Re: : The Iroquois and the Early Radical Feminists

holly martelle hayter (martelle@EXECULINK.COM)
Sat, 3 Feb 1996 11:49:49 -0500

thought it best to comment on some of the issues which seem to be overlooked.
These debates about the nature of Iroquois societies, the "power" and
roles of Iroquois women have been in press for decades and have been the
subject of repeated revisioning etc. Archaeologists, anthropologists,
historians and ethnohistorians have hotly debated many of these issues. What
seems to be the present consensus is unsurity. Elizabeth Tooker's
commentaries on both the Constitution and the power of Iroquois women are
quite convincing (1988 "The United States Constitution and the Iroquois
League" Ethnohistory 35(4):305-336; 1984 "Women in Iroquois Society" In
Extending the Rafters - Michael Foster, Jack Campisi, and Marianne Mithun.
eds.); Landsman's article "The "Other" as Political Symbol: Images of
Indians in the Woman Suffrage Movement" Ethnohistory 39(3):247-284, might be
useful in clearing up many issues.

What has been most overlooked is the fact that both the U.S.
constitutional talks and the women' suffrage movement did not develop in a
vaccuum. Because there are no written records of the influence of Iroquois
political organization in the Constitutional documents does not mean there
was no influence here. It also does not justify the Iroquois as a direct
model for the Thirteen colonies.

Iroquois political organization and the Iroquois gender ideology
were radically different than anything the European-Americans had ever seen.
Certainly elements of each were common items of roundtable and household
discussions. Landsman notest (pp.274) that "Indian culture was of interest
to suffragists because it seemed to offer an alternative to American
patriarchy"; surely Iroquoian women did many things that American men did
(and American women did not) which gave them power. While Iroquoian women
might not assert they had any more power than Iroquois men (for the
Iroquois gender ideology suggested gender equality and not gender hieararchy
- with both males and females valued for their special roles and powers),
their image was transformed by suffragettes into a symbol of women's power.
Iroquois women became an symbol not because they, in actuality, possessed
greater power than Iroquoian men, but because to both American men and women
they did things that in American society gave men political and social
power. We have to then consider the interactions of two very different
understandings of gender roles as well as power structures. A good case
study which underscores this point is Karen Anderson's "Chain Her By One
Foot" - about Huron and Montagnais and Jesuit relations and a transformation
in gender ideologies brought about by Christian theology.
We can forever question the accuracy of these images of Iroquoian
women that have been prevalent in press in the past and present. However,
images and recreations, reinventions, are quite often cultural
interpretations, situated readings of past and present. For women
suffragettes, as Landsman asserts, "the varied images and representations of
Indians in the woman suffrage movment helped mobilize people for action and
thus bring about real political change" (pp275). This IS significant.
My suggestion regarding the Constitution debate is similar. While
the Iroquois might not have been "on record" as a model for the
Constitution, certainly elements of Iroquois political organization could
have been influencial. All that is needed for social and political change is
an understanding of or enlightening to an alternative. This does not
necessitate that the new social/political order be an exact replica, in
reality, or in print.

Tooker notes a frequently cited passage by Franklin - "it would be a
very starnge Thing, if six Nations of ignorant Savages should be capable of
forming a Scheme for such a Union, and be able to execute it in such a
manner, as that it has subsisted [for] Ages, and appears indissoluble; and
yet a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen colonies, to
whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be
supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interest"
(1988:308-9).(From Lambareee 1961- The Papers of Benjamin Franklin).

Again Tooker asks - How much did the founding fathers actually know
about Iroquois political ideasand the Iroquois form of government? Were they
actually influenced by Iroquois ideas respecting proper forms of governance
or merely their image of what these ideas were?
We must consider we are dealing with socially, historically,
politically and cross-culturally situated and specific
interpretations....and transformations. This is what makes better histories
and they are my no means "filler" anything. My agenda is to expose agendas
not pretend they do not exist or will go away or should be disposed of.

Holly Martelle-Hayter
University of Toronto