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  • Teach NYExploring Haudenosaunee Influence on America's Suffrage Movement with Students
  • Kathryn Weller (bio)

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, women in American society, once married, ceased to exist in the eyes of the law. Following the precedent of English law, American women were considered minors or wards of their husbands and husbands had absolute control over their children. After the wedding, all assets a woman brought into a marriage or made while married were turned over to the husband. Women could not vote or exercise any official influence in the American political process. In essence, women were ruled by laws written by men, in which they had no say in creating or changing.

However, women in upstate New York experienced a different societal norm in their own backyards, that of the Haudenosaunee. Early women's rights advocates and leaders, including Matilda Joslyn Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, witnessed firsthand Haudenosaunee communities where there was equality between the sexes. In these Native communities, women maintained custody of children when a relationship ended, held political power by choosing leaders, and controlled their family's property and wealth. Women's rights advocates interacted with Haudenosaunee women and saw how their lives and experiences differed from white women. These women's rights advocates tried to apply what they learned from the Haudenosaunee to American society.

As we celebrate and commemorate the long fight for women's suffrage in the United States, it is important for students to explore the indispensable contributions Haudenosaunee culture had on early feminists. Haudenosaunee society provided a successful model for a system of government built on gender equality. Early women's rights advocates had access to this example and acknowledged the benefits of learning from Haudenosaunee people when developing their strategy for improving women's rights in America. Exploring the strong connections between early suffragists and the Haudenosaunee allows students to create a deeper understanding of the early suffrage movement, the systemic sexism that [End Page 377]

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Savagery to "civilization" by Joseph Keppler, 1914. courtesy of the library of congress.

affected women in American society, and the willingness to look to Native communities for inspiration in the fight for women's rights.

The New York State Museum's lesson "Haudenosaunee Influence on Early American Feminists" engages students with the guiding question, "How did the Haudenosaunee inspire early women's rights advocates?" By exploring diverse forms of primary and secondary source material as evidence, students will work to answer the question and build comfort and familiarity with a variety of sources. With three activities, students progress toward independent inquiry through artifact analysis and comparing and contrasting different primary documents.

The image Savagery to "civilization" provides a visual form of primary evidence that assists students to build comfort with the topic and using primary sources. Using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), students can explore the image discovering details that introduce the importance of Haudenosaunee society in inspiring suffragists through a non–text-based document. VTS, a "student-centered facilitation method to create inclusive discussions," developed by the educators at the Museum of Modern Art, provides a way of reading the image for information. Educators can engage students with the image through the following simple guiding questions:

What is going on in this image?What do you see that makes you think that?What more can we find?

The questions invite students to participate in discussion through their observations and state their supporting evidence. This will help students naturally begin to question and justify their observations and the evidence they are using. When educators invite other [End Page 378] students to build on these observations or make their own observations, students will discuss different interpretations and build a communal experience of discovery that is inclusive, supportive, and student directed. Students will then create a deeper connection with the image Savagery to "civilization" through a shared inquiry experience.

This activity provides a way for students to work together when dissecting and interpreting a primary source. The use of a visual primary source is purposeful. Text-based archival documents can sometimes be daunting for students. The techniques needed are already new, but the language...


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