May 17, 2010

Indians inspired feminism

The Untold Story of the Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists

By Sally Roesch WagnerIt is difficult for white Americans today to picture the extended period in history when--before the United States government's Indian-reservation system, like apartheid, concretized a separation of the races in the last half of the nineteenth century--regular trade, cultural sharing, even friendship between Native Americans and Euro-Americans was common. Perhaps nowhere was this now-lost social ease more evident than in the towns and villages in upstate New York where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage lived, and Lucretia Mott visited. All three suffragists personally knew Iroquois women, citizens of the six-nation confederacy (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and later Tuscarora) that had established peace among themselves before Columbus came to this "old" world.

Stanton, for instance, sat across the dinner table from Oneida women during her frequent visits to her cousin, the radical social activist Gerrit Smith, in Peterboro. Smith's daughter, also named Elizabeth, was first to shed the 20 pounds of clothing that, fashion dictated, should hang from a white woman's waist, dangerously deformed from corseting. The reform costume Elizabeth Smith adopted (named the "Bloomer" after the newspaper editor who popularized it) bore an uncanny resemblance to the loose-fitting tunic and leggings worn by the two Elizabeths' Native American friends.

Gage, appointed by a women's rights convention in the 1850s, worked on a committee with New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley to document the woefully few jobs open to white women. Meanwhile she knew hardy, nearby Onondaga women who farmed corn, beans, and squash--nutritionally balanced and ecologically near-perfect crops called the Three Sisters by the Haudenosaunee (traditional Iroquois).

Lucretia Mott and her husband, James, were members of the Indian committee of the Philadelphia yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends. For years this committee of Quakers befriended the Seneca, setting up a school and model farm at Cattaraugus and helping them save some of their territory from unscrupulous land speculators. In the summer of 1848 Mott spent a month a Cattaraugus witnessing women share in discussion and decision-making as the Seneca nation reorganized their governmental structure. Her feminist vision fired by that experience, Mott traveled that July from the Seneca nation to nearby Seneca Falls, where she and Stanton held the world's first women's rights convention.

Stanton, Gage, and Mott regularly read newspaper accounts of everyday Iroquois activities--a recent condolence ceremony (to mourn a chief's death and to set in place a new one); the latest sports scores (a lacrosse match between the Mohawk and the Onondaga); a Quaker council called to ask Seneca women to leave their fields and work in the home (as the Friends said God commanded but as Mott opposed). Stanton, Gage, and Mott could also read that according to interviews with white teachers at various Indian nations, Indian men did not rape women. Front page stories admonished big-city dandies to learn a thing or two from Indian men's example, so that white women too could walk around any time of the day or night without fear.
Some of the practices that inspired the early feminists:Among the Haudenosaunee, family lineage was reckoned through mothers; no child was born a "bastard" (the concept didn't exist); every child found a loving and welcome place in a mother's world, surrounded by a mother's sisters, her mother, and the men whom they married. Unmarried sons and brothers lived in this large extended family, too, until they left home to marry into another matrilocal clan. Stanton envied how American Indian women "ruled the house" and how "descent of property and children were in the female line." Gage, while serving as president of the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1875, penned a series of admiring articles about the Iroquois for the New York Evening Post in which she wrote that the "division of power between the sexes in its Indian republic was nearly equal" while the Iroquois family structure "demonstrated woman's superiority in power." For these white women living in a world where marital rape was commonplace and forbidden by neither church nor state (although the Comstock Laws of the 1870s outlawed discussion of it), Indian women's violence-free and empowered home life must have looked like heaven.And:Iroquois women continue to have the responsibility of nominating, counseling, and keeping in office the male chief who represents the clan in the grand council. In the six nations of the Iroquois confederacy, she explained, Haudenosaunee women have worked with the men to successfully guard their sovereign political status against persistent attempts to turn them into United Stated citizens. In Audrey's direct and simple telling, the social power of the Haudenosaunee women seemed almost unremarkable--"We have always had these responsibilities," she said. I caught my breath again, remembering that radical suffragists also knew such women who lived their vision.Comment:  So Mott, Stanton, and Gage grew up around the same time as Joseph Smith. Along with him, they lived in or visited upstate New York, which was a hotbed of Anglo-Indian interactions. Mormonism, feminism...I wonder what other "-isms" Indians influenced.

For more on the role of Native women, see Ward Churchill's claims about no prejudice among Indians. For more on what Indians inspired, see Indians Gave Us Enlightenment.

Below:  Elizabeth Cady Stanton.


dmarks said...

Now who is slipping up? You missed a chance to insert an L. Frank Baum reference!

Miriam said...

Thanks for posting this; I'm teaching some of these authors right now, and this makes for great background to discuss with students.

Rob said...

Baum was born a generation or two later than Smith and the early feminists. The Indian presence in upstate New York presumably was less then.

But he did move to Aberdeen in the Dakota Territory. And besides his infamous editorials, he did mention Indians in a couple of short stories.

So it's possible something in his NY upbringing triggered an interest in the frontier, Indians, and "lost civilizations." And that in turn may have led to the Oz books.

dmarks said...

Not sure you caught it. It's not just geography and time.

"in upstate New York where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage lived..."

That's Baum's mother-in-law, who did have an influence on Baum's writings.

dmarks said...

Read also:

"Matilda Josyln Gage - the Unlikely Inspiration for the Wizard of Oz"

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's actually interesting. The Iroquois are now the favorite of "matriarchal" thinkers in academia (as if there are only two ways to divide labor by sex!).

I didn't know there was an Indian influence on bloomers.

I'd add Marxism to the list. And liberalism. And anarchism; modern anarchists still look to plains Indians.