CHAPTER 1The Haudenosaunee Model
On July 14, 1848, an advertisement appeared in a newspaper in Seneca Falls in upstate New York, announcing “a Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” A few days later, on July 19, some three hundred women and men gathered in a local church for what is often said to be the first meeting dedicated specifically to women’s rights. There, after two days of impassioned conversation, one hundred people signed a document modeled on the Declaration of Independence—but adding two words to its most famous passage: “All men and women are created equal.”
The document was known as the Declaration of Sentiments. It had been hashed out on a parlor table by a small group of women, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Elizabeth was a well-to-do woman who was chafing under traditional ideas about marriage and motherhood. Lucretia was a Quaker, a member of a religious group that already had strong ideas about equality between men and women. Like many of the early suffragists, these two women were ardent abolitionists—a term for people, both black and white, who were fighting to put an end to slavery.
The fight against slavery spurred some white women to think about their own situations. Although marriage was hardly slavery, women in 1848, no matter their race, had highly unequal rights compared with men. In some states, married women were required to surrender all their property to their husbands. In a divorce, women often had no right to custody of their children. And in many places it was not illegal for their husbands to beat them.
Even in the abolitionist movement, men and women weren’t equal. At meetings, women often weren’t allowed to speak. At one antislavery meeting in London in 1840, the women were forced to sit silently behind a curtain, which left many of them, including Elizabeth and Lucretia, fuming.
The Declaration of Sentiments, mostly written by Elizabeth, demanded total equality for women in economics, family life, and religion. It also included a demand that women have an equal right to vote—a demand so radical that Lucretia opposed including it in the document at all, warning that it would make the Seneca Falls Convention look “ridiculous.”
And many newspapers that wrote about the convention did make fun of it. One called it “the most shocking and unnatural event ever recorded in the history of womanity.” The African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass—who attended the meeting and supported women’s right to vote—observed that a meeting dedicated to the rights of animals would have been greeted with more respect. That’s how radical the notion of women’s suffrage was at the time.
But the idea of women’s equality, and women voting, wasn’t outrageous to everyone in 1848. In fact, some women in America already had a say in choosing their leaders—and they were living right in the convention’s backyard.
The town of Seneca Falls was located in the historic territory of the Haudenosaunee, a confederacy of six Native American nations (including the Seneca Nation, which gave the town its name) stretching across what became New York State. And long before the arrival of Europeans, the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois, practiced a form of representative democracy that gave significant power to women.
Haudenosaunee society was matrilineal, meaning that the clan you belonged to depended on your mother’s ancestors, not your father’s. Women made decisions about the land and farmed it, too. They owned the fruits of their own labor, and they kept their own property after marriage—a right that American women had only begun to fight for. Haudenosaunee women held veto power over decisions about war and peace. The clan mothers were the ones who nominated each clan’s chief, known as the Hoyaneh. And they had the power to remove him, too.
There were no Haudenosaunee among the three hundred or so women and men at the Seneca Falls meeting. The Haudenosaunee were citizens of their own nation, not of the United States. They lived in their own settlements and mostly spoke their own language. But some of the women and men who gathered in Seneca Falls might have known about Haudenosaunee customs—and the power of their women—from encounters in town or from newspapers, which regularly wrote about Haudenosaunee ceremonies and other events. And at least one person at the convention had even witnessed a political debate among Haudenosaunee women and men.
In June 1848, a month before the convention, Lucretia Mott was part of a group of Quakers who spent a few weeks among the Haudenosaunee of the Seneca Nation in Cattaraugus, about one hundred miles southwest of Seneca Falls. The Quakers had been involved with helping the Haudenosaunee negotiate their relationship with the US government, which had forced them from much of their land. When Lucretia visited, the Haudenosaunee were debating whether to make changes in their political system. In a letter published in a local newspaper, she wrote about observing a traditional ceremonial dance and watching as both men and women spoke during debates.
Later, as the suffrage movement grew, Native American women became powerful inspirations to some suffragists, who saw them as visionary examples of a more equal world. Among them was Matilda Joslyn Gage, who joined the women’s rights movement a few years after Seneca Falls. In 1875, when she was president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, Matilda wrote a series of newspaper articles discussing the Haudenosaunee people, praising the “nearly equal” division of power between men and women in politics as well as women’s “superiority in power” in the family. Matilda became so involved with the Haudenosaunee people that she received an honorary adoption into the Wolf Clan in 1893—the same year she was denied the right to vote in a school commissioner election in New York State.
To some suffragists, Native women were powerful symbols of “the matriarchate,” a kind of rule by women that they believed existed across much of the world in ancient times, before men took over. But the suffragists could express this belief in condescending ways. Even as they praised Native culture, they sometimes talked about Native people as “noble savages” who were disappearing, rather than as communities that were very much present and carrying their traditions forward.
The Haudenosaunee women had their own battles. They were fighting to protect their people’s independence and way of life, which wasn’t about women ruling men, but about sharing responsibilities. During the nineteenth century the Haudenosaunee, like other Native people, were under intense pressure to adopt the Christian belief system and assimilate into white American culture. In 1848, the same year as the Seneca Falls Convention, the Seneca Nation, under pressure from the United States to implement a “civilized” form of government, adopted a written constitution. The document dissolved their traditional political system and the power it granted to clan mothers. Control of land remaine...