The Haudenosaunee Women of New York

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Contributed by Anna Bamber

The Haudenosaunee tribe, which inhabited New York State long before European settlers’ arrival in America, has long valued women’s involvement in political leadership at times when women still did not have a voice in the American government. The early suffrage movement that took place in New York in the 19th century was, in fact, inspired by the native communities surrounding them. The matrilineal nature of this tribe made it so that a “clan mother” was in charge of the community and had the authority to regulate threatening men in their society. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a White pioneer of the suffrage movement, made several remarks about the Haudenosaunee tribe’s female-oriented power structures in her 1891 speech to the National Council of Women. She was impressed by the divorce proceedings in this community; by which women had the power to kick their husbands out of the house in the event that a divorce occurred. (Buffalo Times). This clearly departed from the dominant Christian tradition of marriage that many women endured in this time period. Once married, the woman was property of her husband and since she did not have legal independence, she was reliant on the husband to stay alive. The safety that women could feel in their communities without threat of domestic violence was also a key trait of the Haudenosaunee that suffragettes marveled at. The political leadership positions that women in the tribe held as well as the autonomy they had over their marriages, children, and bodies provided inspiration to suffragettes to imagine a country where men and women were treated equally. The influence that the Haudenosaunee tribe had on the suffrage movement and on pioneers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton was invaluable in the fight for gender equality and women’s right to vote. 

At the top of this entry is a cartoon by Joseph Keppler, entitled Savagery to Civilization, originally published on May 16, 1914, depicting the Haudenosaunee women watching the women’s suffrage movement with a banner scroll reading: “We, the women of the Iroquois: Own the land, the lodge, the children. Ours is the right of adoption, of life or death; Ours is right to raise up and depose chiefs; Ours the right of representation at all councils; our the right to make and abrogate treaties; Ours the supervision over domestic and foreign policies; Ours the trusteeship of the tribal property; Our lives are valued again as high as man’s. THE INDIAN WOMEN: We whom you pity as drudges reached centuries ago the goal that you are now nearing.” (