Where did early suffragists ever get the idea that women must have the same rights as men? The answer can be in their very own backyards, in the egalitarian society created by Native Americans – One day, a woman gave away a fine quality horse., The audience of female rights activist listened carefully that the ethnographer Alice Fletcher addressed the first International Council of Women. The scene was Washington, D.C. The date was March 1888.
Will your husband like to have you give away the horse? , Fletcher remembered asking the woman, shocked. The Native woman’s eyes danced, Fletcher told the suffragists and, breaking into a peal of laughter, she hastened to tell the story to the others gathered in her tent, and I became the target of many merry eyes. Laughter and contempt met my explanation of the white man’s hold upon his wife’s property. Fletcher had forgotten for only a minute that she was with Native, and not with white women. No white woman would dare give away her family’s horse. Far beyond just lacking rights, married American women had no legal identity. They couldn’t vote, have guardianship of their very own kids, or have autonomy on their very own bodies. A wife and mother did not exists in the eyes of the law, she became one with her husband the moment they were joined in marriage. However for nearly all women, getting married was the only way to support oneself.
This however was not the case in all societies, and it was certainly not true in Native American tribes where women where help in much higher regard than in Western societies. Much of this disparity is probably down to the role of religion in the different societies, there is no second class status in Native American religions unlike the Bible. In fact in the Native American theology the creation of life and food was sacrosanct and gave Native American women equality long before other ‘more developed’ nations.
Even within native American political systems women played a powerful role, involved in most important decisions. Although most councils were men only, the women were allowed to make cases equally and without prejudice. There have been some fascinating reenactions of this political process on Canadian Television documentaries. these are not accessible normally outside of Canada but you may be able to access them using this video proxy site if it’s still functioning.
There are other more obvious signs that women held much more power than in Western societies as well. For example there is little sign of paternal power in rearing children, children stayed with mothers and followed a matriarchal line. There was no real thing as paternal rights and the family names were not necessarily built around the fathers heritage and names. Crimes against women so often excused in developed nations, were harshly punished in Native American societies. There was certainly no rights to a woman’s body that existed elsewhere again usually because of the teachings of the bible.
Obviously the western laws and rights for women have developed greatly over the last century or so, however we shouldn’t forget how far we were behind some of these nations. The women in Native American societies enjoyed much greater autonomy and equality than their western counterparts well into the last century.
Further Reading on VPN Issue – available here.