The Iroquois and the Early Radical Feminists

Ruby Rohrlich (rohrlich@GWIS2.CIRC.GWU.EDU)
Wed, 31 Jan 1996 00:59:43 -0500

I quote from the article "The Untold Iroquois Influence on Early Radical
Feminists"by Sally Roesch Wagnerin the Winter l996 editiion of the
"Progressive Women's Quarterly" ON THE ISSUES. I'M doing this because
it's extremely hard for me to understand how the main point was missed, i.e., the Iroquois
the Iroquos influence on early radical feminists. The main point was missed
because of the todo that was raised about whether the Iroquois were egalitarian,
and I think that this was a deliberate deflection so that the main point
would be missed. Once the "egalitarian" issue was made the principal
issue,the guttersnipes came out from under the rocks, and made themselves
known by their gutter language. Here goes:
"I had been haunted by a question to the past, a mystery of
feminist history: How did the radical suffragists come to their vision, a
vision not of Band-Aid reform but of a reconstituted world completely
transformed? For 20 years I had immersed myself in the writings of early
United States women's rights activists -- Matilda Joslyn Gage
(l826-l898),Elizabeth Cady Stanton (l8l5-l902), Lucretia Mott (l793-l880)
-- yet I could not fathom how they dared to dream their revolutionary
dream. Living under the ideological hegemony of l9th century U.S.,
theyhad no say in government, religion, economics, or social life ("the
four-fold oppression" of their lives, Gage and Stanton called it).
Whatever made them think that human harmony --based on the peerfect
equality of all people, with women absolute soereigns of their lives --
was an achievable goal? Surely these white women, living under
conditions of virtual slavery, did not get their vision in a vacuum.
Somehow they were able to see from pointA, where they stood -- corseted,
ornamental, legally nonpersons -- to point C, the "regenerated world Gage
predicted in which all repressive institutions would be destroyed. What
was point B in their lives, the earthly alternative that drove their
feminist spirit -- not a utopian pipe-dream but a sensible, double paradigm?
Then I realized I had been skimming over the source of their inspiration
withoutnoticing it. My own unconscious white supremacy had kept me from
recognizing what these prototypical feminists kept insisting in their
writings: they caught a glimpse of the possibility of freedom because
they knew women who lived liberated lives, women who had always possessed
rights beyond their wildest imagination -- Iroquois women.
"The more evidence I uncovered of this indelible Native
American influence on the vision of early
U.S. feminists, the more certain I became that this story must be told.
It is difficult for white Americans today to picture the extended period
in history when -- before the U.S. government's
Indian-reservation system, like apartheid, concretized a separation of
the races in the last half of the l9th 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 that had established peace among themselves -- before
Columbus came to this "old" world.
"Gage, appointed by a women's rights convention in the l850s,
worked on a committee with New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley
todocument the woefully few jobs open to white women. Meanwhile, she
knew hardy, near by Onandaga women who farmed corn, beans and squash --
nutritionally balanced and ecologically near-perfect crops called the
Three Sisters by the Haudenosaunee. Lucretia Mott and her husband James
weere membeers of the Indian Committee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
of theSociety of Friends. For years the committee of Quakers befriended
the Seneca, setting up a school and model farm aat Cattaraugus and
helping them save some of their territory from unscrupulous land
speculators. In the summer of l848 Mott spent a month at Cattaraugus
witnessing women share in discussion and decision-making as the Seneca
nation reorganized their govenmental structure. Her feminist vision
fired by that experience, Mott traveled that July from theSeneca 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
Onandaga); 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-paage 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.
"In the U.S., until women's ights advocates began the painstaking
task of changing state laws, a husband had the legal right to batter his
wife. But suffrigists lived as neighbors to men of other nations whose
religious, legal, social and economic concept of women made such behavior
unthinkable. Haudenosaunee spiritual practices were spelled out in an
oral tradition called theCode of Handsome Lake. . . . To Stanton, Gage,
Mott and their feminist contemporaries, the Native American conception of
everyday decency, nonviolence, and gender justice must have seemed the
promised land."
There's much more, but that's all I'm prepared to do. Ruby Rohrlich