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The Rise or Fall of Iroquois Women Nancy Shoemaker Now that women's history has estabUshed itself as a legitimate field of academic inquiry, there has been an outpouring of revisionist interpretations . Women in colonial America, who in older histories appeared to be economicaUy powerful and emotionaUy fulfiUed, are being recast as more complex historical characters constrained by a variety of social rules and limitations. Similarly, the view of nineteenth-century American women as victims of domesticity is no longer a convincing interpretation as scholars point to more and more evidence of Victorian women nurturing domesticity as a kind of empowerment. These flourishing debates have focused on the history of white, middle -class women and make our knowledge of other American women seem egregiously undeveloped. American Indian women are one group whose history remains shadowy. When packaged by academics for an academic market, their history tends to follow a prepackaged formula, much tike the history of white women before revisionism set in. For the period before European contact, American Indian women are generaUy depicted as powerful and respected members of their communities. Then colonization, cousin to industrialization, initiated a loss of women's power and status. This type of narrative history—sometimes caUed a declension narrative because change is cast in terms of a decline—is especially prominent in the history of Iroquois women. In the nineteenth century, numerous pubhcations on the Iroquois, most of which were based on historical and ethnographic accounts of the Sénecas (the westernmost of the six Iroquois tribes), helped spawn a popular image of Iroquois women as something akin to North American Amazons.1 Interest in the role of women in Iroquois society continues today. Most of this interest, however, has focused on the period after European contact and before colonization, roughly the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Very Utile historical research has looked at Iroquois women after colonization, when some of the most radical changes in Iroquois society occurred. And yet, it is widely thought that Iroquois women lost status and power. As one scholar has put it, "the position of Seneca women came more and more to resemble the position of the women of the white man."2 This paper proposes an alternative strategy for looking at the experience of one group of Iroquois, the Sénecas, after colonization. Instead of trying to prove that women lost power or gained power—as though power were absolute and measurable—I wül focus on how women's poUtical rights, economic roles, and individual freedoms changed in the © 1991 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 2 No. 3 (Winter) 40 Journal of Women's History Winter context of colonization. AU Sénecas lost power as they were confined to ever-smaUer reservations, threatening both subsistence and cultural traditions . There is Utile evidence, however, showing that Seneca women became increasingly subordinate to Seneca men. The Golden Age for Iroquois Women? The idea of a decline in Seneca women's social position reUes on their being powerful members of society at an earher point in history. The most recent scholarly research on Iroquois women in the period before the American Revolution has investigated the sources of Iroquois women's poUtical influence. Judith Brown argued that Iroquois women were influential because they controUed the means of production. However, Elisabeth Tooker has argued that the relationship between men and women in the household was one of economic exchange rather than economic dominance and that the political participation of Iroquois women was Umited. Their power came from the group's matriUneal, not matriarchal, social organization.3 In the language of women's history, Iroquois women probably had more influence in the private sphere than in the pubUc. Iroquois women acquired their reputation for great poUtical influence partly because clan mothers, the eldest women of certain lineages, had the right to choose successors to office among the ehgible men in their clans. Their other poUtical activities were not as visible. Some women attended coundls, but few women spoke. More often, women designated someone to speak for them. For much of his Ufe, the famous Seneca leader Red-Jacket was a designated speaker for the women. Although women were not at the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 39-57
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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