Haudenosaunee Women and 1,000 Years of Political Agency

by Sydney Boyd, Humanities in American Life Project Manager

“The story I’m going to tell you… is really the beginning of the women’s movement. The truth is, there was an incredible party going on well before we ever arrived,” began Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, the guest lecturer for “Women Voted Here: Before Columbus,” a Vermont Humanities virtual event on October 21, 2020, hosted by St. Michael’s College.

Wagner was referring to the Haudenosaunee women – women who had agency and personhood in ways early women’s suffragists envied and wanted to achieve. Wagner, a lecturer, author, and story-teller, has published widely on the subject of women’s rights, most recently We Want Equal Rights!: How Suffragists Were Influenced by Haudenosaunee Women and the anthology, The Women’s Suffrage Movement.

“Women, and the land where I am, have had a political voice for 1,000 years,” Wagner said. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the “People of the longhouse” (who the French called Iroquois) Wagner explained, held women as most sacred because they were the bringers forth of life. Recounting the Haudenosaunee creation story, Wagner noted that a woman created earth, which is a markedly different origin story from the one developed in Western culture.

“The position of women [goes] way beyond having a political voice,” Wagner continued, “They have the ultimate authority.”

Wagner described the role of a “clan mother,” a woman who holds the symbolic authority of chief. Not only are chiefs obligated to listen to the women, but women, seeing and knowing the subtleties of everyday life, are in the best position to identify and nominate chiefs, who have to abide by three main rules: he cannot have committed murder; he cannot have committed a theft; and he cannot have abused a woman.

On that last point, Wagner paused and repeated: “In order to become a representative in the Haudenosaunee community, you cannot have abused a woman.”

But women under United States law faced a very different reality. Before the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, Wagner said, if women were married, they had no legal existence. In 1881, for instance, Wagner explained how Elizabeth Cady Stanton talked about the position of indigenous women as far superior to women in the United States. Recognizing a model of authority, value, and respect, women suffragists saw a reality they wanted for themselves both legally and culturally. Take how Western culture traces genealogy, for example, Matrilineal tradition, as opposed to following the father’s line, is commonplace for Haudenosaunee people.

“It’s hard to trace who your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother was, but ever [indigenous] child can do that,” Wagner said, adding that the Haudenosaunee women carried their nations with them.

“The Haudenosaunee women are an inspiration to me,” Wagner said in closing. “I feel different about myself when I spend time with women who have a 1,000-year history of having a political voice.”

This post is part of “Humanities in American Life,” an initiative to increase awareness of the importance and use of the humanities in everyday American life.