The Suffragists’ Rainbow:
Early Suffragists Were Inspired by Native American Culture
In New York, Lucretia Mott, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other early suffragists were inspired by the matriarchal culture of the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy), which contrasted starkly with the culture in the United States. Under U.S. law, the legal existence of a married woman was subsumed by her husband, and she had no legal rights. Lucretia Mott spent time in a Haudenosaunee community before attending the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. She and other suffragists brought ideas inspired by the Haudenosaunee to the convention.
In the Haudenosaunee culture, women and men both have specified roles and power. Women are considered stewards of the land. Clan mothers appoint leaders and can remove leaders who are corrupt. A woman’s property remains hers after marriage, and new couples live with the woman’s family. Traditionally, the children belong to the mother’s clan, and the mother keeps the children in the event of a separation.
Early suffragists took a romantic view of indigenous culture, but with time, Native American cultures languished in the United States. The Native peoples were decimated by disease, violence, removals, and attempts to forcibly assimilate them into the mainstream. Such practices as dividing communal land into private plots, outlawing traditions, and forcing Native children to attend white boarding schools left Native people impoverished and without a political voice. Assimilation often did not bring citizenship, but rather led to native peoples being legally classified as wards of the government. At the time the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, one-third of the Native Americans in this country were not citizens.
Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Ša) of the Yankton Sioux was born in 1876, was sent to a Quaker boarding school when she was eight years old, and went on to graduate from Earlham College. She and other educated Native Americans formed the Society of American Indians in 1911. After passage of the 19th Amendment, Zitkala-Ša and other activists, including Laura Cornelius Kellogg, a poet and a citizen of the Oneida nation, and Marie Bottineau Baldwin, who was a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, advocated for enfranchisement for all women and all Native Americans. Other Native American leaders did not favor citizenship, but rather worked to have their tribes recognized as sovereign nations. Zitkala-Ša was in favor of dual citizenship—with self-governance for the tribes, together with American citizenship rights.
In 1924, congress passed the Snyder Act, which conferred citizenship on all Native peoples born in the United States. However, in states with large Native American populations, strategies like the Jim Crow laws in the South were used to disenfranchise the indigenous population. Zitkala-Ša continued fighting for her people’s rights until her death in 1938.
by Margi Koranek
Democratic Women of Comal County