In 1893, Matilda Joslyn Gage — firebrand, women’s rights activist and co-founder of the National Woman Suffrage Association — was arrested for trying to vote in a school board election upstate New York. Voting while female was illegal, and Gage went to trial. That same year, Gage was honorarily adopted into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation of the Iroquois. This meant that she would join the Council of Matrons, a decision-making body. She would have a say in who became chief.
She would, in other words, have a vote.
This election, over sixty million women turned out to vote. Regardless of how we cast our ballots, every one of us owes thanks for that right not only to early suffragists like Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, but to the Iroquois women who inspired them.
Unlike European American women of the mid-19th century, Iroquois women had tremendous political authority. Though the process of assimilation had begun, the essence of Iroquois society had remained intact. In the Iroquois Confederacy (including the Onandaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Cayuga, and later Tuscarora Nations), women participated in all major decision-making. Women had the power to veto any act of war. And women selected the chiefs.
“A man only served as leader if nominated by women, and women could call for his removal, for which there was no appeal,” says Doug George-Kanentiio, member of the Mohawk Nation and author of Iroquois Culture and Commentary, who currently serves as vice president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. Women could disqualify or remove a chief from office if he was found guilty of any one of three behaviors— murder, theft, or sexual assault. Justice was largely served by women, and a man who committed sexual assault might be banished, scarred, or sentenced to capital punishment.
“We designed political life so women had the authority over how life is preserved,” says George-Kanentiio. According to the Iroquois tradition, because women are “life givers,” they had the right to decide when life was taken. They also had control over their own bodies: Iroquois women were free to walk where they pleased without danger. Indeed, when European American women who were captured by the Iroquois were given the opportunity to return, they often preferred to stay.
Women’s authority came in part because they controlled land and food resources, says Louise McDonald (Wakerakatse), the current Bear Clan Mother of the Mohawk Nation. “Corn, beans, and squash were considered the national treasury,” she says, so being in charge of vast tracts of land meant tremendous power. Any negotiation involving land had to be approved by women. In fact, early European Americans were troubled to find Iroquois (also known as Haudenosaunee) women at treaty-signings, and asked that they be kept away. (As Oneida chief Conoghquieson explained in 1762, “It was always Custom for [women] to be present on Such Occasions, being of Much Estimation Among Us, in that we proceed from them….”)
According to Sally Roesch Wagner, a historian and women’s studies scholar, this political reality had a profound impact on early feminists like Stanton, Mott, and Gage. “They believed women’s liberation was possible because they knew liberated women, women who possessed rights beyond their wildest imagination: Haudenosaunee women.”
Not only did they absorb Iroquois culture through the media of the time — upstate New York newspapers routinely covered Iroquois news, politics, and sports — but they had direct personal encounters that allowed them to see women’s roles firsthand.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who is often credited with initiating the women’s rights movement, had frequent contact with her Iroquois neighbors in her town of Seneca Falls, where Onondaga people frequently passed through to sell baskets and beadwork. Stanton’s neighbor spoke fluent Onondaga and had many Onondaga visitors at his home. Stanton’s cousin likewise welcomed members of the Six Nations to his dinner table. These encounters clearly affected Stanton. “In the councils of the Iroquois every adult male or female had a voice upon all questions brought before it,” she wrote in the National Bulletin, a newspaper of the suffrage movement, in 1891. Clan mothers, she marveled, could depose a chief and “send him back to the ranks of the warriors.”
Lucretia Mott was likewise moved by Iroquois women’s standing. Mott spent a month in the summer of 1848 among the Seneca people at Cattaraugus at a time when they were debating reorganizing their government. Women were part of that decision-making process and, as Wagner describes, Mott saw women “with an authority she would not even have been able to imagine in her own world.” Mere weeks later, Mott urged the women at the Seneca Falls Convention ⎯ the first public meeting on women’s rights in the U.S. ⎯ to reject what they’d been taught about their roles, and instead participate vociferously in the debate.
For her part, Gage — the least known but perhaps most revolutionary of the three — wrote extensively about Iroquois women’s roles in a series of articles for the New York Evening Post. “Division of power between the sexes in this Indian Republic,” she wrote in 1875, “was nearly equal… its women exercised controlling power in peace and war.” Her editor, introducing the series, highlighted Gage’s laser-focus on the fact that “the power and importance of women were recognized by the allied tribes.”
For Gage, the Iroquois provided the modern world’s “first conception of inherent rights, natural equality of condition, and the establishment of a civilized government upon this basis,” as she wrote in her book Woman, Church, and State. “Never was justice more perfect, nor civilization higher.” Gage would continue to advocate for the Iroquois political system. (Her son-in-law L. Frank Baum would go on to create a world in which women ruled in his Wizard of Oz books.)
Ultimately, this growing awareness of Iroquois women’s status provided proof, for the early American suffragists, that in contrast to what they had been taught, women’s disenfranchisement was neither natural nor inevitable. And it influenced their worldview in ways that went far beyond the vote. The “Declaration of Sentiments” that Stanton and Mott put forth at the Seneca Falls Convention, for instance, included resolutions on property, divorce, child custody, and work — all arenas in which they’d seen Iroquois women’s unquestioned authority.
“Never was civilization higher,” said Gage, about a society in which women were a potent political force. Indeed, women in Iroquois culture, says George-Kanentiio, “were the first to embrace that warfare could be eliminated as a way to respond to human disputes.”
As we reflect on all we’re grateful for this Thanksgiving, let’s pause to consider deeply the history of American women’s political power. If we do, we will see not only how integral Native American culture has been to our political history, but that, for women, our very right to vote is inextricably linked to a civilization that secured the dignity of all people. Iroquois women provided a blueprint for how the world could be.