Three prominent U.S. feminists in the 1800s -- Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Lucretia Mott -- learned what women's equality could look like through personal contact with Native American women.
Historian Sally Roesch Wagner of Syracuse is the author of “Sisters in Spirit,” which chronicles the influence of Haudenosaunee women on early U.S. feminists.
She says that the three women witnessed the mirror opposite of their own society in Haudenosaunee culture.
“At a time when under United States law in each of the states, women were considered dead in the law once they were married," Wagner says. "It wasn’t just that you didn’t have rights, it's that you ceased to exist.”
In the U.S., women couldn’t own property. They didn’t have rights to their own children, and it was illegal to vote or hold public office.
During the same time, Haudenosaunee women owned their own property. Clan mothers appointed chiefs and women participated in spiritual ceremonies.
Tonia Galban, whose Mohawk name, Iakonikohnrio means "She who has a good mind" is a cultural interpreter at Ganondagan State Historic Site. She says she mostly teaches about the utilitarian aspect of plants as medicine and food.
"There's a word we use, Onkwehowekah, which means no separation of your spirituality, your ceremonial life, your government, your healthcare, your child-raising, it's all connected," Tonia Galban says.
Michael Galban is a curator at the Ganondagan State Historic Site, where there is currently an exhibit, “Haudenosaunee Women from the time of creation.” He says it was important to reflect the Haudenosaunee worldview, which incorporates women as part of the foundation of all of creation.
“We can talk about this connection between American women suffrage and Haudenosaunee women, but without context and knowing ‘well, why exactly are these women inspirational? Why is the culture worth looking at and what lessons can we learn from that?” Galban says.
He adds that without that context, the influence of Haudenosaunee culture would simply be a footnote.
Tonia Iakonikohnrio Galban says her initial thought when she heard about the exhibit was "Finally."
"Finally our contribution to that women's equality is going to be told," she says.
"We went to the Women's National Park (in Seneca Falls) and we also went to the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester, and our story is not there. Our contribution is not there of all places," she says.
She says staff at both sites shared their dismay.
Wagner says that through her research, she’s seen the engagement between American women and Haudenosaunee culture as an impetus for the suffragist movement in the U.S.
“To be able to see, you know, our oppressed condition isn’t universal. This isn’t the way it is for every single woman. And once you see that, you know that it’s possible to change the society," she says.
Wagner says that Matilda Joslyn Gage, who was an honorary adoptee into the Mohawk Wolf Clan, was essentially written out of history because she was considered too radical.
She supported Native American sovereignty and the separation of church and state at a time when the suffrage movement was becoming more conservative.
“Some of them segregated. They would not let African American women join. Some of them worked for the vote for white women only," Wagner says. "And some of them worked for voter suppression laws.”
Gage ended up leaving the movement.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a more familiar name to many people in the U.S., called for "educated suffrage" in her last speech, something Wagner says was coded language for keeping African American women and immigrants out of the movement.
Galban says that while the suffrage movement drew influence from Haudenosaunee culture, suffragists largely brought the vote only to white American women at the time.
“Native women in some cases in the country, even though they’re afforded citizenship, are not eligible to vote until the 60s in some areas," he says. "So is it a problem? Yeah, it continues to be a problem.”
Wagner says 2020 is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of the suffragist movement, and recognize the bravery of those who protested, held hunger strikes in jails and were force-fed while they fought for their right to a voice in politics.
However, she says it’s also high time to hold them accountable.