by Sally Roesch Wagner
I had been haunted by a question to the past, a mystery of feminist history: How did the radical suffragists come to their vision, a vision not of Band-Aid reform but of a reconstituted world completely transformed?
For 20 years I had immersed myself in the writings of early United States women’s rights activists — Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) — yet I could not fathom how they dared to dream their revolutionary dream. Living under the ideological hegemony of nineteenth-century United States, they had no say in government, religion, economics, or social life (“the four-fold oppression” of their lives, Gage and Stanton called it.) Whatever made them think that human harmony — based on the perfect equality of all people, with women absolute sovereigns of their lives — was an achievable goal?
Surely these white women, living under conditions of virtual slavery, did not get their vision in a vacuum. Somehow they were able to see from point A, where they stood — corseted, ornamental, legally nonpersons — to point C, the “regenerated” world Gage predicted, in which all repressive institutions would be destroyed. What was point B in their lives, the earthly alternative that drove their feminist spirit — not a utopian pipe dream but a sensible, do-able paradigm?
Then I realized I had been skimming over the source of their inspiration without noticing it. My own unconscious white supremacy had kept me from recognizing what these prototypical feminists kept insisting in their writings: They caught a glimpse of the possibility of freedom because they knew women who lived liberated lives, women who had always possessed rights beyond their wildest imagination — Iroquois women.
The more evidence I uncovered of this indelible Native American influence on the vision of early United States feminists, the more certain I became that this story must be told.