Family Life With Iroquois Nation
It’s quite possible that family life in the Iroquois Nation may have had a lasting influence on the quality of women’s lives all over the world. Iroquois society reflected the basic tenet that life has no real quality without equality. In their society, women enjoyed far more freedom and many more human rights than the women of early American society.
American suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Lucretia Mott socialized with Iroquois women who were citizens of a six-nation confederacy. For a month, Lucretia Mott observed indigenous women share in discussion and decision-making as their nation organized its governmental structure. Shortly afterwards, she and Stanton held the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls. After Matilda Joslyn Gage was arrested in 1893 for attempting to vote in a school board election, she was adopted by the Mohawks, one of the six tribes of the Iroquois confederacy.
While serving as president of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association in 1875, she wrote a series of articles about the Iroquois for a popular magazine. In her articles, she stated that the “division of power between the sexes in its Indian republic was nearly equal” and that the Iroquois family structure “demonstrated woman’s superiority in power.” By contrast, women in early American society had no rights at all.
Ethnographer Alice Fletcher quoted an indigenous woman as saying “As an Indian woman I was free. I owned by home, my person, the work of my own hands, and my children should never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law.” Many indigenous women resisted becoming American citizens for that reason, since family life in the Iroquois Nation afforded motherhood far more respect.
In an article, Sally Roesch Wagner, author and founder of one of the first women’s studies programs, offers a conversation in which an indigenous woman named Alice described women’s role in government. Clan mothers were responsible for nominating men for chiefs. Only men who had never committed a theft, a murder or a rape could qualify for nomination. Marital rape was virtually non-existent. In his 1881 book, Legends, Traditions and Laws of the Iroquois, Tuscarora chief Elia Johnson, wrote that European men respected women “until they became civilized”.
In 1981, in response to the assertion that there was no evidence that societies in which women shared equal political power with men existed, Paula Gunn Allen, a Laguna Pueblo/Sioux author and scholar, wrote “Before we decide, when we search the memories and lore of tribal peoples, we might be able to see what eons and all kinds of institutions have conspired to hide from our eyes…”. Even today, family life in the Iroquois Nation continues the tradition of women and mothers bearing the responsibility of nominating and counseling the male chief who represents their clan in the grand council.
The role of women in family life in the Iroquois Nation was extremely diverse. In addition to household duties such as preparing food, they also participated in politics, and even gambled. A matrilineal society, property was passed down through the mother to her daughter, and after marriage, the man resided with his wife’s family. Men and women shared power equally.
Molly Brant, an Iroquois woman, is a good example of the extent of political influence that women enjoyed as a result of the gender equality of family life in the Iroquois Nation. After falling in love and having children with Sir William Johnson, a loyalist in the Revolutionary war, she became nearly as influential in English colonial society as she was in her own.
She played such a large role in mediating between the Iroquois and the colonials that one British commander remarked that that her influence was “far superior to that of all their Chiefs put together”. The British government built her a house, and the Canadian government gave her 120 acres of land in appreciation for her service. However, she is a controversial figure within the Iroquois Nation.
It is said that to forget history is to repeat it, but in the case of family life in the Iroquois Nation, in which women enjoyed equal rights, history may well be worth repeating. As women in modern societies continue to struggle for social, political and economic equality, the historic example of gender equality set by the Iroquois Nation proves that it has been achieved, and can be again.