The Impact of Haudenosaunee Culture on the Early Suffragettes

By Maura Reilly on October 22, 2019

In a speech to the International Council of Women in 1888, suffragette and anthropologist, Alice Fletcher said “I crave for my Indian sisters, your help, your patience, and your unfailing labors, to hasten the day when the laws of the land shall know neither male nor female, but grant to all equal rights and equal justice.” In the 131 years following Alice Fletcher’s speech, women in general have gained a great many rights, but the Haudenosaunee women have lost many of theirs, and there remains an upward battle for equal justice.

As 2020 and the centennial for women’s suffrage draws closer, many scholars, journalists and organizations look back to the early suffragettes, including First Lady and avid epistolary writer Abigail Adams and the Triumvirate of women’s suffrage, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; however, Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, makes a good case for focusing on their source of inspiration for women’s equality, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) women. As we celebrate the successes of the suffragettes, it is vital we keep in mind the lost battles along the way and the groups we’ve left behind in the name of suffrage. 

 

The early suffragettes had many formal and informal connections and interactions with the people of the Five Nations Confederacy, often referred to as the Iroquois but who self-identity as the Haudenosaunee or “The People of the Longhouse.” Dr. Roesch Wagner illustrates the similarities between the Triumvirate’s idea of a matriarchate and the structure of Haudenosaunee social organization, in which women chose the Chief, were able to hold political office, had a say in forming a consensus, controlled property, had spiritual authority and responsibility, and children belonged to their mother’s clan. In her book Sisters in Spirit, Roesch Wagner suggests the early suffragettes “believed women’s liberation was possible because they knew liberated women, women who possessed rights beyond their wildest imagination: Haudenosaunee women.” In the U.S. women can now own property, vote, run for office, and maintain custody of their children in the case of divorce. All successes made possible by both the famed suffragettes and their inspiration the Haudenosaunee women, who are often forgotten in our narrative on women’s suffrage. 

 

While women have gained increasing social equality, the work of the suffragettes is far from over. Yes, women have been able to vote since 1920, and women have served in Congress since 1917; but, women only make up 102 of the 433 seats in the House of Representatives or 23.56 percent and 25 of the 100 seats in the Senate or 25 percent, despite making up 50 percent of the U.S. population. The United States currently ranks 78th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global rankings of gender parity in national legislatures, below 10 other G20 countries, no woman has been elected President, a total of 44 women have served as governors in the U.S. and currently only nine are in office. And the society built on gender equality, the basis for the Triumvirate’s goals has been largely left behind. In 2018,  Deb Haaland (NM-01) and Sharice Davids (KS-03) made history and were the first Native American women elected to the House of Representatives, out of a total of eighteen Native Americans to serve in the House; to date only four Native Americans have served in the Senate, none of whom were women. Despite many Native American nations historically having a social organization based on gender equality, Native women’s representation in U.S. politics is lagging behind.

 

In a speech to the International Council of Women in 1888, suffragette and anthropologist, Alice Fletcher said “I crave for my Indian sisters, your help, your patience, and your unfailing labors, to hasten the day when the laws of the land shall know neither male nor female, but grant to all equal rights and equal justice.” In the 131 years following Alice Fletcher’s speech, women in general have gained a great many rights, but the Haudenosaunee women have lost many of theirs, and there remains an upward battle for equal justice. At what point do we stop asking for people’s patience and demand equality instead? 



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