What Native Populations Taught, and are Still Teaching Americans About Feminism

Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Gender Roles

This year in America we are celebrating 100 years of women’s right to vote in a land where women have actually had political voice for over 1,000 years ago. Up until 1770 when European settlers came to the Americas, Haudenosaunee women had been actively electing new chiefs (read Haudenosaunee Confederacy Lacrosse Games for more on the Haudenosaunee people, known also as the Iroquois). Native people, but especially native women had no desire to come under US law because they would lose the right to vote that they already had in their communities.

Female Voice

Haudenosaunee women exclusively voted for leadership (choosing from male candidates). There were three tests for a future chief: no theft, no murder (warriors could not be chiefs), and the man could not have ever abused a woman. Who would still be in our US government today if we used these rules?

Women groomed the male leaders from a young age, and looked for compassion and the ability to listen. The clan mother holds the symbol of authority, and then passes it onto the chief when one is chosen. Everyone in the clan has a final say, and a responsibility to remove the chief if he’s not doing what he should be doing and is putting the tribe out of balance.

Haudenosaunee culture is a matrilineal system, meaning family lines are followed through mothers’ families. There were no illegitimate children because it was never a mystery who a child’s mother was. The concept of illegitimate children only makes sense in a patriarchy.

The Haudenosaunee operate by consensus, not majority rule (read On Conflict and Consensus). Consensus government allowed for 1000 years of stability, not the constant instability that majority rule encourages.


In 1848 the suffragettes at the Seneca Falls convention called for a “restitution of the rights” their foremothers had. In 1773 the suffragettes began asking for the right to vote, arguing “no taxation without representation.” The suffragettes asked: Is this a republic, or an oligarchy of sex? The European colonists had carried British “Black Stone Code” to the Americas, which effectively made married women dead in the eyes of the state.

Matilda Gage, a suffragette who was a feminist leader with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony, did not just envision equality- she envisioned a transformative future that surpassed mere equality. How did she imagine this? Why don’t we hear more about how Haudenosaunee women influence modern day feminism? This answer from the past probably has a lot to do with our racist culture in America. In fact, we still have a lot to learn from the Haudenosaunee people living in America right now who we are choosing not to learn from.

Rights v. Responsibilities

When we think of Western women fighting for a voice in their countries, we think of them as fighting for their rights. When we learn about the Haudenosaunee community, the male and female roles are evenly distributed and are considered responsibilities for keeping the balance. Western feminists might look at Haudenosaunee society and say that they are not feminist because the women cannot be chief, but this is because they are focusing on rights over responsibility. In Haudenosaunee society the focus is on balance and reciprocity, politics and agriculture.

Women are responsible for the birth and life from the soil just as they are birth from their own bodies. Women and Mother Earth are the same- a concept that is difficult for “Western” societies to wrap their heads around. Corn was “invented” in 4,000 BC, with women facilitating and nurturing this creation. Mother Earth has never let a species exist on its own- everything lives in community. Women had the final say over any land or war issues and had the authority in being responsible for economy and supplies.

There was virtually an absence of violence against women in early Haudenosaunee society, and if there was, the man responsible for this was treated very harshly by the other men in the society. When European settlers came to the Americas, they made a law that said if anyone touched the offender, they would be punished under US law. But as far as punishment toward the domestic violence offender- there was no punishment. Under US law, it was was legal for men to rape and beat their wives until the 1970s, and is still questionably legal today.

In US culture, we get to be higher in the hierarchy than a carrot or a tree. But in many indigenous cultures, including the Haudenosaunee, instead of looking down at the carrot or the tree, you would look across at them as equals in the circle of life. There is reciprocity with the creatures of the Earth and the land and there is a sacred responsibility to protect one another.

Special thanks to writer Sally Roesch Wagner for a great presentation on the topic.

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