Note: The Times Union is not responsible for posts and comments written by non-staff members.

Women’s History Month: The Haudenosaunee and Matilda Joslyn Gage

In celebration of Women’s History Month, I’ll focus on a series of leaders and influences central in the history of American women, including some lesser known names and elements.

In Part 1, let’s look at life at the time of the early women’s rights movement. It’s 1848, in the territory of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, not far from Seneca Falls, New York.


Now, imagine an Iroquois nation where:

Law, society, and nature played equal roles…

Women were respected as equal voices in the decisions of society and government…

Clan mothers were responsible for the selection of the chief— only honorable, reliable, clear headed men; and responsible for removing a chief who didn’t live up to his responsibilities or acted improperly…

Lineage was matriarchal, with clan identity, name, and property passed down through mothers…

Violence against women was not part of the culture, and severely punished when it occurred…




Then, imagine this neighboring EuroAmerican nation where:

All white men and only white men, were legally equal and guaranteed rights…

Women were subordinate to men; excluded from voting, but subject to laws they had no say in…

Married women were “dead in the law”– unable to own property, sign contracts, keep wages earned, …

Children were the property of the father alone, denying a mother legal rights to her own children, and allowing a father to give children away without the mother’s consent…

Men had the legal right to batter their wives for “corrective” purposes…

Imagine these EuroAmerican women dreaming of equal rights and equal treatment under the law…

Then the day came when women’s rights founding mothers Matilda Joslyn Gage, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, through their firsthand relationships with Native Americans, came to realize that what they wanted wasn’t a dream at all. Their dream of an inclusive society of equals was being lived out by the Haudenosaunee people. The reality of that “dream” prompted the women toward a plausible, empowering goal: equal rights.


Matilda Joslyn Gage, Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Matilda Joslyn Gage not only witnessed the liberties and equal status of the Haudenosaunee women, but later had the opportunity to share in it when she was adopted into the Mohawk nation. When given the name Ka-ron-ien-ha-wi, or “She Who Holds the Sky,” she wrote, “this name would admit me to the Council of Matrons, where a vote would be taken, as to my having a voice in the Chieftainship.” This was in sharp contrast to Gage’s experience the same year, when she was arrested for voting in a school board election in her Onondaga County community.

In describing the Haudenosaunee culture, Gage wrote, “Never was justice more perfect; never was civilization higher.” She published protests of the government’s oppression of Native Americans, supported their efforts to remain an independent nation, and compared their struggle to that of women citizens.


Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, author, professor, and leader in women’s studies, credits the Haudenosaunee women as the inspiration of the early American women’s rights reformers, “The thoughts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage were shaped by their involvement with indigenous women neighbors in upstate New York.”

Watch Dr. Roesch Wagner’s living history portrayal of Gage, as she tells her story:


Typically, when we think of the early women’s rights movement, Susan B. Anthony and the right to vote come to mind. But the early movement in the mid-1800’s focused on a range of women’s rights as alluded to above. It was in July, 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, along with three like-minded women, organized the First Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls. There, Stanton made her outrageous demand for the right to vote. Four years later, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Susan B. Anthony came aboard the movement at the 1852 National Convention in Syracuse, where Gage gave her first speech, “We need not expect the concessions demanded by women will be peaceably granted; there will be a long moral warfare before the citadel yields.” Gage was right; twenty-two years after her death, the 19th Amendment guaranteed all American women the right to vote.

In the next post, we’ll explore the First Women’s Rights Convention, including the role of Frederick Douglass, and then on to the dynamic partnership of Stanton and Anthony.  As a prelude to the famous pair, their newspaper, and its motto:

“Men, Their Rights And Nothing More; Women, Their Rights And Nothing Less.”



The following sources were used in this post and recommended for further reading:

Matilda Joslyn Gage: She Who Holds The Sky,  Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner

Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists,  Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner

Women, Church, and State,  Matilda Joslyn Gage, edited by Sally Roesch Wagner

Not for Ourselves Alone,  Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns

Eighty Years & More, Elizabeth Cady Stanton


For more information about the Haudenosaunee, Matilda Joselyn Gage, Dr. Roesch Wagner’s writings, and more Women’s History, follow these links:

The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation

The National Women’s History Project

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy

Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner

                                                                                                                                                               © Susanne Marie Poulette


Susanne Marie Poulette