The Iroquois “Captainesses”

Stories that Take You for the Ride of Your Life

June, 2015

The Iroquois “Captainesses”

Torchbearers of Native American culture, Iroquois women chiefs were vivaciously described by European historians as true “captainesses” and “women of quality.” Popularly known as Sachems, these women Iroquois Chiefs steered the clan and contributed to its development process with astute pragmatism, wisdom, and skill. Unlike their colonial counterparts struggling for greater freedom in a male-dominated society, the Iroquois women led from the front by shaping the native social, economic, and political order through their eager participation.

In my trilogy The Rule of Ranging, at one point Finn is surprised to find out how influential Iroquois women were. Born in the backwoods, he has hard time understanding that a woman can be a chief. He was not alone, though. At the time, Europeans viewed Iroquois women’s high status in the society as really strange.

Iroquois women were at the helm of society by virtue of their matrilineal systems. The Clan Mother or the oldest woman of the clan was at the helm of affairs. She was the social and spiritual head with considerable political and economic influence. Accepted as righteous and prudent, these Iroquois women chiefs enjoyed all pervasive powers in conducting social ceremonies and organizing clan meetings. They also selected and removed male tribal leaders, and exercised control over the members in spiritual matters. Clan mothers handled relationships among all families ensuring harmony and smooth running of household affairs. Their approval was a necessary condition for the distribution of economic resources and declaration of war and peace.

Iroquois women enjoyed a distinct position with their rights and responsibilities that were not secondary to men in any way. Children took the clan membership of their mothers, and gender equality was the keystone of the native social order, which carried even when log houses replaced the longhouses. Women owned the family and had the power to divorce. Being the keepers of tribal culture, they exercised considerable influence over areas predominantly considered as male bastions. Property, including houses, animals, and farmland, remained firmly under their control prior to, during, and after the dissolution of marriages. The hereditary roles passed through the female lineage, and male leaders were subject to choice by Iroquois women.

Political Role of Iroquois Women

Iroquois women enjoyed unquestioned political power, including nominating, monitoring and removing male chiefs. They elected men to the Great Council and also removed them for failing to perform. The Women’s Council acted as the supreme body with power to veto decisions of male chiefs. Prior permission from women was essential to start and end wars and to initiate peace efforts. Without the express consent of female leaders, no campaign could be launched, or war chiefs appointed, who occupied the positions as tribal chiefs, faith keepers, and clan mothers.

The Iroquoian political system also empowered its women to play a role in selecting, confirming, and disposing of male tribal officials and allowing male members of the family to go to war. Their permission was essential for the adoption of foreigners and life or death sentence for prisoners.

Iroquois women exercised absolute control over economic resources. The economy was primarily agricultural, and women headed by clan mothers were in command of the subsistence base. Formal training of women in planting of crops attested the significant role they wielded in an agrarian society. They had undisputed control over farm lands, harvested crops, and animals and were alone empowered to make a decision on settlement and land use. The Iroquoian system had made women solely responsible for the maintenance and distribution of national resources.

Historical Contribution

The greater respect, responsibility, and power wielded by Iroquois women became a source of inspiration for colonial women of the time. Women in today’s America owe their economic, social, and political freedom to the precedents set by these women of calibre. Suffragettes, such as Matilda Joslyn Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, highlighted the gender balance in the Iroquoian society to press a claim for women rights in North America.

Susan B. Anthony, the driving force behind the International Council of Women, was inspired by the high social and political position of Iroquois women. Molly Brant, one of the well-known Iroquois women of the 18th century, became a respected historical figure. Seneca Falls situated in the Iroquois hinterland hosted the first women’s convention in North America.

(Image credit: Mohawk Nation News)

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