What Women’s Suffrage Owes to Indigenous Culture
It’s been 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment secured voting rights for women—sort of. In She Votes: How U.S. Women Won Suffrage, and What Happened Next, author Bridget Quinn and 100 female artists survey the complex history of the struggle for women’s rights, including racial segregation and accommodation to White supremacy. They celebrate the hitherto under-recognized efforts by women of color to secure voting rights for all Americans, and BIPOC-led, diverse, and intersectional movements for equality.
In this excerpt, Quinn describes how White leaders of the women’s suffrage movement were influenced by Indigenous political structures and culture, and how some of this influence took place around Seneca Falls in upstate New York, site of the first U.S. convention for women’s rights.
It’s an under-known fact that the “revolutionary” concept of a democratic union of discrete states did not spring fully formed from the Enlightenment pens of the Founding Fathers, like sage Athena from the head of Zeus. No, the idea of “united states” sprang from the Haudenosaunee, collective name for six tribes that comprise the so-called (mostly by non-Natives) Iroquois Confederacy: the Seneca, Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Tuscarora nations. Should you doubt this, check out Congressional Resolution 331, adopted in 1988 by the 100th Congress of the United States, which says as much. It’s worth noting that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy still thrives today, likely the world’s oldest participatory democracy.
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What a shame, then, that in addition to a model of an indivisible democratic union, the Founding Fathers didn’t also see in Haudenosaunee culture a new (to Europeans) and better model of gender parity.
Instead the laws of the new nation regarding women could hardly have been worse. Most of America’s new legal system came from English common law (so much for rebellion). This meant, for example, that a married woman had zero rights as an individual. To wit: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.”
As the grown-up Elizabeth Cady Stanton would write in the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments: “He had made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.” A married woman in 19th century America (and later) had no autonomy over her own body. There was no rape inside of marriage and beating your wife—within “reason”—was totally within the letter of the law. Wives being so often in need of moral correction and being quite shockingly willful and so on.
Furthermore, a married woman had no claim to personal possessions or money, including anything she brought into the marriage or any money she might somehow earn. She also had no claims of custody for her children in the unlikely case of divorce. In fact, her children could be taken from her by her husband at any time—for any reason, or for no reason at all. She could not sign a contract, sit on a jury, bring a lawsuit, or leave her possessions to anyone but her husband at the time of her actual, physical death.
You might think single women had it better, and they sort of did. Unmarried women were at least autonomous human beings in the eyes of the law. But how to stay single? Not only did family, religion, and society all pressure women to marry, but there was the thorny problem of survival if you didn’t. Education was mostly off limits, and professions where you could make an adequate wage certainly were. In the few occupations open to (single) women, they were paid far less than their male counterparts (by which I mean an even greater disparity than today).
The “choices” were nuts, to put it mildly. Choosing marriage meant giving up the self, plus giving birth to an average of seven children, with all the toil and heartache that entailed (childhood mortality was commonplace). Most married women were pregnant or nursing for between 20 to 25 years of their adulthoods. Many died in childbirth. Many others died young, their health worn out.
Unmarried women, meanwhile, were dependent on their parents or brothers or married sisters. So: no money, no sex, no real independence. Single women were likely to end up as nursemaids to sick relations and elderly parents, and/or de facto nannies raising their siblings’ children. Their social status could not have been lower.
All of the above was worse for poor women, who—married or unmarried—needed work, could hardly get it, and when they did were not fairly paid. And this may be obvious, but things were hardest for Black women, even free Black women.
One area where married and unmarried American women of all economic strata and races had parity was in voting. They couldn’t. Because women themselves had no voice. Only men could write new laws that might allow women to come out from under their control. You see the problem.
But I digress. I’d started with geography and why Seneca Falls, though a small town even by 19th century standards, was the ideal location for independent-minded women to make their stand.
For the Seneca and all the tribes of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, power resided with the people. All the people. Norway—though admittedly awesome—may have been the first sovereign nation to “give” women the right to vote, but Haudenosaunee women always had it.
Think of that little girl who was Elizabeth Cady, raised in upstate New York among the Haudenosaunee. She knew from much personal experience that there was such a thing on Earth as women with rights.
The story of a White woman seeing a Native woman sell a horse appears in a few 19th century accounts. In March 1888, ethnologist Alice Fletcher told a crowd at the first International Council of Women that she once saw a woman give away a horse. And according to Fletcher, when the woman was asked if her husband would be angry, her “eyes danced” and “breaking into a peal of laughter, she hastened to tell the story to the others gathered in her tent, and I became the target of many merry eyes. Laughter and contempt met my explanation of the white man’s hold upon his wife’s property.”
If this sounds suspiciously like urban legend (rural legend?), here’s Emma Borglum, wife of sculptor Solon Borglum (whose brother Gutzon carved Mount Rushmore), writing on her 1891 honeymoon in South Dakota: “One day I showed some astonishment at seeing a young Indian woman, in the absence of her husband, give two horses to a friend. She looked at me very coldly and said, ‘These horses are mine.’ I excused myself saying that in my country a woman would consult her husband before giving such expensive presents. The woman answered proudly, ‘I would not be a white woman!’ ”
American women from New York to the Dakotas had eyes to see. And they saw that Native women had what they did not: agency, property, power.
So Seneca women likely inspired a handful of White women to take up the mantle of women’s rights at Seneca Falls. But first those White ladies embraced abolitionism.
The 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention was held in London. Some eight or so American women journeyed across the pond—with a large contingent of men—to represent the American Anti-Slavery Society abroad.
On hearing of the women’s plan to participate, the British were appalled—even after it was pointed out that, hello, the British Empire from Canada to India to Australia was ruled by someone named Queen Victoria. Unmoved, British organizers pointed out that the Queen was not in attendance for a reason. She’d sent her husband, Prince Albert, to voice her deeply held antislavery views. Like the Queen herself, American women could quite properly have men speak for them.
Newlywed Elizabeth Cady Stanton was there with her husband, abolitionist journalist Henry Stanton. The fact that attending an antislavery convention overseas was their honeymoon tells you what kind of young people they were. In addition to not completely erasing her maiden name after getting hitched, Cady Stanton plucked an arrow from the Quakers’ quiver by omitting the onerous phrase “obey” from her wedding vows. “I obstinately refused to obey one with whom I supposed I was entering into an equal relation,” she later wrote. Since her formative childhood among the Haudenosaunee, she’d become a headstrong, forthright young woman, one understandably excited to join an international antislavery crusade. In London she expected radical company energized for change but was instead met with disgust. Given the opportunity to raise up women for an important fight, American clergy who’d disembarked before her had instead spent their first days in London “busily engaged in fanning the English prejudice into active hostility against the admission of these women into the Convention.” After much eloquent debate, 90 percent of the worldwide delegates voted against women’s participation in the convention.
But! So-called chivalry prevailed. In recognition of the fact that these determined American women had indeed sailed across the Atlantic, a somewhat perilous voyage filled with discomfort, time, and expense, in support of a noble cause, representing half the world’s population—in consideration of all this, the delegates of the World Anti-Slavery Convention would allow women to be seated in a small space off the main hall behind a curtain so that they might listen in.
You’re welcome, ladies! Deep bow, flourishing hand gesture, followed by patting self on back. …
This was the fuel 25-year-old Cady Stanton would carry with her to Seneca Falls: “Burning indignation filled my soul.”
In this way, striving to end slavery illuminated another oppression.
Disgusted, Cady Stanton turned to the most renowned American woman at the convention, Lucretia Mott, 20 years her senior, for guidance. Years later she recalled Mott as “the greatest wonder of the world—a woman who thought and had opinions of her own.” Mott was both a prominent abolitionist and a celebrated orator. A description that fit almost no other woman of the day. Women speaking in public was as unseemly as prostitution—simply not done by the right kind—and crowds sometimes tried to stop women from talking. Mott herself was often a target, and a mob once even threatened to burn her home. It’s worth saying that no part of this was unique to America. As British classicist Mary Beard writes, “When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.”
Crucially, Mott was a Quaker—another essential piece of the women’s rights puzzle. The Quakers were sort of religious anarchists, throwing bombs into the hallowed mores of American society. In addition to not asking brides to “obey,” Quakers welcomed women educators, even women preachers. Mott was herself a minister, which came in handy when clergy held up scripture as proof of God’s male chauvinism. Master of theological jujitsu, Mott handily dismantled such arguments.
She was also as committed as they come. Like many Quakers, she and her husband, James, were part of the Free Produce Movement, which meant they wouldn’t use anything abetted by slave labor, meaning no sugar and no cotton, among other things. I’d say rum, but they were temperance activists, too. You know that line in The Wild Ones when someone asks Marlon Brando’s character what he’s rebelling against and he answers, “What’ve you got?” Lucretia Mott was like that. She’d take on anything. Or, almost.
Mott’s ministry and her speeches against slavery to mixed audiences of Quakers and non-, men and women, made her one of the most famous and admired women of her time. When the formerly enslaved world-class orator Frederick Douglass first heard Mott speak, he said, “I saw before me no more a woman, but a glorified presence, bearing a message of light and love.” And “whenever and wherever I have listened to her, my heart has always been made better and my spirit raised by her words.”
In London, seasoned tactician Lucretia Mott and youthful warrior Elizabeth Cady Stanton found each other. Together they plotted revolution. Literally. According to Cady Stanton’s History of Woman Suffrage, she and Mott didn’t waste much time lollygagging behind a curtain, but “walked … arm in arm afterwards” and “resolved to hold a convention as soon as we returned home.” That is, a convention for the rights of women.
It would take eight years.
Excerpt from She Votes: How U.S. Women Won Suffrage, and What Happened Next by Bridget Quinn, (Chronicle Books, 2020) appears by permission of the publisher.
Bridget Quinn is author of the award-winning Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order). A graduate of New York University's Institute of Fine Arts and a regular contributor to online arts magazine Hyperallergic, Quinn is a sought-after speaker on women and art, an avid sports fan and an Iron(wo)man triathlete.