I had been haunted by a question to the past, a mystery of feminist history:
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.
Then I realized I had been skimming over the source of their inspiration without noticing it. They caught a glimpse of the possibility of freedom because they knew women who lived liberated lives, women who had always possessed rights beyond the suffragists' wildest imagination—Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) women.
It is difficult for Americans today to picture the extended period in history when 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 Haudenosaunee 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 “new” 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 was first to shed the 20 pounds of clothing that, fashion dictated, should hang from a white woman's waist. 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 her Native American friends.
While white women were barred from most employment, Gage knew Onondaga women who farmed corn, beans, and squash. 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. In the summer of 1848 Mott spent a month at Cattaraugus witnessing women sharing in discussion and decision-making as the Seneca nation reorganized its governmental structure.
Until women's rights advocates began changing state laws, a husband in the US 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 made such behavior unthinkable. 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 Haudenosaunee 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 Haudenosaunee marriage “might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge.”
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.”
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 church canon 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. A woman fleeing from a violent husband could be returned to him by the police, as runaway slaves were returned to their master. A husband could will away an unborn child, and the baby would be taken from its mother and given to its “rightful owner.” Until the Married Women's Property Acts were slowly enacted state by state throughout the 19th century, any money a wife earned or inherited belonged outright to her husband.
An ethnographer, Alice Fletcher, speaking to the Internation Council of Women in 1888, 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, Elias Johnson, writing about the absence of rape among Haudenosaunee 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.”
About 15 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 Haudenosaunee clan mothers continue to nominate the male chiefs who represent their clans in the Grand Council. Women have always had a full voice in all decisions in this government which rules by
consensus, and clan mothers have the responsibility to remove the chief they have put in place if he is not serving in the interests of the people.
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.
Editor's note: Haudenosaunee, the People of the Longhouse, is how the Iroquois historically referred to themselves. The term “Iroquois” was the name given by European settlers.