The present designation of the month of March as a month to remember women’s history provides an occasion to reflect upon an American Indian culture which genuinely created an attitude of respect toward women and a society which afforded women individual and community "rights," and expected women to take leadership positions within the clan or tribal organization. This culture or way of life existed within the Iroquois League which grew into an expansive and powerful organization of initially five, and ultimately six, unique Indian tribes in the Iroquois Confederation.
Benjamin Franklin discovered the Iroquois Confederation when he was a printer in Philadelphia while he was in the early period of his professional life. Because he was printing contracts between these indigenous people and local colonists, he became curious and the Indians became an object of his inquiring mind. After studying the Indian political and social organization which had been around long before Columbus sailed into the Caribbean, Franklin was genuinely affected by their tribal organization and way of life.
Franklin and other discontented colonists, during the period between the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution, were seeking alternatives to the historical European foundations of governmental structure and organization, which in many cases, were built upon tyrannical force. Colonials had extensive interaction, and in some instances intimate contact with the Iroquois and other Indian nations. Sir William Johnson, who was married to an Indian woman for a time, and Conrad Weisner were known for their part in dealing with the Six Nations and were accepted as having full citizenship in the Iroquois Confederation. Each took part in the Grand Council meetings.
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 gender stratification. And 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 quite natural balance of the roles and responsibilities within male – female relations.
Certainly, the Iroquois women did not fit into the mold that European women were expected to accept in that day and age. By the time other Americans started to study the Iroquois peoples in the 18th and 19th centuries, they realized 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 people. The early leaders of the women’s rights movement were quite impressed with the equality established between men and women in the Iroquois culture.
Amazingly, Iroquois women enjoyed quite many “rights” that women in European society could only dream of having. 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. They served as clan leaders and the 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.
Women not only nominated the men for positions of leadership, but could also insist that the leaders be removed from power if they did not fulfill their responsibilities to the clan or tribe. On a more personal level, if a woman felt that her husband was not being a good husband for her or her children as a good husband, 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 mothers.
Ultimately, the women were essentially 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 ones. 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 their society, it was not a female-dominated matriarchy. Women were respected for their spiritual and practical wisdom and men and women lived in a realm where there was a more clear or well-established 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. Iroquois women could own property and were the ones who actually owned the land. It seemed natural 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.
This dignified position within Iroquois culture might be partly attributed to one of their religious creation stories called the “Woman Who Fell from the Sky,” which relates the story of a pregnant woman, Atahensic, who asked her husband to bring her the equivalent of pickles and ice cream; but in her case, she asked for the bark of the root of the Great Tree in the middle of the Sky World. The obedient husband dug into the dirt around the tree to get to the roots. Notice the different tone established in the relationship between man and woman in the Native American creation story compared to creation stories evidenced in the Bible.
The story relates that in digging so much, her husband opened up a hole in Sky World, and as Atahensic, or Sky Woman, peered into the hole, she fell through. She was aided by birds who helped her land on the back of this great Sea Turtle. This place on the turtle’s back became populated with bits of roots and plants Sky Woman had brought down with her from Sky World, and thus she helped create the place on Earth that the Native Americans call Turtle Island, or what the Europeans came to identify as North America. So, to the Iroquois people, a woman originated a series of events on Earth that ultimately created humankind. The legend of the Sky Woman is still revered today. The legend may explain a lot about the Iroquois people.