Women Inspire 19th Century Feminists
by Sally Roesch Wagner
How did our 19th century foremothers get the vision and courage
to demand a better life when they were
surrounded by voices telling them the stifling existence they led was the only
one possible? Woman was created to be subordinate to man, the church thundered,
and science nodded its approval that God's way was nature's way as well.
"The assertion that women have always been physically inferior to men,
and consequently have always been held in a subject condition, has been universally
believed," Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. "This view has furnished
the opponents to woman's emancipation their chief arguments for holding her
in bondage... "
With this universal view of women in place, one might wonder how Stanton and
other early feminists were inspired to imagine the possibility of a more equal
society. That inspiration came from contemporary women who in fact lived very
different lives from theirs, the women of the six Iroquois nations - Seneca,
Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora - the Haudenosaunee, as they
Lucretia Mott saw this world in practice when she and her husband visited the
Seneca in the summer of 1848. She watched women who had equal responsibilities
with men in all aspects of their lives - family, spiritual, government, economic.
At this time the Seneca women were deeply involved in the decision of whether
or not to drop their traditional clan system of government and adopt the constitutional
form insisted upon by the Quakers. While the Cattaraugus Seneca finally did
accept the United States model, they refused to accept the element of male dominance.
They placed in their constitution that no treaty would be valid without the
approval of three-fourths of the "mothers of the nation."
With this in mind, Mott traveled to visit friends in western New York where
they planned, and held, the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls.
Beyond equal suffrage, Stanton marveled that "the women were the great
power among the clan," and "the original nomination of the chiefs
also always rested with the women." The clan mother had the authority to
nominate, hold in office and remove the representative of her clan, Stanton
Matilda Joslyn Gage, Stanton's equally brilliant contemporary, described the
governmental structure in more detail. "Division of power between the sexes
in this Indian republic was nearly equal. Although the principal chief of the
confederacy was a man, descent ran through the female line, the sister of the
chief possessing the power of nominating his successor."
Gage wrote that the U.S. form of government was borrowed from that of the Six
Nations, and thus "the modern world [is] indebted for its first conception
of inherent rights, natural equality of condition, and the establishment of
a civilized government upon this basis" to the Iroquois.
The movement theoreticians, Stanton and Gage, came to believe that every existing
institution of western "civilization" - family, capitalism, church
and state - rested on the oppression of women, and each would have to be destroyed
in their existing form before women would be free. They knew these institutions
were neither inherent nor natural, for they had seen an alternative in action.
While "civilized" women pledged to obey their husbands upon marriage,
among Haudenosaunee women "usually the females ruled the house," Stanton
wrote. "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
Divorce, Iroquois style, must have looked like a vision to Stanton, who had
been called a heretic for arguing that women should have the right to leave
loveless or dangerous marriages. Women had no right to their children under
the laws of patriarchal Christianity, while "among the greater number of
the American aborigines the descent of property and children were in the female
line," Stanton wrote.
This model, of indigenous women living in a world in which they had status,
authority, and dignity, gave our feminist foremothers a vision of how they could
transform their world, along with the sure knowledge that it could be done without
upsetting either nature or God.
Sally is the Executive Director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation in Fayetteville, New York and an adjunct faculty member at Syracuse University. She can be reached at email@example.com. This article was originally published in the Summer 1999 issue of National NOW Times.
The Haudenosaunee and the US Women's Rights Movement
Jeanne Shenandoah and Sally Roesch Wagner
Tuesday, March 7, 7 pm
Syracuse Stage, 820 E. Genesee St.
Part of, "Onondaga Land Rights and Our Common
Future," a collaborative educational series bringing together the
CNY community, SU, and SUNY ESF.
Information: Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, 472-5478,