If Iroquois women could be equal partners with men, then so could white women, asserted suffragists in the mid-1800s looking to Native Americans for inspiration in seeking women's rights.
To tell this little known story, an exhibit called "Sisters in Spirit: Celebrating the Iroquois Influence on the Early Women's Rights Movement" is on display at the Urban Cultural Park/Heritage Area Visitor Center in Seneca Falls, N.Y.
"There's no doubt that the white women were extremely aware of the differences in women's roles between the Iroquois and Americans and were strongly influenced by the political power and social status of the Iroquois women," says Robert Venables, a consultant on the exhibit, an expert on the Iroquois and a lecturer in the American Indian Program at Cornell University. "Iroquois women, for example, selected the chiefs and were integral to Iroquois spirituality because the Iroquois creation myth revolves around Skywoman."
The exhibit, consisting of six panels of photographs and quotations, is part of the 150th anniversary celebration of the first women's rights convention in the United States. It's no wonder, Venables says, that the women's rights movement was born in Seneca Falls, an area that is part of the Iroquois Confederacy territory.
"Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, both leaders in the women's rights movement, specifically described the greater rights of Iroquois women as proof that the subordinate position of white women was neither natural nor divinely inspired," says Sally Roesch Wagner, exhibit coordinator at the visitor center. She points out that the Iroquois female costume of loose-fitting tunics and leggings probably influenced the design of bloomers, named for designer A.J. Bloomer, which became the fashion in many countries in the late 1800s.
The exhibit, sponsored by the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Foundation, is free. The visitor center is located at 115 Fall St., Seneca Falls, and is open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. The exhibit will be in Seneca Falls through August; it will be on the Cornell campus on the first floor of Kennedy Hall in Ithaca in November.