The Catalyst for the Women’s Suffrage Movement

March is Women’s History Month. This article tells the story of the indigenous women that inspired the suffrage movement in the United States.

When I began learning more about the women’s suffrage movement, I wondered how it all began. Just like a spark ignites and creates fire, every movement starts with a single idea or cause.  The spark was the power of Native American women of the Haudenosaunee culture. The cause was women’s rights in the United States--a cause for which Matilda Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were willing to fight.

Matilda and Elizabeth were two early crusaders of the women’s suffrage movement.   They both lived near Seneca Falls, New York, which was also close to where the Haudenosaunee people lived. These early suffragists learned about their integration of female empowerment through newspaper articles before experiencing it when they met and visited them.

The Haudenosaunee is a group of six Native American nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Tuscarora and Seneca) that united in order to create a peaceful way to co-exist with each other. It is considered as one of the oldest democracies in the United States and has existed for centuries.

They structured their governmental system on the foundation of female authority.  Their belief is that women have great power – along with the Earth – because both have the ability to create life.  Another reason why this system was chosen is due to the men were warriors, hunters or traders.  The men could be gone for several days or longer before returning home.  It was imperative that women have an authoritative role. The women in the tribe are responsible for the economy and agriculture.  They raise and sell food and other goods and vote to appoint the chief. The Clan Mother (oldest woman of each family) works alongside the chief.  She can also remove him if he does not make wise decisions on behalf of everyone and seven generations to come.  The children come through the mother’s lineage, not the father’s and are raised with their siblings, parents and extended family. Whatever a woman earns, whether she is single or married, it becomes her own property. If a husband and wife separate, the children stay with the mother and she takes her possessions and all that she has acquired with her.

In glaring contrast, Euro-Americans (those from England and Europe) like Matilda and Elizabeth and women of color in the United States like Matilda and Elizabeth did not have rights at all. A woman could not vote and would be arrested and fined if caught. If she married and worked, her wages belonged to her husband.  Any property that she owned became the property of her husband.  

The Haudenosaunee way of life showed Matilda and Elizabeth that women’s voices, votes and contributions mattered and were, and still are, vital to their democracy. They decided after witnessing firsthand that the influence of women is what they wanted for women in the United States, and the women’s suffrage movement was born.

Schneider Downs, in conjunction with the SD Focus on Women committee, is dedicated to empowering our women to excel and reach their highest potential.

Sources for this article are below:

Wagner, Dr. Sally Roesch. “How Native American Women Inspired the Women’s Rights, Suffrage Movement.” Ms. Magazine. 8 Aug 2020.

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