USA History

The Iroquois Confederacy and Women’s Rights Movement in US

Inspired by Indigenous societies that respected women's rights, the women's rights movement emerged as a pivotal step towards equality.

The Iroquois Confederacy and Women Rights Movement in US

The Iroquois Confederacy was a powerful alliance of nations that held significant military, political, and economic influence in their homelands. Their societal structures would later leave a lasting legacy on North America. Elements of the Confederacy’s constitution likely provided inspiration for the Founding Fathers of the United States. In addition, specific aspects of their society later became influential within the women’s rights movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Who Were the Iroquois?

Also known as the Haudenosaunee, the Iroquois Confederacy was a long-standing group of five nations. It’s considered by historians to be among the world’s oldest participatory democracies. The Confederacy originated in the region now known as New York State and included the Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes. In 1722, the Tuscarora joined the alliance. Despite distinct differences, the tribes shared cultural traits, including their language family.

photo haudenosaunee government
The Haudenosaunee had a collective government where men gathered for discourse, but women controlled their presence there. Source: History Hustle

The Haudenosaunee played a substantial role in the history of the United States. They were central to the fur trade which drove early colonial economic development. They were also participants in the French and Indian War. During the American Revolution, the Confederacy split, with factions siding with both the British and the Patriots. This internal division ultimately weakened their previous power. Nevertheless, the Haudenosaunee endured, with modern populations in the United States and Canada exceeding 200,000.

The Role of Women in Haudenosaunee Governance

For at least 1,000 years, women have played a central role in the political systems of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations of North America. Male chiefs existed within the six nations, however, they were appointed and could be removed from their positions by the women of the tribe.

A young Haudenosaunee woman. Source: Pinterest
A young Haudenosaunee woman. Source: Pinterest

The Haudenosaunee society is matrilineal, with heritage and family organization centered around the women. Clans were an important social structure, and each was led by a clan mother. This figure held responsibility for the well-being of her clan members.

Clan mothers selected men to represent their communities on Confederacy-wide councils. These councils discussed and made decisions about issues affecting the entire Haudenosaunee alliance. Clan mothers held final decision-making power, with input gathered from the broader populace. This authority extended to military decisions; in the seventeenth century, women initiated a significant movement using their existing social control to gain veto power over war and promote a more peaceful society.

Male representatives were expected to adhere to high moral standards. Violence, particularly against women, was strongly condemned and carried severe punishments. Women held control over their own property and possessions, a right not shared by their European counterparts at the time.

Savagery to Civilization by Joseph Keppler, 1914. Source: New York Heritage
Savagery to Civilization by Joseph Keppler, 1914. Source: New York Heritage

The Haudenosaunee, also referred to as the Iroquois Confederacy, traced their origins to the area now known as New York State. An alliance of originally five nations (Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, Cayuga, and Seneca), they were later joined by the Tuscarora in 1722. These groups shared linguistic and cultural roots.

The Haudenosaunee have a complex history within the development of the United States. They were central to the fur trade, fought in the French and Indian War, and played a divided role during the American Revolution. This powerful confederacy wielded significant influence from the seventeenth to mid-eighteenth centuries. While weakened by internal division during the Revolutionary period, the Haudenosaunee people have endured, with a modern population estimated at over 200,000 in the United States and Canada.

Different World

Society required women to play specific roles in nineteenth-century America. Source: Classroom
Society required women to play specific roles in nineteenth-century America. Source: Classroom

In 19th-century America, women’s legal and social rights were severely restricted, particularly for those who were married. Married women couldn’t own property, control their earnings, or even retain custody of their children in the event of their husband’s death. Unmarried women had slightly more autonomy but lacked fundamental rights such as voting, serving on juries, and creating their own legal wills.

In contrast, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) women enjoyed significantly more freedom and power. They had full property rights, control over their earnings, and played important decision-making roles within their communities.

Alice Fletcher in 1899 with an interpreter (left) and Chief Joseph (center) of the Nez Perce, photo by Jane Gay. Source: Inland 360
Alice Fletcher in 1899 with an interpreter (left) and Chief Joseph (center) of the Nez Perce, photo by Jane Gay. Source: Inland 360

Alice Fletcher, a women’s rights activist and scholar of Native American cultures, highlighted these differences during an 1888 meeting of the International Council of Women. She described observing a Haudenosaunee woman independently sell a horse and the woman’s surprise when informed of the limitations imposed on American women. This anecdote, and similar observations Fletcher had made, illustrated the possibilities of greater female societal power. It served as a source of inspiration for American suffragists in their ongoing struggle for equal rights.

Animating Activists for Women’s Rights

Matilda Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, prominent figures in the women’s rights movement, drew inspiration from the example of women within the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. Having lived in close proximity to the Haudenosaunee, Gage and Stanton dedicated time to observing and researching their ways of life.

Matilda Gage, 1871. Source: Buffalo-Toronto Public Media
Matilda Gage, 1871. Source: Buffalo-Toronto Public Media

Gage authored a series of articles for the New York Evening Post, informing readers about the Haudenosaunee social structure. This structure involved a division of power between men and women which Gage considered positive and a model for wider society. Alongside championing women’s rights, Gage also advocated for Native American rights and sovereignty. She was bestowed an honorary position in the Mohawk Nation’s Wolf Clan in 1893, given the name Ka-ron-ien-ha-wi (“Sky Carrier”), and granted the right to vote in tribal matters. This occurred in the same year Gage was tried for illegally voting in a U.S. school election.

Stanton’s cousin, Elizabeth Smith, was influenced by her friendships with local Oneida women. Inspired by their clothing, Smith defied convention by abandoning restrictive corsets and voluminous skirts worn at the time. She adopted a style of loose-fitting “bloomers” resembling the leggings and shirts of her Oneida friends, establishing a new fashion trend.

Bloomers. Source: Recollections
Bloomers. Source: Recollections

As more women learned about the enduring success of Haudenosaunee society, it prompted reflection on their own societal position. Much of European and colonial culture regarding women stemmed from Christian doctrine that rooted female subjugation in the story of Eve and original sin. This narrative was used to maintain female subservience within society.

Traditional Christian views saw marriage as a divine covenant, denying women the right to end the union, even in unsafe circumstances. Old Testament teachings placed women under their husband’s authority with strict legal obligations. Women were perceived as mentally and physically weaker, requiring male guidance. In contrast, the example of Haudenosaunee women thriving independently for centuries challenged the notion that women inherently required male protection and control. The low incidence of violence against women within Native American communities further contradicted these prevailing beliefs.

Progress and Limitations in Voting Rights

The women’s suffrage movement achieved a significant victory with the passage of the 19th Amendment in August 1920. This amendment granted American women the legal right to vote. However, it did not immediately guarantee full equality in voting rights for all women.

Many traditional Christian teachings use Eve’s original sin as merit for the subjugation of women. Source: JW.org
Many traditional Christian teachings use Eve’s original sin as merit for the subjugation of women. Source: JW.org

African American women and men continued to face obstacles when attempting to vote, especially in certain parts of the United States. Indigenous women, who played a role in inspiring the suffrage movement, remained unable to vote in some areas for many years after the 19th Amendment. Furthermore, Native Americans, the original inhabitants of the land, were not recognized as full U.S. citizens until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. It took until the mid-1960s for all states to ensure equal voting rights for all citizens, regardless of race.

Image Description: President Calvin Coolidge stands outside the White House in January 1924, pictured with a group of unidentified Indigenous representatives. (Source: The Nation)

History Affairs
Kim Luu is a writer specializing in Chinese history and civilization. Born and raised in Vietnam, a country with a shared cultural heritage with China, he developed an early fascination and conducted in-depth studies on the greatest civilization in East Asia.

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