How the Iroquois Confederacy Inspired the US Women’s Rights Movement

The women’s rights movement was one of the first steps towards equal rights. Many are surprised that it was inspired by an Indigenous society years ahead of its time.

Apr 3, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History
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The Iroquois Confederacy was one of the strongest alliances of its time. Militarily, politically, and economically, the group of five, later six, nations, dominated their homelands. Their unique society not only influenced their own lives but served as an example to the European settlers who were making North America their home. Not only did the Constitution of the Confederacy inspire the American Founding Fathers as they wrote their own, but their society became a key model for the women’s rights movement in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

 

Who Were the Iroquois?

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The Haudenosaunee had a collective government where men gathered for discourse, but women controlled their presence there. Source: History Hustle

 

The Iroquois Confederacy, who call themselves the Haudenosaunee, was a group of five nations considered by many historians to be the oldest participatory democracy in the world. Originating in the area that is now New York State, the Haudenosaunee existed for centuries before the arrival of European settlers on the American continent. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy comprised the Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes. The Tuscarora joined the alliance in 1722. While the tribes are distinctly different, they do share many cultural similarities, including language. In fact, the name “Iroquois” refers to the language family that is spoken by these tribes and others.

 

The Haudenosaunee have played a large role in the Euro-centric history of the United States, possessing a central role in the fur trade that economically developed the early colonies, participating in the French and Indian War, and splitting to side with both the British and the Patriots during the American Revolution. From the seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century, they were incredibly powerful, but the schisms that developed during the Revolution would weaken them significantly. Regardless, the Haudenosaunee persevered, and modern figures place Haudenosaunee numbers at over 200,000 in the United States and Canada.

 

Women Leading the Way

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A young Haudenosaunee woman. Source: Pinterest

 

For at least 1,000 years, Haudenosaunee women have had a voice in political affairs within their nation in North America. While there are male chiefs within the six tribes, they are selected (and removed from office if necessary) by the women of the tribe.

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The Haudenosaunee are a matrilineal society, meaning they are governed by women. Heritage passes through the women in the family, and living arrangements are centered around a wife’s family. The Haudenosaunee society was divided into clans, each headed by a clan mother. The clan mother was responsible for making decisions relevant to her clan, including ensuring that everyone was fed and cared for appropriately.

 

Clan mothers chose men to serve on Confederacy-wide councils, where the six nations would meet to discuss matters that concerned the alliance as a whole and make group decisions when necessary. They also had final say over the Confederacy’s decisions, with general votes of the populace taken as well. In the seventeenth century, this power extended to decisions about military action, as Haudenosaunee women staged the first known feminist rebellion in North America.

 

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Savagery to Civilization by Joseph Keppler, 1914. Source: New York Heritage

 

In this movement, they used their powers over other aspects of Haudenosaunee life to gain veto power over military decisions in order to promote peace. The men who were appointed to hold office within the Confederacy had to follow strict moral guidelines and make good choices for their people. They could not have committed a crime, been a warrior (the goal was to preserve the peace), or ever abused a woman. Abuse and rape were virtually unheard of, as women were treated as sacred, a mutual creator of life along with the Earth. In the rare instance it did happen, the offender would be punished severely by banishment or even death. Unlike white women, Haudenosaunee women had control over their own property and belongings.

 

A Different World

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Society required women to play specific roles in nineteenth-century America. Source: Classroom

 

In the nineteenth century, white women in the United States were living under polar opposite conditions to Haudenosaunee women. In the eyes of the law, married women were essentially dead: they had no rights, could not own property, and did not even have control over their bodies, as men had the legal right to rape and beat their wives, providing they didn’t leave permanent injury.

 

If women worked, which few married ones did, her wages went to her husband, and she could not own property. Mothers did not even have control over their children. In fact, if a husband were to pass away, he could leave his unborn or living children to someone besides his wife in his will! Single women were not much better off, having no say in family decisions and no right to vote, serve on a jury, or even write their own will.

 

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Alice Fletcher in 1899 with an interpreter (left) and Chief Joseph (center) of the Nez Perce, photo by Jane Gay. Source: Inland 360

 

Alice Fletcher, a women’s rights activist who studied Native American culture, observed these stark differences while visiting an Indigenous woman in the late nineteenth century. She later retold the story at an 1888 meeting of the International Council of Women, bringing the inspiring example of women’s abilities within Indigenous nations to life for many American women for the first time.

 

She had observed the Indigenous woman selling a horse and asked her how her husband would feel about her doing so. The woman laughed, not understanding what Fletcher meant. When Fletcher explained how white men had control of their wife’s property, the Indigenous woman and her friends were shocked. In her worldview, the horse was hers, and she had the right to sell it without consulting her husband. Fletcher recalled receiving similar responses from other Native women when she explained white women’s social status among men. Hearing about this freedom gave Fletcher’s fellow suffragists the inspiration they needed to continue fighting for their rights and a goal to focus on.

 

Animating Activists

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Matilda Gage, 1871. Source: Buffalo-Toronto Public Media

 

Matilda Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were two other notable suffragists who took up the example of the Haudenosaunee women to campaign for their cause of rights for all women. Local to the area where the Haudenosaunee lived, both women spent time with Haudenosaunee women and spent a great deal of time researching their lifestyle.

 

Gage wrote a series of articles for the New York Evening Post in which she educated the public about the Haudenosaunee legal and social structure, which split power between men and women in a way that she felt was admirable and desirable for the rest of the nation to adopt. In addition to supporting women’s rights, Gage was a supporter of Native American rights and sovereignty. In 1893, she was honorarily inducted into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation and given the name Ka-ron-ien-ha-wi, meaning “Sky Carrier.” This admitted her to the Council of Matrons, where she was able to vote in tribal matters. Ironically, this happened the same year that in the United States, she went on trial for illegally voting in a school election.

 

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Bloomers. Source: Recollections

 

Stanton’s cousin, Gerrit Smith, had a daughter, also named Elizabeth, who was inspired by local Haudenosaunee women she had become friends with. Stanton and Smith would often dine with these Oneida women at Smith’s house. Elizabeth Smith became a fashion icon when she challenged tradition by ditching her corset and the multitude of skirts that women were required to wear at the time. Instead, she began the trend of wearing loose-fitting “bloomers,” which were very similar to the leggings and long shirts worn by her Oneida friends.

 

Challenging Tradition

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Many traditional Christian teachings use Eve’s original sin as merit for the subjugation of women. Source: JW.org

 

As more women began examining the longstanding success of Haudenosaunee culture and women, it left them reflecting on their status in their own culture. A great deal of European and colonial culture in relation to femininity originated from Christianity. Religion traced the subjugation of women back to Eve and original sin in the Garden of Eden and used it as an excuse to keep women under the thumb of a masculine society.

 

Traditional Christianity held marriage as a covenant with God, meaning that women had no right to break their vows, even for their own safety. Old Testament edicts ordered women under their husband’s servility and gave them legal obligations to adhere to. Women were seen as weaker in mind and body and in need of a man to guide them. However, after observing Haudenosaunee women thriving for centuries in the wilds of America, white American women began to question whether or not they really needed to be under the protection and authority of men. Crimes against women were virtually unheard of on Native American reservations as they lived in equality with men.

 

Success?

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President Calvin Coolidge with unknown Indigenous representatives outside the White House in January 1924. Source: The Nation

 

Eventually, the causes the suffragists fought for would start to come to fruition. Women would get the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment, ratified in August of 1920. While this amendment to The Constitution legally guarantees American women the right to vote, it does not necessarily grant all American women equality in the eyes of men, the government, and the world.

 

African American women (and men) would continue to struggle to vote, particularly in some areas of the country. The Indigenous women who inspired this movement would not even be eligible to vote in some parts of the country for decades after the amendment passed. Native Americans, technically the country’s first citizens, would not even be granted citizenship in the United States until 1924, with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. It would take another forty years for each individual state to catch up with equal voting rights for all.

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By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”