Prior to European settlement, the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois of the Great Lakes region, were organized in a way that maintained a balance of equality between men and women.
When European women were not allowed to vote or run for office and were considered “dead in the law” once they married, Haudenosaunee women chose their chiefs and held political authority and key political offices as clan mothers.
When European law gave men the legal right to physically discipline their wives, violence against women was not tolerated amongst the Haudenosaunee. James Clinton, a general in the Sullivan Campaign that wiped most of the Haudenosaunee from New York State remarked that a Haudenosaunee man would never violate the chastity of any woman. He added this significant admonition to his colonel: ”It would be well to take measures to prevent a stain upon our army.”
When European women were responsible for the home but subordinate to the husband, to the point of losing all rights to property, children and even one’s own body, Haudenosaunee women owned their own property and farmed communally with other women.
When European women were forbidden to speak in churches and spirituality was disconnected from the earth, Haudenosaunee women held responsibilities in ceremonies and honoured Mother Earth along with the men.
So imagine the societal trauma that came about when European ways began to rule the day! Alice Fletcher, a noted 19th Century suffragist and government agent, had this to say before the 1888 International Council of Women: “They have said: ‘As an Indian (sic) woman I was free. I owned my home, my person, the work of my own hands, and my children could never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law.” But the changes had been difficult on men too. Fletcher also had this to say, “Men have said: ‘Your laws show how little your men care for their women. The wife is nothing of herself. She is worth little but to help a man to have one hundred and sixty acres.’ One day sitting in the tent of an old chief, famous in war, he said to me: ‘My young men are to lay aside their weapons; they are to take up the work of the women; they will plow the field and raise the crops; for them I see a future, but my women, they to whom we owe everything, what is there for them to do? I see nothing! You are a woman; have pity on my women when everything is taken from them.’”
How did both men and women survive this change? I honestly don’t know, but it was a big one and I invite anyone who does know to raise your voice.