Bear Man Alicia Austin

The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Feminism
Written and researched by Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewska, B.F.A.

The Haudenosaunee ("People of the Longhouse") were originally known as "The Five Nations." New York Governor DeWitt Clinton coined this name, from their own language. Early historians say that they called themselves Ongwe Honwe meaning "people surpassing all others." The original five nations were:

  1. The Onondaga
  2. The Cayugas
  3. The Seneca
  4. The Mohawks
  5. The Oneidas

In 1723, the Tuscaroras joined them, and they became known as "The Six Nations Confederacy."

In Minnie Myrtle's book, The Iroquois (written in 1855), she said:

A people like the Iroquois who had a government, established offices, a system of religion eminently pure and spiritual, a code of honor and laws of hospitality excelling those of all other nations, should be considered something better than "savage" of "barbarous".

"Savage" was a Euro-American word to imply a lower degree of civilization. This same word "savage" was used to describe the Aztec, the Mayan, the Zapotec, and the Mixtecs of Mexico. However, in Mexico these aforenamed groups achieved a culture that was more advanced than most European cultures of the day. Cortez was impressed by the zoos and gardens at Tenochtitlan (now north of Mexico City). Tenochtitlan had its causeways to the island and many advanced architectural wonders. Their pyramids and cities had excellent stone carvings and cutting, and their observatories helped them keep precise charts showing the movement of Venus and Mars as they fit into the planetary realm of stars, suns, and moons. The only thing the Spanish did not understand was the Aztec religion. Many jewelry techniques of the ancient Mesoamerican cultures are still unknown today. These are lost techniques in today's world.

Another derogatory word used for Native American Indian women is "squaw." In many native cultures, squaw means "female genitalia." This word was used by French traders as an insulting slang term for women. In 1890, the Onondaga Standard spoke out against this term.

In more recent times, a pair of teenage Ojibwa girls had the state of Minnesota remove the word "squaw" from all place names there. In Oregon Squaw Butte was renamed Paiute Butte and many other states did likewise.

Some early feminists who admired the Haudenosaunee were:

  • Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) was a Quaker and fellow colleague of Elizabeth Stanton. Susan B. Anthony was honored by the U.S. Mint with her own coin. After teaching for fifteen years, Susan became active in temperance. However, as a woman, she was not allowed to speak at temperance rallies. This experience, and her acquaintance with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, led her to join the women's rights movement in 1852. Soon after she dedicated her life to woman suffrage. Susan B. Anthony, who never married, was aggressive and compassionate by nature. She had a keen mind and a great ability to inspire.

  • Elizabeth (nee Cady) Stanton (1815-1902) married Henry Stanton. Soon after their marriage, in 1840, they traveled to London, where Henry Stanton was a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Elizabeth is best known for her long contribution to the woman suffrage struggle. However, she was also active and effective in winning property rights for married women, equal guardianship of children, and liberalized divorce laws so that women could leave marriages that were often abusive to the wife, the children, and the economic health of the family.

    Elizabeth Cady Stanton's cousin, Peter Skenandoah Smith, was named after an Oneida chief, Chief Skenandoah, and her closest Seneca Falls neighbor, Oren Tyler, was an adopted Onondaga. He spoke Onondaga fluently.

    Elizabeth Cady Stanton died in New York on October 26, 1902, nearly 20 years to go before the United States granted women the right to vote.


    We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.

    Truth is the only safe ground to stand upon.

    The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.

    Self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice.

    I am always busy, which is perhaps the chief reason why I am always well.

    Nature never repeats herself, and the possibilities of one human soul will never be found in another.

    Because man and woman are the complement of one another, we need woman's thought in national affairs to make a safe and stable government.

    Woman will always be dependent until she holds a purse of her own.

    Women have crucified the Mary Wollstonecrafts, the Fanny Wrights, and the George Sands of all ages. Men mock us with the fact and say we are ever cruel to each other.

    Men say we are ever cruel to each other. Let us end this ignoble record and henceforth stand by womanhood. If Victoria Woodhull must be crucified, let men drive the spikes and plait the crown of thorns.

    So long as women are slaves, men will be knaves.

    The prejudice against color, of which we hear so much, is no stronger than that against sex. It is produced by the same cause, and manifested very much in the same way. The negro's skin and the woman's sex are both prima facie evidence that they were intended to be in subjection to the white Saxon man.

    The heyday of woman's life is the shady side of fifty.

  • Matilda Josyln Gage (1826 - 1898) was introduced, by Susan B. Anthony, at the International Council of Women. In 1888, Matilda Josyln Gage began her speech with a brief sketch of her early entry into the suffrage movement along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, led the National Woman Suffrage Association, opposing the concept of "precedence" accepted by the less radical American Woman Suffrage Association. Matilda once said: "I am indebted to my father for something better than a collegiate education. He taught me to think for myself, and not to accept the word of any man, or society, or human being, but to fully examine for myself." Her father was a physician, and gave her lessons in physiology and anatomy.

    During the 1870's, Gage wrote a series of controversial articles decrying the brutal and unjust treatment American Indians had received. Having already broken numerous treaties, the government was trying to force citizenship upon Native Americans, she argued, thus destroying their status as an independent nation. Gage, who was adopted into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk nation and given the name Ka-ron-ien-ha-wi (Sky Carrier), wrote of the superior form of government practiced by the Six Nation Iroquois Confederacy, in which "the power between the sexes was nearly equal." This indigenous practice of woman's rights became her vision.

    Harriet Maxwell Converse arranged for Matilda Josyln Gage to be adopted into the Wolf Clan. Harriet Phillips Eaton, Gage's cousin, who wrote about the Iroquois.

    Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage was one of the "triumvirate" leaders of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and as such was one of the most important and influential women of the 19th century woman's right movement.

    Matilda Joselyn Gage was working on a book about the Haudenosaunee when she died in 1898. Gage, Stanton, and Mott respected the Native American life. Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen wrote a reform paper called Free Enquirer in the late 1820's. They had many pro-Indian articles on the Cherokee alphabet, an interview with Red Jacket (a Seneca sachem), etc.

  • Lucretia (nee Coffin) Mott (1793 - 1880) was quoted as saying: "Good to be always zealously affected in a good thing." Lucretia was the Quaker teacher who served in many of the associated Temperance, Anti-Slavery, and Women's Rights organizations with which Stanton is associated. She became a Quaker minister in 1821. Like many Quakers, Mott was active in the abolitionist movement in the United States before the Civil War. Mott helped found two anti-slavery groups, and was well known for her eloquent speeches against slavery.

    Lucretia Mott visited the Seneca Nation in June 1848, with her husband James.

Stanton and Gage authored the Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States, which Anthony presented, uninvited, at the Centennial celebration in Washington in 1876. The Declaration was signed in the Centennial Books of the NWSA by Stanton, Anthony and Gage, as well as many later arrivals to the movement such as Virginia Minor and Lillie Devereux Blake. The original Declaration was signed by Lucretia Mott, Mary Ann McClintock, and Amy Post, all of whom were present at the 1848 Convention.

Conditions in New York State in 1828:

  • Haudenosaunee children were members of their mother's clan. Euro-American children were the property of their fathers.
  • Haudenosaunee violence against women was dealt with seriously (when known), since the Clan Mothers made the rules. Euro-American husbands had the right and religious resposibility to physically discipline their wives. However, one must know that both cultures had violent men.
  • Haudenosaunee women owned their own property (both personal and land). Euro-Americans did not own their own property, but some rich women did.
  • Skywomen was a strong feminine deity in Haudenosaunee culture. Women were not allowed to be gods or leaders in the Christian religion. Unless you think of the Virgin Mary.
  • The Mother Earth concept of the Haudenosaunee extended to a woman's spirituality. Christianity was no longer a earth religion, although many pagan gods and goddesses from pagan religions were re-born as Christian saints. As Gage said: "In the name of religion, the worst crimes against humanity have been perpetuated."
  • Native American Haudenosaunee women chose their chiefs. Euro-American women were not allowed to vote.
  • Native women held political offices, while Euro-American women could not.

Laura M. Shelton Wright was a missionary at Cattaraugus. She published a Dictionary of the Seneca Language around 1835.

Helen F. Troy was adopted into the Snipe Clan of the Onondaga nation in 1894. She was named Gar-wen-ne-sho or "Spirit Dipping Into the Silent Waters," in 1905. Helen Troy wrote the book: Book of the Sacred Wampum or The Iroquois Bible," and a dictionary of Onondaga and Mohawk words and their English meanings. This book was the result of fifteen years of research.

Erminnie A. Smith studied the Six Nations in 1880 under the leadership of the Smithsonian Institute. She was adopted into the Tuscaroran White Bear Clan and named Ka-tie-tio-sta-knost or "beautiful flower." At the time of Erminnie's death she was working on an Iroquois dictionary.

Erminnie A. Smith's assistant, J.N.B. Hewitt, a Tuscaroran also worked at the Bureau of Ethnology. Smith published Myths of the Iroquois, in 1883.

Mary Elizabeth Beauchamp, sister of William M. Beauchamp, was another Iroquois expert. She was her brother's secretary. William was the sucessor of Lewis Morgan, who wrote many books about the Haudenosaunee. Mary wrote about the way women were treated with great respect among the Onondagas. William wrote Iroquois Folk Lore.

Elizabeth Smith adopted the wearing of bloomers and loose fitting tunics that were more like Iroquois dress than Euro-American dress. Corsets were known to deform major organs in a woman's body. Thus she decided that loose clothing was much better, since no corset was necessary.

Onondaga woman farmed corn, beans, and squash, known as The Three Sisters. Haudenosaunee women were farmers. In the Senecan tongue, the Three Sisters were called Dio-he-ko or "our true sustenance." The Aztec name was Tonacayohau or "she feeds us." She being "Mother Earth." The corn stalks provide support for the vining beans. The beans provide nitrogen to feed the corn. The squash shades the mounds of corn seeds and beans, thus keeping weeds out and moisture in. The Three Sisters made up a nutrionally balanced diet.

Mary Jemison, a white captive, was adopted into the Seneca nation, and later, when she was found by her family, she decided to remain with the Senecas. When Mary was eighty years of age, she still planted, tended, and harvested her crops, chopped her own wood, fed her cattle and chickens, and wore Native American Indian garments.


Wagner, Sally Roesch. Sisters In Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists. Summertown, Tennessee: Native Voices, 2001.

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