Women voted in New York… before Columbus

When European-immigrant women in New York State began to organize for their rights in 1848, they took their cue from the nearby Haudenosaunee communities

When European-immigrant women in New York State began to organize for their rights in 1848, they took their cue from the nearby Haudenosaunee communities

As the election of a female US president begins to seem a more likely thing to occur within our own lifetimes than many imagined possible, one of the political questions that currently rages is whether or not it’s okay for women to vote for someone they perceive as representing their own interests. Some who are feeling the Bern ask, “Are you really going to vote for Hillary just because she’s female?” while other lifelong Democrats wonder, “Other demographic constituencies do it; why not women? Isn’t this opportunity the realization of the dream of our foremothers who got thrown in jail, chained themselves to fences and threw themselves under horses for women’s suffrage?”

Even after the outcome of the 2016 presidential election has been determined, expect such questions to be vociferously debated over the next few years as the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution draws nigh. New York State gave women the vote in 1917, and plenty of public events are in the planning stages to mark the milestone. Likely to be lost in the sauce is the fact that, long before white settlers set foot on these shores, Native women held the power of the franchise.

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According to historian Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, centuries before European contact, women of the Six Nation Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy enjoyed an egalitarian, gender-balanced society and possessed the unprecedented responsibility of selecting their male leaders. Furthermore, they could remove from office anyone who didn’t make wise decisions for the future, or could prevent a man from becoming chief if he had violated a woman. A council of female elders was the Haudenosaunee equivalent of the Supreme Court, with ultimate decisionmaking power on questions affecting the well-being of the tribe.

When European-immigrant women in New York State began to organize for their rights in 1848, they took their cue from the nearby Haudenosaunee communities, where women lived in this advanced world. Amazingly, despite the nations’ subsequent assimilation into American life, Haudenosaunee women still maintain much of this authority today.

Note: This article has been edited to remove reference to event which has since passed. 

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