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February 27, 2014

Iroquois women inspired future suffragists, yet wage disparity continues today

After hearing President Barack Obama in his State of the Union message point to the disparity of wages between the sexes, a friend later commented that the chances of that disparity being erased in the near future were as good as the Cleveland Browns winning three consecutive Super Bowls.

The friend’s pessimism simply rides upon a long tradition of discrimination. Women today recognize this as they did before the Revolutionary War. Most colonial women found life difficult and often dangerous. This included the white woman, the slave and the Native American. Their individual environments were different, but the overall American environment, particularly the frontier, posed hardships and serious challenges for each of them. While the slave could hardly speak of any freedom, white women did not enjoy the same rights as men. Few could vote or own property. And if they found themselves in a courtroom, they soon realized that the written law was not in their favor.

During the late 18th century, white families trekked across the Appalachians into western Pennsylvania and western New York. They cut paths or followed those used by explorers, traders or armies decades earlier. It took all the necessary skills, energy and luck to make settlement work. Some succeeded but many failed. Some who failed moved further west; others returned to their eastern beginnings. Not until the 1790s did a semi-reasonable head count exist. The advent of land companies and the temporary halt to harassment by western tribes had brought significant stability to northwestern Pennsylvania.

When it came to managing frontier affairs, some native women seemed to hold an edge on white women. Obviously the advantage lay in knowing the environment and having a strong tradition. White families came from different cultures back east and thus had to find the right chemistry to mold a frontier community. The woman’s role varied among the tribes, but her dominant position within the Iroquois Nations (Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida and Tuscarora) was hardly questioned.

Early Meadville historian Samuel Bates hardly wrote of women, but Iroquois men to him were strong, “ferocious and cruel,” crafty, treacherous and overreaching. White women had their preconceived ideas of the men. They had heard what brutalities they would suffer if they were captured by a band of warriors. To avoid this, suicide was a likely option for some. In contrast, a woman who had been abused by a parent or husband prior to being captured often hesitated or refused to return to her original home if given the option. She had been protected and treated with more respect by her captors.

Iroquois society was matrilineal — descent traced through mother and not father. The women ruled the clans. They held property, dwellings, animals, tools and utensils. They also grew the crops. Their husbands hunted, fished and fought in war. A typical couple lived in the loghouse of the wife’s family. Their children belonged to the mother’s clan and remained with the mother should the parents separate.

The wife could tell the husband to get out of the house, bag and baggage. The women held more say-so on crucial matters like going to war or rejecting a proposed treaty the tribe’s sachems had agreed to with white leaders. Women had a role in selecting their sachems and men on councils. Observing all this and more, the white men could hardly fathom the reality of this gender power.

A number of women stood out as tribal leaders. Two western ones were Tacumwah of the Miamis and the Potawatomi Kakima. With their European husbands, they ran successful trading interests in the upper Wabash area and along Lake Michigan. Closer to home, Queen Aliquippa reigned as undisputed leader of a band of Mingo Senecas just north of present-day Pittsburgh. A dynamic leader, she dealt with sachems, traders and army officers. She demanded and received full respect and gifts from them. George Washington made it a point to visit her on his trip to the region in the 1750s. Her support of the British proved significant in the tussle between the French and British in western Pennsylvania.

White men did not hesitate to marry native women. They found them not only attractive but most capable of handling family and tribal affairs as well as managing a business of some kind. A number near Meadville who had been captured and grew up with local clans married women of the clans. Three included Peter Kraus, Nicholas Rosencrantz and Elijah Mathews. Polly Mathews demonstrated leadership qualities when she purchased supplies at William Wilson’s store in Franklin. Obviously Elijah and perhaps the entire clan trusted Polly, for on one occasion her huge purchase obviously had to be transported in several canoes or a large boat.

The lack of information on native women like Polly makes it difficult to understand them better. Most did not keep diaries or write letters. The same can be said of many, if not most, frontier women. The slaves who just tried to write were often beaten. Before 1800, the privileged white women who could read a book were old enough to have been educated before they headed west.

Once communities like Meadville and Erie grew, schools emerged. With accumulating wealth, a class structure also evolved that divided those communities socially and politically. Meadville resident John R. Reynolds commented at the time that, “So embittered was the strife, that social parties were always of one political creed.” Unfortunately, the issue of women’s rights became imbedded in this struggle that became a microcosm of a national problem.

Iroquois women inspired future feminists Lucretia Mott, Matilda Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to demand a better life. Aside from the disparity in wages and employment opportunities, women’s suffrage did not occur until the 19th Amendment in 1920! Great Britain followed suit in the same decade. Suffragists in both countries had fought hard and often dangerously to see this happen.

Modern ones could not believe how the two leading western “democracies” would not accept women’s suffrage until the modern era. How ironic! Democracy seemingly moved slower than either technology or capitalism, both of which have stormed ahead since the Industrial Revolution more than two centuries ago.

A Meadville resident, Bob Ilisevich was a professor of history at the former Alliance College in Cambridge Springs, worked for years as librarian for Crawford County Historical Society and has authored several books on local history. He can be contacted at rdi504@zoominternet.net.

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