By New Worker correspondent
THE FIRST European colonists to settle in North America landed along the continent’s eastern coast where they encountered native Americans who belonged to a Confederacy of the six nations of the Iroquois.
The Iroquois Confederacy stretched all along the eastern coast and several hundred miles inland. They were a farming people living in settled villages where the status of women was fully equal to that of men.
Women were the guardians of the culture were responsible for defining the political, social, spiritual, and economic norms of the tribe. Iroquois society was matrilineal, meaning descent was traced through the mother rather than through the father, as it was in colonial society. While Iroquois sachems (chiefs) were men, women nominated them and made sure they fulfilled their responsibilities.
They were far more respected and free than the women of the colonial settlements, who has been brought up in a culture in which women were regarded as inferior and subservient to the men and that this was natural and the will of God. Seeing the higher status of the Iroquois women had an impact on some of the settler women and helped to sow the seeds of the women’s liberation movement in the 19th century.
The Iroquois lived in small villages built on high ground surrounded by tall wooden fences. Outside the fences there were fields where crops were grown. Women owned the land and tended the crops. The men prepared the ground for planting, and the women grew the “Three Sisters” – corn (maize), beans and squash. Sometimes all three of these staple crops were grown together in one field. The bean plants would fix nitrogen in the soil, improving it for the corn and the squashes, which included melons and pumpkins.
Inside the fences wall were rows of buildings. These buildings were Iroquois homes, known as wigwams and longhouses. Wigwams were round structures made out of bent tree branches that were covered with layers of bark and dried grass. There was a fire pit in the middle with a hole in ceiling above it to allow smoke to escape.
Longhouses were longer than they were wide and ranged from twenty-five to one hundred and fifty feet long and were only about twenty feet wide. Along the centre aisle of the longhouse were three or four fire pits lined with stones called fieldstones.
Each longhouse had multiple families living in it, and held anywhere from thirty to sixty people. On each side of the centre aisle were quarters for each family. There were low platforms to sleep on and high ones to store goods, baskets, and pelts. Either bark or skins separated each family place.
The women ran the longhouses, and owned all the normal things of everyday life such as blankets (skins), cooking utensils, and farming tools. A longhouse was usually occupied by one clan, with the eldest and/or most respected woman of that clan ruling it as Clan Mother.
The tribe owned all lands in common, but allotted tracts to the different clans for further distribution among households. The land would be redistributed among the households every few years, and a clan could request a redistribution of tracts when the Clan Mothers’ Council gathered. Clans that abused their land or didn’t take care of it would be warned and eventually punished by the Clan Mothers’ Council by having the land redistributed to another clan.
The Iroquois greatly depended on their natural environment. Surrounded by the forest, women and their children helped provide food by gathering wild fruits, vegetables, and nuts. They picked blueberries, strawberries, cherries, and wild plums. In areas around the Great Lakes, Iroquois women gathered wild rice during the rainy season. During the winter, many tapped trees to get maple sugar. In the springtime, they stirred the syrup over an open fire, and over time it turned to sugar.
All Iroquois clothing was handmade by the women of the tribe. They dried and tanned the skin to produce leather. Once tanned, they cut the buckskins into patterns for clothing, then sewed the pelts together with a deer bone needle and thread from deer sinew.
Women had many responsibilities – probably the most important one was having children to ensure the future of their tribe. Any children born into the family belonged to the mother’s clan, and they were educated by their mother’s relatives.
Besides performing the normal household functions of producing, preserving and preparing food and clothing for the family and taking care of the children, Iroquois women participated in many activities commonly reserved for men. They gambled, belonged to medicine societies (spiritual associations), and participated in political ceremonies.
The tribal council was dominated by male speakers but the women decided which men should be speakers. If the chosen man expressed opinions that clashed with those of the women’s council, they could replace him with someone who more closely represented their views. If the Tribal Council took a course of action that the women disagreed with, such as a raid, the women might simply refuse to give them any food for the journey.
Iroquois women had the right to divorce their husbands.
Contact with Europeans in the early 1600s had a profound impact on the economy of the Iroquois. At first, they became important trading partners, but the expansion of European settlement upset the balance of the Iroquois economy. By 1800, the Iroquois had been confined to reservations, and they had to adapt their traditional economic system.
But their culture and way of life inspired led some settler women to question their own lack of freedom and independence and they began to seek a better life for themselves. Early feminists were inspired to imagine the possibility of a more equal society.
That inspiration came from contemporary women who lived very different lives from theirs, the women of the six Iroquois nations – Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora – the Haudenosaunee, as they called themselves.
Common law based itself upon church law, and the “two shall become one and the one is the man” of Christianity became the non-existence of married women under the law. Women could not vote, own property, control their own wages, or have any say over their bodies or the children they birthed. Unmarried women were unnatural since they were not under the control of a husband, and fared no better under their fathers’ authority.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote: “The assertion that women have always been physically inferior to men, and consequently have always been held in a subject condition, has been universally believed. This view has furnished the opponents to woman’s emancipation their chief arguments for holding her in bondage.”
Lucretia Mott saw this world in practice when she and her husband visited the Seneca in the summer of 1848. She watched women who had equal responsibilities with men in all aspects of their lives – familial, spiritual, governmental, and economical. At that time, Seneca women were deeply involved in the decision of whether or not to drop their traditional clan system of government and adopt the constitutional form insisted upon by the Quakers.
While the Cattaraugus Seneca finally did accept the United States model, they refused to accept the element of male dominance. They placed in their constitution that no treaty would be valid without the approval of three-fourths of the “mothers of the nation.”
After this Mott travelled to visit friends in western New York where they planned the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls.
Beyond equal suffrage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton marvelled that “the women were the great power among the clan,” and “the original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with the women”.
Matilda Joslyn Gage, Stanton’s equally brilliant contemporary, described the governmental structure in more detail. “Division of power between the sexes in this Indian republic was nearly equal. Although the principal chief of the confederacy was a man, descent ran through the female line, the sister of the chief possessing the power of nominating his successor.”
Gage wrote that the US form of government was borrowed from that of the Six Nations, and thus “the modern world is indebted for its first conception of inherent rights, natural equality of condition, and the establishment of a civilised government upon this basis” to the Iroquois.