nations the wonderful sense of freedom and safety felt by Haudenosaunee women, because rape was virtually nonexistent on the reservations. These front-page stories admonished big city dandies to learn a thing or two from Native men's example, so that European-American women too could walk the streets without fear. An April 10, 1883, description of life on the Onondaga nation for a white woman was published in the Skaneateles Democrat, a paper to which Gage was a sometime contributor:
It shows the remarkable security of living on an Indian Reservation, that a solitary woman can walk about for miles, at any hour of the day or night, in perfect safety. Miss Remington often starts off, between eight and nine in the evening, lantern in one hand and alpenstock in the other, and a parcel of supplies strung from her shoulder, to walk for a mile or more up the hillsides (Beauchamp, 1883).
Miss Remington had long been in charge of the mission house at Onondaga. Adopted into the Snipe clan of the Onondaga nation, she was given the name Ki-a-was-say, or "A New Word."
Harriet Maxwell Converse, a friend of Gage's who wrote numerous articles about the Haudenosaunee for the New York papers, published this account:
Rev. M. F. Trippe, long a missionary on the Tonawanda, Cattaraugus and Alleghany reservations, said to me:—"Tell the readers of the Herald that there is absolutely no profanity, no 'swear words' in the Native language of these people. The use of bad language, like the use of liquor they learn from the whites, but they do not practice either as much as their white neighbors. They have a sincere respect for women—their own women as well as those of the whites. I have seen young white women going unprotected about parts of the reservations in search of botanical specimens best found there, and Indian men helping them. Where else in the land can a girl be safe from insult from rude men whom she does not know (Wagner, 2001, 44–45).
Just as feminists 100 years later learned from Margaret Mead's research among the Arapesh that rape is not universal, so did the suffragists learn from their research, newspapers, and neighbors that men in some societies do not rape women. They understood that rape is socially structured behavior. Violence against women had its origins, they analyzed, in the absolute authority—religiously and legally sanctioned—that husbands had over wives and men had over women.
Attorney Carrie Burnham, a coworker of Gage and Stanton in the National Woman Suffrage Association, explained:
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the legal existence of the woman is "merged in that of her husband." He is her "baron," or "lord," bound to supply her with shelter, food, clothing and medicine and is entitled to her earnings—the use and custody of her person which he may seize wherever he may find it (Wagner, 2001, 73).
One implication of the legal nonexistence of married women was, English Chief Justice Matthew Hale pronounced in 1736, that husbands could not be held legally responsible for raping their wives. Subsequent rape laws in the states were based on this legal sanction of marital rape, rape generally being defined as the forcible penetration of the body of a woman, not the wife of the perpetrator. When federal legislation in the 1870s put authority for determining what was "obscene" in the United States in the hands of religious fundamentalist Anthony Comstock, Stanton and Gage saw allies like Moses Harmon imprisoned for simply raising the issue of marital rape in his newspaper, Lucifer the Lightbearer.
Euro-American men had the spiritual responsibility to enforce the obedience of their wives, and the legal system upheld a husband's right to "moderate correction," since he was responsible for her behavior. A North Carolina court ruled in 1864 that the state should not interfere in cases of domestic chastisement unless "permanent injury or excessive violence" was involved. By contrast, Haudenosaunee men were spiritually and socially prohibited from striking women—be they mother, wife, or child.
Alice Fletcher, suffragist and early ethnographer, addressed this issue at the International Council of Women, held by the NWSA in 1888. With the leaders of the woman's rights movement from around the world gathered for the first time, she shared the concern of her Native women acquaintances that, once they came under U.S. law, they would lose the traditional protection they had against male violence. Traditionally, the men of a woman's clan family would punish any man—husbands included—who violated or beat her. Under U.S. law, the brother who defended his sister "would himself become liable to the law and suffer for his championship," Fletcher worried (Wagner, 2001, 66).
Husbands also had absolute control of their offspring—even to having the legal authority of naming a guardian other than the mother for an unborn child in the event of his death. Gage documented such a case and contrasted the Euro-American mother's lack of say in the lives of her children with that of Haudenosaunee women, whose children followed her line:
So fully to this day is descent reckoned through the mother, that blue-eyed, fair-haired children of white fathers are numbered in the tribe and receive both from state and nation their portion of the yearly dole paid to Indian tribes. The veriest pagan among the Iroquois, the renowned and important Keeper of the Wampum, and present sole interpreter of the Belts which give the most ancient and secret history of this confederation, is Ephriam Webster, descended from a white man, who, a hundred or more years since, became affiliated through marriage with an Indian woman, as a member of the principal nation of the Iroquois, the Onondagas (Wagner, 2001, 69–70).
Not just the Haudenosaunees, but generally, Gage asserted, Indians of North America trace descent in the female line. One implication of this, Gage's friend Harriet Maxwell Converse wrote, was that "in a divorce or separation, the children are taken by the mother, the family descent being from the maternal line."
In a speech before the National Council of Women in 1891, Elizabeth Cady Stanton celebrated Haudenosaunee-style divorce, pointing to it as a model:
Usually the females ruled the house. The stores were in common; but woe to the luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless to do his share of the providing. No matter how many children, or whatever goods he might have in the house, he 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. The house would be too hot for him; and unless saved by the intercession of some aunt or grandmother he must retreat to his own clan or go away to start a new matrimonial alliance in some other (Grinde and Johansen, 1991, 221).
Stanton was especially sensitive to the issue of divorce. Among suffragists, she was uniquely courageous in advocating that the laws be changed to allow women the right to leave unacceptable marriages. For this stand she was labeled an infidel, since traditional Christianity generally held at the time that marriage was a covenant with God that no woman had a right to break, even if her life was in danger from a violent husband.
Underlying female autonomy among the Haudenosaunee nations was economic authority. Women, the creators, were the farmers, responsible for everything in Mother Earth, whereas men were responsible for hunting and everything on the surface of the land in the gender balance at the foundation of Haudenosaunee culture. Haudenosaunee women were extraordinary agriculturalists, Gage reported. In a published newspaper report on the 1875 Onondaga County Indian Fair, she noted that:
Forty-eight kinds of beans were on exhibition . . . this confederacy, with its wonderful government and customs and its fixed dwelling places, had in its own steps of progress developed a science of agriculture. Corn, beans, potatoes, and plants of the gourd family, including squash and a species of pumpkin, and tobacco, were all regularly cultivated, and together with vast quantity of nuts, were stored in pits or cellars for winter use (Gage, 1875).
Gage recognized that Native women farmers used methods unknown to white men.
Their method of farming was entirely different from our own. In olden Iroquois tillage there was no turning the sod with a plough to which were harnessed a cow and a woman, as is seen today in Christian Germany; but the ground was literally "tickled with a hoe" and it "laughed with a harvest." Corn hills three or four times larger than those seen to-day remained in use successive years, and when the country was first settled the appearance of those numerous little mounds created great wonder. Slightly scratched with a stick or piece of bone, maize was there planted, and but little labor attended its cultivation (Wagner, 2001, 53).
Married women in the United States, by state laws, were denied the right to control and possess their own property; it passed to their husbands upon the words "I do." It took tremendous political effort for nineteenth-century feminists slowly to change these state laws and claim the right to economic independence. Alice Fletcher at the 1888 International Council of Women informed her audience that the situation was completely different, not only for Native women but also for children. Everyone—men, women, and children—had their own possessions that no other family member could control. "A wife is as independent in the use of her possessions as is the most independent man in our midst," she declared, telling this story:
When I was living with the Indians, my hostess . . . one day gave away a very fine horse. I was surprised, for I knew there had been no family talk on the subject, so I asked: "Will your husband like to have you give the horse away?" Her eyes danced, and, breaking into a peal of laughter, she hastened to tell the story to the other women gathered in the tent, and I became the target of many merry eyes. I tried to explain how a white woman would act, but laughter and contempt met my explanation of the white man's hold upon his wife's property (Grinde and Johansen, 1991, 232).
Economic independence and authority, control of their property, rights to their bodies and children, and rights to divorce when a marriage became untenable, the ensured protection of their relatives, the spiritual authority with the responsibility of planning ceremonies—these were privileges Haudenosaunee women took for granted. They assumed, until they met European-American women, that this was the natural, universal condition of women. And they assumed that their political authority was a reality for all women.
The cultural contrast was dramatic. Women citizens of the United States, until they began to organize and slowly—school board by municipality by state—accomplished the Herculean task of creating a political voice, had no say in their own lives, from family to country. While Haudenosaunee women had full participation in their government, European-American women faced state laws making it a crime for them to vote, and Susan B. Anthony was arrested, tried, and found guilty for exercising her right of citizenship. They did not gain recognition of their inherent right to the ballot—in a republic based on the consent of the governed—until 1920. Haudenosaunee women, on the other hand, had possessed a political voice equal to men since the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy, before Columbus arrived on these shores. They called their own councils and determined their own issues, which were then heard by the grand council. The chiefs who represented the clans in council were nominated by the women and, as Stanton told the National Council of Women in 1891, "They did not hesitate, when occasion required, 'to knock off the horns,' as it was technically called, from the head of a chief and send him back to the ranks of the warriors" (Wagner, 2001, 82). The clan mother alone had the authority to remove the chief, as Stanton understood. Women were the great power among the clan, as everywhere else, she maintained. Mott wrote about listening to speeches of their chiefs, when she visited the Seneca in 1848.
"Division of power between the sexes in this Indian republic was nearly equal," Gage enthused, and it wasn't just Haudenosaunee women who had a political voice: "among some tribes women enjoy almost the whole legislative authority and in others a prominent share." Haudenosaunee women also have the final say in whether their men would go to war. Writing in her capacity as president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, Gage told readers of The New York Evening Post in 1875: "Its women exercised controlling power in peace and war, forbidding at will its young braves to enter battle, and often determining its terms of peace" (Wagner, 2001, 48, 71).
Henry Schoolcraft, one of Gage's sources, wrote in 1847, that the war authority of women "exists to-day as incontestably as it did centuries ago. They were entrusted with the power to propose a cessation of arms. They were literally peace-makers" (Schoolcraft, 1847, n.p.). When the Wolf Clan adopted Gage in 1893, her Mohawk sister told her that the Council of Matrons would decide "as to my having a voice in the Chieftainship" (Gage, 1893). How amazing this must have been to a woman who went to trial the same year for voting in a school board election in her upstate New York village. Considered for decision-making authority in her adopted nation, she was arrested for voting in her own nation—and lost her case.
Alice Fletcher summarized the contrast between Native and non-Native women for suffragists in her 1888 International Council of Women speech in this way:
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 off as an Indian woman than under white law." Men have said: "Your laws show how little your men care for their women. The wife is nothing of herself. She is worth little but to help a man to have one hundred and sixty acres. . . . She has fallen under the edge of our laws" (Fletcher, 1888, 238).
Sally Roesch Wagner
Beauchamp, Mary Elizabeth. 1883. Letter to the Editor. Skaneateles Democrat, April 10. Beauchamp File, Syracuse, NY: Onondaga Historical Association.; Fletcher, Alice. 1888. "The Legal Conditions of Indian Women." Report of the International Council of Women, Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association... 1888. Washington, DC: Rufus H. Darby.; Gage, Matilda Joslyn. 1875. "The Onondaga Indians: Their Recent Agricultural Fair—How the Ancient Iroquois Tilled the Ground—Further Evidence of the Importance of Women Among the Allied Tribes of New York State—The Origin of Hasty Pudding." New York Evening Post, 3 November 11. Reprinted in Fayetteville, New York, Weekly Recorder.; Gage, Matilda Joslyn. 1893. "To My Dear Helen[daughter]." December 11. Matilda Joslyn Gage Collection, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College. Cambridge, MA.; Grinde, Donald A., Jr., and Bruce E. Johansen. 1991. Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA American Indian Studies Center.; Schoolcraft, Henry R. 1847. Notes on the Iroquois. New York: Bartlett & Welford.; Wagner, Sally R. 2001. Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists. Summertown, TN: Native Voices.