SAN JOSE, March 4, 2014 — Normal perceptions regarding Women’s History Month revolve around the struggle for women’s political equality in the United States. Yet, many citizens in the U.S. would not suspect that within some American Indian culture, long before Columbus ventured across the Atlantic Ocean, native women enjoyed an equality only dreamed of by the women of European descent. One prominent American Indian tribe which genuinely manifested an attitude of respect and trust toward women existed within the “Iroquois League,” later known as the “Iroquois Confederation.”
The name “Iroquois” is believed to be a French derivative of a derogatory name attached to the native peoples by an enemy tribe. The Iroquois called themselves the “Haudenosaunee” meaning the people of the longhouse. The concept of the longhouse, which was core to the people’s identity and their union, referred to the large elongated homes, literally long houses, where many families (up to 20 or more) lived together. The Haudenosaunee based their concept of unity upon an understanding that their people were all from the same family, or clan, and they should all live, or be welcomed under the same roof.
The Haudenosaunee called their league the “Kanonsionni” which means “extended house.” This term demonstrates that the longhouse became more than just a dwelling place; it was extended to the eventual union of the five northeastern American Indian nations as practically implemented in the way the tribes lived in harmony side by side on their respective stretches of land to the south and east of Lake Ontario. It ultimately became the symbol of unity among these Indian peoples. The culture or way of life within the Kanonsionni, coupled with other unique cultural traits, developed the inner strength of the union. It grew into an expansive and powerful organization of Indian nations bound by their loyalty to the clan and to the Confederation.
Such an extended family oriented society allowed women many individual and community “rights,” and women often took leadership positions within the clan or tribal organization. Iroquois women enjoyed many rights not normally permitted to women in European society. The Iroquois women participated fully in helping to maintain the economic, political, social, and spiritual well-being of their communities and clans. The women served as the keepers of their people’s culture, and served as clan leaders. Tribal leadership was matrilineal, as the sister of the sachems (chiefs or leaders) chose the male successor once her brother no longer held a leadership position.
Certainly, the Iroquois women did not fit into the mold that European women were expected to accept in that day and age. Iroquois women not only nominated the men for positions of leadership, but could also insist that specific leaders be removed from power if they did not fulfill their responsibilities to the clan or tribe. In a similar manner, but on a more personal level, if a woman felt that her husband was not being a good husband to her, or a good father for her children, she could ask him to leave their dwelling and essentially divorce the man. The woman’s husband would normally live in the home of the wife’s clan, and if the husband was asked to leave the family, the children remained with their mother.
Iroquois women were primarily responsible for raising the children, and since the children were considered members of the mother’s clan, the mother’s family took their responsibility seriously in educating the young. In training the future generations, the Iroquois women assured the survival of their people and their culture. Overall, even though women had much authority within such a society, it was not a female-dominated matriarchy. Women were respected for their spiritual and practical wisdom, and men and women lived within a realm where there was a more clear or well-defined sense of specialized responsibilities.
In the Iroquois society, women participated in many activities and held responsibilities that were primarily reserved only for men in the European-based culture – no matter what nation of origin. Iroquois women could own property and were the ones who actually maintained the ownership of the land. It seemed natural to these indigenous people that the land was under the control of the women since they were the ones who tended the crops, and as the Iroquois were an agricultural-based society, women were fundamentally the ones responsible for nourishing the community in more than one way.
Benjamin Franklin discovered the Iroquois when he was a printer in Philadelphia early in his professional life. Because he was printing contracts between these native peoples and local colonists, he became curious, and these Indians became an object of his inquiring mind. After studying the Iroquois political and social organization, which had been around long before Columbus sailed into the Caribbean, Franklin was genuinely impressed by their tribal organization and way of life. Other colonial people also had extensive interaction, and in some instances intimate contact with the Iroquois. Sir William Johnson and Conrad Weisner, having full citizenship in the Iroquois Confederation, were known for their part in interactions between colonials and the Six Nations.
Each group, the Indians and the Anglo-Americans, learned from the other through these official and personal connections. To Benjamin Franklin and others in New England, the Iroquois demonstrated a system of political organization that seemed free of oppression and class, as well as free of gender stratification. Within the center of the Iroquois culture was the daily demonstration in practical organization that had eluded the Europeans and their transplanted descendants: a very obvious application of gender equality and a more genuine balance of the roles and responsibilities within male – female relationships.
When other Americans started to study the Iroquois peoples in the 18th and 19th centuries, they also came to the realization that the Iroquois women held equal status to men and held leadership positions within the clan structure. It was not by accident that the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, which is recognized as the foundation for the feminist movement in the United States, took place within the stomping grounds of the Iroquois nations. The early leaders of the women’s rights movement were also quite impressed with the equality established between men and women in the Iroquois culture.